Monday, August 29, 2011

Swimming - The Case of the Caustic Chlorine

Like most people, I enjoy swimming on a hot summer day, but it can be problematic. Dried out hair, swimmer’s ear, and dry, itchy skin are just some of the problems that can occur when you swim. This is especially true for those of us who swim regularly. Over the years, I have tried to understand and solve these problems through research and a lot of trial and error.

The problem is mostly related to the fact that swimming pools use harsh chemicals (e.g. chlorine) which leads to irritation and discomfort for our bodies. Swimming in these chemicals takes its toll on your body.

Why do pools need Chlorine?

Chlorine (along with other chemicals) is used in swimming pools to kill off potentially harmful bacteria and fungus, keeping the water sanitary for everybody using the pool. This prevents infections from being passed from swimmer to swimmer. In addition, chlorine inhibits the growth of algae and other water based life from invading and possibly making us sick (or our pools into a thick, green soup). Despite these helpful cleaning and disinfecting traits, the fact remains, chlorine is a corrosive chemical. Unfortunately, as anyone who swims regularly knows, swimming in chlorinated water can cause you irritation and possible illness too.

So what are the risks and dangers (aside from drowning) of swimming in chlorinated water and how can we prevent some of these problems?

The Dangers of Chlorine

Even low levels of exposure to chlorine can result in skin, eye, and airway irritation along with a sore throat and a cough. If you are exposed to even higher concentrations of chlorine you may experience chest tightness, airway spasms, and wheezing. Likely, these are the worst symptoms most swimmers will ever experience, but this does not mean that chlorine is safe.

If for any reason you are ever exposed to higher concentrations of chlorine then you may suffer from chlorine poisoning. This leads to increased mucous buildup (a very runny nose) and what feels like choking. After this kind of continuous high level exposure, fluid will build up in your lungs and you may risk suffering from pneumonia. Clearly, chlorine is a dangerous chemical which must be respected and used wisely if we are to swim in safety.

What is that nasty pool smell?

The smell from a pool that most people call the “chlorine smell” isn’t actually the smell of chlorine itself. It is actually a result of the compounds created when chlorine binds with something (the way that it cleans and disinfects). When chlorine binds with proteins in the water, such as shredded skin or hair, it creates chemicals called chloramines. Chloramines are the source of the smell in a pool. Contrary to common sense, the more the pool smells like that, the cleaner it is, because chlorine is doing its job.

Chloramines, and the other dangerous byproducts from the pool cleaning process, tend to settle at or around the water’s surface. When we swim, this is where we breathe, and while swimming, we usually inhale fast and deeply into the lungs. Studies have shown that being exposed to chloramines in this way can lead to asthma in children, the risks increasing with each new exposure. The lung damage caused is described as very closely resembling damage caused by smoking. The more chlorine and the more protein you have in a pool, the more chloramines are formed.

If, while swimming, you or your child are experiencing any of these kinds of the serious problems, be vigilant. If you feel the onset of any of the symptoms of severe exposure, immediately discontinue swimming, rinse off, and seek medical attention.

What is a salt water pool and is it safer?

Most pools contain a significant amount of chlorine, however, pools that use a salt water cleaning system cause less irritation from chlorine (and chloramines) while still keeping the pool sanitary. Salt (sodium chloride) acts as a chemically stable store of chlorine that is released “on demand” by the cleaning system. So, while there is still a lot of chlorine in a salt water pool, it is safely (chemically) bound as salt and not “active”.

A salt water pool cleaning system works in a slightly different way from a traditional chemical (chlorine) system. The cleaning element for a salt water system usually provides a small electric charge which causes some of the sodium and chlorine to separate, providing smaller amounts of chlorine on demand. This allows you to time when and how much chlorine is chemically active in the pool for cleaning. A much more targeted release of chlorine means that you will be in contact with far less at any given time while swimming. In addition, in a salt water system, there are fewer residual chloramines leftover after the cleaning process because of the (electro)chemical reactions that take place. If you suffer from any of the problems associated with swimming in regular (chlorinated) pool water, then a better option may be to find and use a pool with a salt water cleaning system and see if that helps.

