Combined heat and humidity is frequently described as the main driver of human heat-related mortality, more so than dry-bulb temperature alone. While based on physiological thinking, this assumption has not been robustly supported by epidemiological evidence. By performing the first systematic comparison of eight heat stress metrics (i.e., temperature combined with humidity and other climate variables) with warm-season mortality, in 604 locations over 39 countries, we find that the optimal metric for modelling mortality varies from country to country. Temperature metrics with no or little humidity modification associates best with mortality in ~40% of the studied countries. Apparent temperature (combined temperature, humidity and wind speed) dominates in another 40% of countries. There is no obvious climate grouping in these results. We recommend, where possible, that researchers use the optimal metric for each country. However, dry-bulb temperature performs similarly to humidity-based heat stress metrics in estimating heat-related mortality in present-day climate.