5 Annoying Ways Chlorine Affects Your Body (and What to Do About Them)
From effects like red eyes to bleached hair, swimming in a chlorinated pool can do a number on your body. Here’s how to deal.
Splashing around in a swimming pool is a fun summer pastime. But it can carry some unpleasant side effects: red eyes, itchy skin, and dry hair, to name a few.
You can thank chlorine for that.
Chlorine is a chemical added to pools to kill harmful bacteria, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC recommends a chlorine concentration of at least 1 part per million (ppm) in swimming pools and 3 ppm in hot tubs (which you can test using a DPD kit), but the agency doesn’t specify what concentration is too high. According to the Water Quality and Health Council, anything between 1 ppm and 5 ppm falls within an acceptable range.
While chlorine helps protect you from infections, it can have some unexpected effects on your body.
“As the concentration of chlorine increases, the chances of you developing a reaction such as itchiness, red eyes, or even experiencing a strong chlorine smell increases,” says Vivek Cherian, MD, a Chicago-based internal medicine physician.
Should you be worried? What’s more, how can you fix or avoid chlorine’s effects so you can enjoy your time in the pool?
Keep reading for answers.
1. Chlorine Can Leave Skin Feeling Dry
Once you hop out of the pool and towel off, you may notice that your skin feels dry and itchy, especially if you swim frequently or for extended periods.
“Chlorine is a skin irritant that strips the skin of its natural oils,” says Samer Jaber, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Washington Square Dermatology in New York City. By removing natural oils, chlorine erodes your skin’s natural protective barrier, he says. Without this barrier, your pores open, and your skin becomes more vulnerable to the effects of water and chlorine.
The potential result? Dry, scaly, and itchy skin.
What to Do About It The longer that chlorine remains on the skin, the more irritating it will be, so shower as soon as you’re done swimming. “Use a gentle body wash and don’t exfoliate, as this will irritate your skin,” Dr. Jaber says. Slather on a thick, moisturizing cream once you step out of the shower to help rebuild your skin barrier — it’ll be most effective if you apply it while your skin is still damp, notes the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD).
2. Chlorine Can Lighten and Dry Out Hair
In addition to killing bacteria in swimming pools, chlorine is used as a bleach in the manufacture of paper and cloth, according to the CDC. This bleaching effect can wreak havoc on your tresses.
“Chlorine strips off the natural oils in the hair, which can result in dryness, changes in hair color, and even an itchy, irritated scalp,” Dr. Cherian says.
Many people blame chlorine for the green-hair phenomenon. While light-colored locks can look green after being in a chlorinated pool, the culprit isn’t chlorine — it’s oxidized copper, according to the Water Quality and Health Council. Sometimes, copper sulfate is added to some pools to prevent the growth of algae. People with previously damaged hair are most likely to see these effects
What to Do About It Thoroughly rinse your hair with nonchlorinated water before getting in the pool, advises Cherian: “The idea is that your hair is already saturated with clean water, so it will absorb less chlorinated water.”
Once you’re done swimming, head for the shower and wash your hair with a clarifying shampoo to remove chemicals, recommends Hair Professionals Career College. These deep-cleaning shampoos typically contain a strong detergent like lauryl sulfates as their primary ingredient, per research. (If your hair is prone to a greenish tint, the Water Quality and Health Council advises looking for a shampoo that’s specifically formulated to remove copper from hair.) Follow with conditioner to add moisture to your hair and help restore the skin barrier in your scalp, Jaber says.
Yet the easiest way to prevent chlorine damage is not to get it wet in the first place, says Hair Professionals Career College. So get a swim cap. If you’re swimming for exercise, a swim cap will keep hair out of your face, so you can focus on your workout, and protect your strands from chlorine. If you choose to rinse your hair first, your swim cap will create a seal between your hair and the chlorinated water.
3. Chlorine Can Leave Eyes Red and Irritated
Red, sensitive eyes are another hallmark of chlorinated pools.
When chlorine gets in your eyes, it washes away the tear film that coats the surface of your eyes and keeps them moist, smooth, and clear. Without a tear film, your eyes are more vulnerable to chlorine’s irritating effects, explains the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
“Chlorine may cause irritation that can result in teariness, redness, and sensitivity to light for a few hours after leaving the pool,” Cherian says.
Plus, your eyes may be more susceptible to infection if any pool bacteria survive the chlorine, Cherian says. Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is one infection to watch out for, per the AAO.
What to Do About It First, don’t wear contact lenses in a chlorinated pool, Cherian says. Bacteria can grow on the lenses after a single dip, and because contact lenses sit on your eyes for a longer period, your eyes are continuously exposed to any chemicals or bacteria on them, the AAO warns.