When your hair goes on the fritz

Even if you swim in a salt water pool you may still notice that, after swimming, your hair feels rough or damaged. Chlorine in the water chemically bonds with parts of your hair, stripping out the natural oils found there. This leads to the dry, damaged hair you feel after swimming, especially if you don’t rinse your hair of the chlorinated water promptly after getting out of the pool.

If you have blond hair, you’re probably all too familiar with the lovely shade of green your hair turns after swimming. Most people think that hair discoloration after being in a pool is because of chlorine, but that isn’t the case. In fact, most pools use several other additives to aid chlorine in keeping a pool clean. In this case, the culprit for your green hair is copper. Copper, used to prevent algae growth, can also bond with the proteins in your hair. When exposed to air, copper oxidizes and turns green. In the words of a wise frog, “It’s not easy being green”, but fortunately there are a few preventive strategies that can help avoid and repair damage and discoloration to your hair.


A good silicone swim cap offers some protection for your hair while swimming. Unfortunately, to really protect you hair, I discovered that you need to do a bit more. As odd as it sounds, it is very important to wet your hair before swimming. Wet hair won’t readily soak up more water, so by saturating it with water before you get in the pool, you avoid soaking up chlorinated water.

The best solution that I have found for the dry, post-swimming hair involves four steps:

  1. Before swimming, you should wet your hair to make sure that there are not any strands that can soak up the pool chlorine.
  2. Before swimming, cover your hair in conditioner. This will seal the cuticles in your hair and help prevent chlorine from binding with proteins inside. (You may choose to reverse the above order by adding conditioner first and then wetting your hair.)
  3. Use a good silicone swim cap while swimming to keep out most of the water from the pool.
  4. After swimming, immediately rinse off and try to shampoo your hair (most pools have a shower nearby). You want to prevent any chlorine (or other chemicals) from the pool drying into your hair. If the chlorine dries in your hair, even more damage will happen, and continue to aggravate the problem over time.

After going through this lengthy swim routine, I find that my hair feels completely normal and I don’t particularly need to do much else.

Repair Your Hair - Baking Soda is Your Friend

Like most people, I don’t always do what is best for me. Sometimes, I am just in a hurry or too lazy to do everything that I should to protect my hair. Fortunately, there is a fairly easy treatment for your hair if it happens to get a dose of chlorine.
A non-toxic anti-chlorine “shampoo” is a great solution to these problems. By using a bit of do-it-yourself chemistry, you can create a mix of a few common household items to help pull chlorine (or green coloring, a.k.a. copper oxide) out of your hair, without pulling out your hair to do so. A little bit of baking soda (mixed with plain water or shampoo) is the “shampoo” hero here because it binds with the chlorine and gently pulls it right out of your hair.

A non-toxic “conditioner” is your next step to make this system work. It is important to neutralize the baking soda (a mild base) or it can also cause minor damage to your hair. Fortunately, this is very easy to do with some apple cider vinegar or lemon juice (both mild acids) mixed with water. These also encourage your body to start producing the natural oils in your hair that were stripped away by chlorine. Finally, rinse your hair with plain water again. If you are worried about smelling like vinegar, don’t, the final rinse is enough to remove all traces of scent.

The formulas for these are simple and easy to make:

  • Baking soda “shampoo” = 1 tablespoon of baking soda per cup of water.
  • Apple cider vinegar rinse = 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar (or lemon juice) per cup of water.

Alternatively, you can try a “swimmer’s shampoo”. The shampoo that is most frequently recommended by serious swimmers is Malibu C Shampoo. While this is a great option, particularly if you are swimming away from home, I find that using baking soda and vinegar is actually a more effective solution, and much less expensive. You may want to experiment to find out what works best for you.

