Protecting hair and skin when you swim!


As a new swimmer, Hazel Davis expected to be trimmer and fitter after putting in the hours at the pool, but what she hadn’t bargained for was the detrimental effect on her hair and skin. Could she discover a way to beat the chlorine and restore their health and beauty?  

So after six months of regular swimming, my bingo wings might be looking tip-top but my hair and skin, not so much. I must confess to have let this aspect of my self-development slide a bit in the excitement of managing to actually exercise in the first place.

Shamefully, here’s what happens. I wake up, think, “I’m going to the pool today so I won’t have a proper shower, I’ll do all that after my swim,” dash out the door, into the pool, remember a deadline, have a quick scrub in the shower, leaving my hair wet and head to work. This clearly isn’t ideal as my papery skin and straw-like hair have been desperately trying to tell me for the last few weeks.

So, I asked Dr Anjali Mahto, Consultant Dermatologist and spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation, what exactly I am regularly putting onto my poor body and what effect it might be having.

“Most swimming pools use the halogen compounds – chlorine or bromine – as disinfectants,” she says. “Both agents and their derivatives can destroy or deactivate potentially dangerous microbes in swimming pools and spas. The chlorine-releasing compounds such as sodium or lithium hypochlorite, can sometimes be supplemented with cyanuric acid to extend their lifespan.”

None of these words sounds particularly pleasant but are they really that harmful to skin and hair? Dr Mahto believes that “a true chlorine reaction is unlikely,” but, she says, “Chlorine is certainly able to cause sensitivity which can result in redness, tenderness, itching, or hives (urticaria) at the point of contact.”

“Chlorine is damaging to the skin, and over time it will accelerate the effects of free radicals and therefore aging of the skin and hair,” says Juliette Scarfe, skin nutritionist at Bareskin Beauty.

“For me, the worst effect of chlorine is that it kills the good bacteria present on the surface of the epidermis. We are effectively wrapped in living bacteria that are our first line of defence from the outside world. The sensation of dryness and tightness after chlorinated swimming is the skin reacting to the loss of bacteria. Much like antibiotics, chlorine cannot differentiate between good and bad bacteria and kills both. We need the good for the functioning and efficacy of our entire immune system.”

She adds, “Other contaminants found in swimming pool water include organic matter, dirt, sweat, sperm, make-up, urine, hair, faecal matter, bacteria and fungus. These contaminants are introduced into the water from swimmers at approximately 0.14g per person.”

Dr Mahto advises that people with eczema (and other dry skin conditions) thoroughly cleanse the skin by showering after swimming and applying a moisturiser to hydrate the skin, and improve its barrier function (that is, placing a barrier between the skin and contaminants). But what about the rest of us who just have normal skin being gently eroded with each breast-stroke?

Abi Weeds, co-founder of natural skincare company Odylique (formerly Essential Care) suggests adding a barrier cream over the body before swimming to protect it. She also suggests applying some to the hair ends after swimming to keep them moisturised.

Juliette adds, “Before swimming shower at home and apply raw coconut oil all over to provide a natural, effective waterproof barrier for the skin and hair.” She also suggests drinking purified water with a pinch of pink Himalayan salt to replace lost vital minerals and fresh lemon juice to replace lost electrolytes and re alkalise the body. “Get plenty of fresh air afterwards so that you clear your lungs of toxic chemicals.”

My regular pool is a membership pool and so a bathing cap is compulsory. I don’t have a latex allergy but I DO have a big head (and very thick hair) and the idea of something rubbery and clingy on my bonce kind of removes the thrill of the swim so I always favour a fabric swimming cap (which I buy for a few pounds at a rate of about three a month because they are like socks, except they don’t come in pairs so they are just completely lost instead of half-lost). These, of course, utterly fail to keep my hair dry so I need to do something to protect it.

Margaret Weeds, Abi’s mother and Odylique’s other co-founder, says “Coloured hair is very porous and most at risk to damage by chlorine. Being a bleach, it accelerates removal of dye from hair and in the case of blonde or bleached hair, can leave it with a greenish tinge.”

Ah, so that’s why my grey has been showing through at a faster-than-usual rate. I had assumed it was the onset of old age.

She adds, “If hair gets wet whilst swimming anyway it’s a good idea to pre-wet it with fresh water and/or run hands coated with a pea size amount of balm through hair to protect and make it less porous.” She also says that shampoos which are high in nourishing and antioxidant botanicals will help maintain both condition and colour protection.

Now I merely go a couple or three times a week. Some people spend all day in the pool, like swimming instructor Marisa Denis, who runs M&M’s Swim School in Huddersfield. She recommends the old trick of applying conditioner to pre-wet hair under the cap but, crucially, she suggests a steam session after any chlorine-laden swim. “Immediately after any swim jump in the steam room and sweat it all out,” she says, adding, “Years of research, advice and experience has meant it's the only regime for me now.”

Products to Try

For Body ….

Bareskin Beauty Clarifying Cleansing Serum (£29, 60ml)
As a post-swimming routine, Bareskin Beauty’s products are handy things to have around. The clarifying beauty balm contains shea butter, cocoa butter, jojoba oil, rosemary oil and sea buckthorn and is a great treat for a chlorine-battered visage. Contains honey / beeswax, but is free of all artificial preservatives / fragrances, petrochemicals etc.

Odylique Ultra Rich Balm (£19, 175g)
This is great both as a barrier cream and applied to the hair ends after swimming (which didn’t feel as greasy and strange as I expected it to). Containing raw shea, coconut and extra virgin olive oils, the sea buckthorn is rich in omega 7, which is known to be good for skin and hair).

Body Shop Aloe Body Butter (£13, 200ml) / Body Shop Aloe Body Butter ($9.99, 6.75oz)
This is good, but not amazing, as a barrier cream. Gently perfumed and easy to apply without being greasy, it feels like it’s doing some good. It does contain soya and nut, and the silicone derivatives cyclopentasiloxane and dimethicone, plus lanolin alcohol, making it non-vegan, and a palm oil derivative.

SwimmingFor Hair …

Odylique Gentle Herb Shampoo (£12, 200ml)
Odylique’s gentle hair shampoo is free from sulphates, petrochemicals, tree nut oils as well as being soy, wheat, dairy, fragrance and palm oil free. It does the job in a safe and gentle way.

Aubrey Organics Swimmers Shampoo (£9.49, 325ml) and Swimmers Conditioner (£9.98, 325ml) / Aubrey Organics Swimmers Shampoo ($13.30, 16 oz fluid) and Swimmers Conditioner (£9.98, 325ml)
I would love this even if I weren’t a swimmer. The smell (almond apricot) is intoxicating and the ingredients (organic rice extract, organic jojoba oil and quinoa and sweet almond oil) are pleasing to behold. The conditioner is delightfully whipping-cream like and it leaves my hair soft and somehow dense feeling. Both contain alcohol, nut (almond), and the conditioner contains milk protein, but both are free from SLS/SLES, petrochemicals, artificial fragrances and preservatives.

Absolute Aromas Indulge Hair Oil (£8.50, 100ml)
This gorgeous blend – containing nothing but natural oils – is great as an intensive moisturising treatment for chlorine-damaged hair. With ylang ylang, sandalwood, lime, petitgrain and clary sage, it smells absolutely gorgeous and leaves the hair feeling "helped" but not too oily.

Swim Spray ($15, 114ml) (From UK, try Amazon or Prescription Goggles (£11))
This handy little spray from the US is great for getting rid of the pesky chlorine smell and minimising irritation. It's completely odourless and leaves skin feeling fresh and clean. Just water and vitamin C! Fragrance-free and totally natural.


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