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Splish Splash: TLC for Chlorine-Damaged Hair and Skin

Summer is officially in full swing, with adults and kids alike starting to show the telltale signs of wear and tear: scraped knees from bicycle accidents, toast-colored suntans, and for many fair-haired people, the greenish tint that tells people they’ve been spending their summer in the pool.

I had blonde hair as a child, and I remember having to watch for green streaks whenever I went for a swim. Nowadays, my dark hair doesn’t turn colors, but pools leave my skin itchy, dry, tight, and irritated. Swimming may relax our bodies and minds, but it can be really rough on our hair and skin. Why do pools trash our tresses, and is there anything we can do about it?

Is Chlorine the Culprit?
Chlorine is mostly to blame for leaving the hair dull, rough, lifeless, and frizzy, and leaving skin sallow and dry, since it’s long been added to swimming pools in order to kill bacteria and prevent algae buildup. A pool that hasn’t been treated with chlorine would be a green, festering mess within just a few weeks. It’s great for killing germs and bacteria in the water, but chlorine is a corrosive agent, and it can eat away at any tissue it comes in contact with, including living human tissue.  

Our skin and hair are especially fragile, and chlorine exposure does take its toll. Both skin and hair have a protective layer of natural oil that keep them supple and shiny, and the drying effects of chlorine strips those oils right off, causing hair to break and skin to look prematurely aged. Chlorine and salt can also force their way under hair’s cuticles, the scale-like layers that cover the shaft. The cuticles should lie smooth, so when they’re roughed-up and uneven, the hair looks brittle and unmanageable. The worst part is that the abuse from excessive chlorine doesn’t just look and feel unsightly; it can weaken the hair to the point where it begins to break off and becomes too fragile to style.

Skin that’s exposed to chlorine can develop what’s sometimes called “pool rash” or “swimmer’s itch.” This mild form of dermatitis occurs most often in people with regular exposure to chlorine, and in pools where the chlorine level and pH are not properly balanced. The stripping off of oils can also leave skin itchy, flaky, and red.

The Green Scene
Chlorine may be responsible for many of our summer dermatological ills, but the one thing it can’t take credit for is the greenish tint that appears in some people’s hair after a dip in a pool. That tinge happens most often to those with blonde or light-colored hair, and it’s caused by high concentrations of copper in the water. Pool maintenance products contain a variety of chemicals, including copper, iron, or manganese. The chlorine causes the copper molecules to oxidize and attach themselves to the hair shaft, causing a greenish tint. People with darker hair are subject to copper buildup too, but it’s not usually as noticeable.

Repairing Your Hair
A few months of pool use doesn’t mean your hair has to look thrashed year-round, and if you’ve been thrashing your hair since Memorial Day, it’s not too late to help restore its vitality. One way to help protect your hair is to rinse it thoroughly with fresh water before you expose it to chlorine. The hair will absorb the fresh water, preventing it from absorbing too much of the chlorinated water. Running a little bit of conditioner through your hair before you swim is another easy way to protect the hair and seal the cuticle, although you’ll probably need to re-apply throughout a long day in and out of the water. After you’ve been swimming, rinsing your hair out with fresh water can help displace any chlorine that’s made its way into the hair shaft. Although these techniques are good practice for anyone, they’re especially important for people with curly or chemically-treated hair, which tends to be extra-fragile and prone to damage.

If chlorine and heavy metals dry in the hair, they can be a little tougher to scrub out. Try soaking your hair in fresh water for ten minutes to open up the cuticle and flush out the damaging particles. Home remedies of baking soda or white vinegar solutions may also release chemicals. Stubborn green streaks might require a special chelating or clarifying shampoo. The ingredient to look for is sodium thiosulfate (sometimes called antichlor), which will strip hair of the heavy metals that cause the discoloration. There’s no way to undo existing damage, but regular deep-conditioning or hot oil treatments can help restore moisture to fried hair and keep it feeling supple. 

Skin that’s irritated by chlorine exposure could benefit from a little extra TLC, too. There are specially formulated lotions for swimming that create a barrier against chemicals like chlorine, but they need to be reapplied often. Regardless of what kind of lotion or cream you use, keeping your skin hydrated with gentle moisturizers before and after swimming is what’s important. 

A Chlorine Salt-ernative
For regular swimmers and those with sensitive skin, summer is getting a lot more comfortable. For decades, chlorine was pretty much the only way to maintain a pool, but saltwater pools are quickly becoming the newest fashion. These pools use sodium chloride—regular table salt—to maintain the balance of the pool. Saltwater pools aren’t as salty as the ocean; the salt concentration of the ocean is about 30,000 parts per million, and a saltwater pool is just 3200. The lack of chemicals and the softer salt water are easier on skin and hair, and they don’t cause red eyes. 

It’s not likely that anyone is going to sacrifice swimming for fear of a little sun damage, but with a little bit of extra care, hair can stay shiny and resilient, and skin can remain soft and supple for a whole season of summer fun.

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