Itchy or painful ears:

You’re probably already thinking about that annoying little bit of water you can’t quite shake out of your ears after swimming. While, at best, the water trapped in your is an annoyance, at worst, it can lead to “swimmer’s ear”, a microbial infection. Irritation from water trapped in the ear canal can also lead to wax buildup, further compounding the problem (water can’t get out and provides a nice habitat for bacteria or other microbes). Swimmer’s ear is not isolated to those who swim in swimming pools, as the problem relates more to the water trapped in your ear than to chlorine.


Silicone ear plugs are moldable and will fit snugly in
your ears to prevent water from getting in.
Synthetic wax or silicone ear plugs may help prevent most water from entering your ears. Unfortunately, I have found that these rarely provide a perfect seal and some water still tends to make its way into your ears. If enough of this water stays in your ear canal, then you have a perfect breeding ground for microbial organisms in your ear. I find that using a silicone swim cap that fits over my ears (in combination with ear plugs) decreases the amount of water (and chlorine) that is exposed to the inside my ears.

Since I find ear plugs annoying, my preferred solution for myself is to put a few drops of olive oil in my ears before swimming. The oil coats the inside of my ears and prevents the water from lingering inside my ear canal (since oil and water don’t mix). Of course, the olive oil also protects your ears from the chlorine potentially irritating your ear drum. I find that this olive oil barrier is very helpful and usually provides enough protection (even without ear plugs) unless I am swimming for a really long time.

Whenever I finish spending any time in water that gets my ears wet (shower, bath, swimming, or scuba diving), I try to remember to dry my ears with a commercial or homemade ear drying solution. Commercial ear drying solutions generally contain isopropyl alcohol and may also contain anhydrous glycerin. These products work because the alcohol produces a drying effect (through rapid evaporation) while the glycerin coats the inside of your ear, preventing the alcohol from being too irritating. Glycerin also offers some minor anti-bacterial properties.

There are also “ear drying” ear plugs that work by absorbing moisture from the ears directly. I have not tried these to determine if they work, but even if they do, this is a very costly solution, as they can only be used once. This may be a good option if all other ear drying solutions are not effective or too irritating for you.

A note of caution: Never put anything into your ear like a Q-tip. While Q-tips may fit perfectly into your ear canal, they can actually be quite risky. Besides the fact that you could puncture your ear drum, Q-tips actually irritate your ears by pushing any wax buildup or microbes deeper into your ear canal. Our ears already have a natural protective and cleaning mechanism; wax provides a protective barrier which slowly pushes out debris and microbes that have been introduced. If we manually push the wax back deeper into our ears with a Q-tip, then we are interfering with this natural process. If you feel that you have too much wax in your ears or any uncomfortable ear problem, then your best choice is a consultation with an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialized physician. They will be able to assess the problem and offer their advice about appropriate and safe treatment options.


Because I am prone to ear irritation and infections, commercial rinsing solutions are generally not enough prevention if I am swimming often. So instead of just using a product with alcohol and glycerin, I actually mix my own ear-drying, anti-microbial solution and use it every time my ears get wet. Most of the ingredients I use are commonly found in household cabinets or readily available in most pharmacies.

The simplest rinse is a 1:1 mixture of distilled water and white vinegar. This is a very gentle rinse that you can use to just clear out any chlorinated water from your ear after swimming. You can use it every time you swim to clean or help prevent infection.

My special ear rinse is a combination of isopropyl alcohol (for drying), hydrogen peroxide (to break up the wax), and a small amount of anhydrous glycerin (for ear protection and antimicrobial properties). The mix for my formula is roughly 60% isopropyl alcohol, 35% hydrogen peroxide (3% standard OTC dilution) , and 5% anhydrous glycerin, although I can’t say I ever measure it particularly carefully.

