Skin and hair can present challenges for everyone in the winter, but especially for swimmers. It is important to treat skin and hair conditions so that swimming can be enjoyed without the bother of itching and irritation.
The answers to these basic questions can help your swimmers keep their skin and hair healthy.
Why do swimmers get dry skin and hair?
Swimming is the most challenging sport for the skin and hair. Skin has a protective layer of fats that lubricate the skin and make it semi-waterproof. Sebaceous glands are microscopic exocrine glands in the skin secrete this oily or waxy matter called sebum*. (Sebaceous glands are often found in hair follicles.) These fats or lipids are highly developed in mammals that live in the water, such as beavers, and provide them with constant protection from water’s harmful effects. But since you are not a beaver, prolonged water contact can remove this layer of fats and damage your protective skin barrier. Once damaged, the skin barrier begins to renew itself automatically but – guess what – flaking, itching, stinging and burning may be part of the process.
The first substance produced by the body as part of the repair process is ceramide, an ingredient found in some therapeutic skin moisturizers and noted in their ingredients list. Skin and hair need attention to remain healthy and manageable even during your busiest swimming seasons. Sebaceous glands are microscopic exocrine glands in the skin that secrete an oily or waxy matter, called sebum, to lubricate and waterproof the skin and hair of mammals.
*A note about sebum: your body has a love-hate relationship with sebum. This substance is critical in protecting skin and hair because it keeps skin and hair soft and prevents water loss that results in damage. But when your glands over-produce sebum, the skin and hair can appear oily and pores can become clogged. Sebum also tends to nourish the P. acnes bacteria that live on the skin. This can lead to acne, whiteheads and blackheads – even on the scalp.
What is the effect of chlorine on the skin and hair?
In addition to water damage, swimmers are also exposed to chlorine and other pool chemicals. These chemicals are vital to preventing skin infections, such as impetigo from bacteria, warts from viruses and athlete’s foot from fungus. However, chlorine can also accelerate the removal of the fats from your skin and hair and wreak havoc on them.
The chlorine in your pool’s water can dry out your skin and make it feel tight and itchy because the chlorine strips your skin of its protective layer of sebum. If you have sensitive skin, you might even get irritation or a rash from the effects of chlorine. If you have a skin condition like eczema, chlorine can aggravate it.
Chlorine is actually very drying for your hair. When it becomes wet with chlorinated water, the hair shafts absorb the chlorine. This strips your hair of its natural lubricant (sebum) and cause damage. Since you spend lots of time in chlorinated water, repeated drying can also cause your hair’s protective cuticles to crack (which leads to split ends and frequent breaking of hair strands).
Green hair is a pretty common phenomenon especially if you have light-colored hair and spend lots of time in chlorinated water. The greenish color isn’t caused by the chlorine itself. It’s actually caused by the chlorine’s interaction with copper pipes and other metals. The chlorine causes small amounts of metal to enter the water and tint the hair.
How should swimmers cleanse after swimming?
Swimmers should at the very least rinse the skin and hair immediately after swimming and – if possible – bathe with a gentle cleanser and give your hair a thorough shampooing. Since the water and chlorine in the pool remove sweat and environmental dirt from your skin along with your sebum, your really don’t need to scrub. Your skin will benefit more from rinsing and gentle bathing to remove the chlorine smell from the skin and hair and to prevent excessive chlorine irritation and damage. If a strong chlorine smell is left on the skin after swimming, your pool’s chemical balance may need to be checked. A well-balanced pool should have a minimal chlorine smell.
What can swimmers do to prevent dry skin and hair?
You may think you only need to “treat” after swimming. But – just as important as what you do after your swim, your pre-swim treatment is important to preventing damage to your skin and hair.
Your skin’s pre-treatment: Protect your skin by applying oil or lotion before swimming. Many types of sunscreens contain oils that protect your skin from water, especially waterproof sunscreen formulated for swimming or heavy physical activity.
Your hair’s pre-treatment: Get it wet with clean water first (before you get into the pool for the first time). This impregnates your hair shafts and keeps them from absorbing the chlorine. You can also coat your hair and scalp with conditioner or oil.
The importance of cleansing cannot be emphasized enough!