Wearing swim goggles can keep pool chemicals out of your eyes, helping your tear film stay intact. You may even be able to get prescription swim goggles, as the AAO notes — ask your eye doctor.
If you prefer to swim goggle-free, splash your closed eyes with fresh water immediately after swimming to wash chlorine off your eyelids and eyelashes.
Finally, the AAO recommends using over-the-counter lubricating eye drops before and after swimming to keep your tear film balanced.
4. Chloramines Can Trigger Respiratory Issues
When chlorine mixes with swimmers’ sweat, dirt, and skin cells, it creates chemical irritants known as chloramines. The chloramines in the water then turn into gas in the surrounding air, which can cause respiratory symptoms like coughing and wheezing when inhaled, according to the CDC.
People with asthma may feel the effects most, as their airways are hypersensitive to irritants. Inhaling chloramines can cause the lungs to spasm, leading to chest tightness or coughing, Cherian says.
“This can be an issue in any pool, but it tends to be more problematic in indoor pools that are not well ventilated,” he notes. “In outdoor pools, [chloramines] tend to dissipate quickly.”
What to Do About It This isn’t to say that people with asthma can’t — or shouldn’t — swim in chlorinated pools. But you’ll want to avoid or limit the amount of time you spend in a pool with a strong chlorine smell. According to the CDC, that smell suggests there are chloramines in the air. If swimming is your primary or preferred form of exercise, work with your pulmonologist to tweak your asthma medication if needed. It’s also a good idea to keep your reliever inhaler poolside, notes Swim England.
5. Chlorine Can Worsen Skin Conditions (Sometimes)
Because chlorine strips away the natural oils in your skin that act as a protective barrier, spending time in a chlorinated pool can lead to a flare-up or worsening of psoriasis and eczema (sometimes referred to as atopic dermatitis, the main type of eczema), Jaber says. But the effects vary from one person to another.
In fact, swimming in a chlorinated pool may be beneficial for some people with eczema. Chlorine is a bleach, and bleach baths may lessen the symptoms of eczema, as they kill bacteria on the skin, reducing itching, redness, and scaling, according to the Mayo Clinic. Many people with eczema find that swimming in a chlorinated pool has a similar soothing effect, notes the National Eczema Association (NEA).
But some people managing eczema find chlorinated pools irritate their skin, adds the NEA.
Similarly, some people with psoriasis may handle chlorine just fine, whereas others are more sensitive to the drying effects, according to MyPsoriasisTeam.
People with acne may also benefit from chlorine. “Chlorine has antibacterial properties, so it can actually kill the bacteria that causes acne,” Jaber says.
However, if chlorine dries out the skin, it can make acne worse, he adds. As the AAD notes, dry skin is irritated skin, and anytime you irritate the skin, your acne can become more severe.
What to Do About It If you’re among those people with eczema who find chlorinated pools irritating, you may want to stick to swimming in fresh water, says the NEA. Same goes if you have psoriasis. Or you may find that swimming in salt water offers some symptom relief, suggests the National Psoriasis Foundation, though you should take care to keep skin moisturized after your dip.
Avoid swimming if your skin is infected or you have sores or open wounds, Swim England says.
If you decide to swim in a chlorinated pool, rinse with lukewarm water beforehand. Then shower with a gentle skin cleanser as soon as you get out of the pool and apply a thick, cream-based moisturizer, Jaber suggests.
If your acne is getting worse from chlorine, Jaber recommends washing your skin with a mild cleanser after swimming. Use a nonabrasive cleanser that doesn’t contain alcohol or oil, per the AAD. Be sure to restore your skin barrier with a gentle moisturizer. Look for products that are labeled “oil-free” and “noncomedogenic,” as recommended by the AAD.
Chlorine Sensitivity: What It Is and What to Do About It
If your skin, eyes, or lungs react to chlorine in swimming pools, you may wonder if you’re allergic. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI), you can’t be allergic to chlorine, but you can be sensitive or have a nonallergic reaction to it.
For example, chlorine can contribute to allergies by irritating the respiratory tract (the organs involved in breathing) or sensitive skin.
Per the ACAAI, common symptoms of chlorine sensitivity include:
- Trouble breathing
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose
- Skin redness, tenderness, inflammation, or itchiness
- Skin lesions or rash
- Scales or crust on the skin
These symptoms tend to appear most in people with long-term exposure to chlorine (think more than 1,000 hours) and those who swim in pools with high levels of chlorine, notes the ACAAI.
See an allergist if you think you have chlorine sensitivity. They can help you control existing allergies or conditions, which may reduce the effects of chlorine.