If I suspect the beginning stages of an infection developing in my ears (it starts to hurt a little), then I might add to this mixture a couple drops of an antimicrobial essential oil ( tea tree essential oil) and drip this into both ears. This solution helps to kill off the microbes that are trying to take up residence in my ears and break up the wax there as well. I prefer tea tree oil to antibiotics because I am concerned that using antibiotics too often will lead to highly resistant microorganisms. While microbes may become resistant to any type of anti-microbial (even essential oils) I am less concerned about this than if I use antibiotics repeatedly. Of course, if my home remedy does not provide relief within one day, then I make an appointment to see my ENT specialist, as the infection may require antibiotics or some other treatment.

A word of caution: many essential oils can irritate skin and other delicate tissues. If you get any burning from an essential anywhere on your body, make sure to wash this off liberally with water. For this use I would not to add more than a tiny percentage of essential oil to the mixture (1-2 drops mixed in about 2 - 4 ounces (100 ml) of solution is plenty). If you still happen to feel a burning sensation in your ears, simply rinse your ear with plain tap water until it feels comfortable.

For any of these ear solutions (custom or store bought), it is important to mix the solution well before you put any drops in your ears. All of the ingredients have different properties and the mixtures tend to separate if left to sit for a while. These solutions need to be vigorously mixed like a James Bond martini (shaken, not stirred) each time you use them to ensure the proper concentrations of each ingredient.

Finally, when it comes to your ears you simply can’t be too careful. Before you consider any of these commercial or home made solutions, please have your physician examine your ears carefully to make sure that they are healthy and that these solutions are safe for you to use.

Dry itchy skin from swimming, what helps?

The dry, itchy skin you may feel after swimming occurs because chlorine chemically bonds with and strips away the natural oils from your skin, much like the way it does with your hair. Unfortunately, there is not much in the way of prevention, except perhaps a full body dry suit designed for diving. Being that this is completely impractical, I suggest instead a few steps you can take to minimize the damage to your skin from swimming.

Prevention and Treatment

Thoroughly wash or rinse off your skin immediately before and after swimming. This prevents the chlorine from drying on your skin. If the chlorine dries on your skin, it will continue to do damage to your skin, long after you dry off.

Fortunately, the “anti-chlorine shampoo/conditioner” solutions mentioned above will also work for your skin after swimming. Just be sure to neutralize the baking soda mix by rinsing it off with the vinegar (or lemon juice) rinse as well. If you have particularly dry or sensitive skin, it may also be useful to apply a moisturizing lotion after rinsing and drying your skin.

The Eyes Have It

Probably the most immediately noticeable problem that arises from swimming in chlorinated water is eye irritation. We’ve all felt the burning, dry eyes after a long swim and the cloudy vision that lingers long after being in the pool.

Wearing protective eye-wear (e.g. a mask or goggles) can almost completely eliminate the exposure and prevent damage or discomfort. If you do happen to suffer an exposure, rinsing your eyes with fresh water will help to wash away the irritating chemicals and may provide some relief from the symptoms.

Swimming is good for you.

While there are risks to chlorine exposure from swimming in pools, for most of us, the overall health benefits that come from swimming are well worth it. Swimming is an excellent form of exercise. Furthermore, if you suffer from any musculo-skeletal disorders (e.g. arthritis, degenerative disc disease in your spine, etc.) then swimming or simply walking around in a swimming pool offers an excellent form of low impact therapy that may improve joint mobility and function. Simply being in water can even offer pain relief for any of these types of problems because the buoyancy and gentle motion of the water against your muscles and joints is very soothing.

One other tip I have for swimmers is to consider using a mask and snorkel while you are in the water. For some of us, the neck and low back extension involved in the breathing portion of most swimming strokes can be problematic. Using a mask and snorkel offers a great way to not only avoid eye and lung exposure to surface chloramines, but also get lots of exercise while minimizing any unwanted motion in your spine.

I hope that these swimming tips will allow you to swim safely and comfortably without any of the  annoying consequences. Please let me know in the comment section below if you have found any other solutions that make swimming less irritating and more enjoyable.

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.


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