But there is more after cleansing your skin and hair. You must rehydrate. Moisturize with lotion or oil for the skin and conditioner for the hair. If you’re experiencing the green hair effect, simply shampoo your hair with swimmer shampoo. Following regular protective measures with your hair will help prevent the green hair effect from happening.
For the skin: The best way to keep your skin and hair healthy is to prevent skin barrier damage in the first place. Consider moisturizing morning and evening with a ceramide-containing cream liberally applied to all body areas – especially the arms and legs where oil production is minimal. Creams provide more moisturizing than lotions but oily complected teens may prefer lotions. Plenty of good OTC (over the counter) options are available for typical moisturizing needs. Prescription remedies should not be necessary unless unusual conditions develop. Choose a moisturizer that strikes the best balance of moisture to oiliness for you. After all, if you don’t like the product, you aren’t going to use it regularly.
For the hair: Protect your hair before swimming by getting it wet with clean water first, which impregnates the hair shafts and keeps them from absorbing chlorine. You can also coat your hair and scalp with conditioner or oil.
Another option: Use a swimming cap. A cap offers some protection from chlorinated water, plus it keeps longer hair out of your way while swimming.
Drink water: You may not think of simply drinking water as a skin and hair care remedy, but it is – and it’s a good one! Do it before heading to the pool and after swimming. Drinking plenty of fresh water helps to purify your skin, replenishes moisture you have lost and flushes out toxins (and a toxin is exactly what chlorine is to your skin and hair.) Your skin will be more likely to feel rough and dry if you’re dehydrated. So the inverse is also true that your skin will stay supple when you are hydrated from the inside out.
What should swimmers do if they develop red, itchy skin?
If your skin becomes red and itchy, it may be a sign of excessively dry skin – a condition known as eczema. Very mild eczema may be treated with over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream applied twice daily. But if your condition doesn’t improve in 2-3 days with this remedy, you may need to see a dermatologist for guidance.
Winterize with a Diligent Regimen
Each of these areas points out important facts about how water and pool chemicals affect you and how you can all protect yourself from dryness and renew skin and hair after being damaged. So how do you actually winterize yourself since winter’s own drying effects can in themselves be damaging?
Be diligent! During winter, it’s even more important to be strict with your skin and hair cleansing and moisturizing regimen. Pay close attention to your skin and hair and take action immediately to help replenishing and healing processes take place. Act quickly if your condition needs something outside of your regimen – even seeing a dermatologist. Ignoring something small can allow a condition to develop that could disrupt your swimming!
To help you maintain your regimen as winter approaches, keep these 8 skin/hair care tips top of mind:
Tip 1: Drink plenty of water while swimming (ensure that your urine is never darker than light yellow).
Tip 2: Showers in fresh water are important. Spend several minutes in the shower before you ever jump in the pool to ensure that your skin and hair is thoroughly washed with fresh water and no chlorine binds to your skin’s surface. If you’re at a daylong event, shower between events so that chlorine doesn’t dry on your skin or hair.
Tip 3: Rub olive, coconut or baby oil through your hair with your hands and apply waterproof sunscreen designed to protect against chlorine sensitivities to your skin.
Tip 3: Cleanse your skin and your hair thoroughly after your pool time. Use moisturizer and conditioner after cleansing to re-hydrate.
Tip 4: Wash swim suits thoroughly as soon as possible after swimming. Not only will they last longer but suits that have dried chlorine in them can irritate your skin.
Tip 5: Purchase shampoos that are designed for swimmers and use them regularly. Be kind to your hair by using lower settings on your blow dryer and a wide-tooth comb instead of a brush.
Tip 6: Pay particular care to any areas of your skin where there is chaffing or rubbing. These places are particularly susceptible to greater irritation by chlorine. Protect these areas with a layer of Vaseline.
Tip 7: Apply moisturizers that re-hydrate the skin, keep it soft and in good condition. (i.e. Aqueous Cream such as Aquaphor or Eucerin, E45 dermatological cream, or Dermol which is sometimes prescribed for skin irritations) If you have lanolin allergies it is – of course – best to avid lanolin-based creams.
Tip 8: Treat very dry eczema patches with 0.5% hydrocortisone available without prescription. This should clear up the patch without risk of atrophy.
Sources: Livestrong.com, BritishSwimming.org, FreeDrinkingWater.com