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Swimmer’s Hair: How to avoid it and fix it.

swimmer's hair

Are you looking for information about swimmer’s hair, “pool hair” or “chlorine hair”? If so, you’ve come to the right page. Here is everything you ever wanted to know–and more–about swimmer’s hair.

Swimmer’s Hair Defined

Perhaps the Urban Dictionary has the best definition of swimmer’s hair

Extremely dry and damaged hair due to continuous exposure to chlorine and extended hours in the pool. Sometimes even green because of the chlorine.

Does your hair feel rough, dry and crunchy due to swimming and continuous exposure to chlorinated pools? Chances are you have swimmer’s hair.

The Beginning: Water Chlorination

Up until about 1900, water supplies around the world were subject to disease such as Typhoid, Dysentery and  Cholera. There are many types of waterborne diseases because the pathogens can be Protozoan, Bacterial, Viral, or Algal.

The first continuous use of chlorine in the United States for disinfection took place in 1908 at Boonton Reservoir (on the Rockaway River), which served as the supply for Jersey City, New Jersey.[5] Chlorination was achieved by controlled additions of dilute solutions of chloride of lime (calcium hypochlorite) at doses of 0.2 to 0.35 ppm. The treatment process was conceived by Dr. John L. Leal, and the chlorination plant was designed by George Warren Fuller.[6] Over the next few years, chlorine disinfection using chloride of lime (calcium hypochlorite) were rapidly installed in drinking water systems around the world.[7] [Wikipedia]

More Information: Water Chlorination, Waterborne Diseases

Chlorine is used to sanitize water because of its low cost, availability and effectiveness. It’s not without its drawbacks, however.
Chlorine in high concentrations can be deadly. In fact, the first chemical weapons used chlorine gas.

More Information: What is chlorine gas and how did it become a weapon?

Although the health benefits of sanitizing water are clear, chlorine can also have negative effects. It can irritate the lungs, skin and even cause cancer. The drawbacks, however, are minuscule compared to an outbreak of waterborne pathogens.

The World Health Organization has stated that “the risks to health from these by-products are extremely small in comparison with the risks associated with inadequate disinfection”. [Wikipedia]

How Chlorine Sanitizes Pools

Thanks to the miracle of chlorine, we are able to swim in clean and sanitized pools. Who would want to swim in pools teaming with harmful bacteria?

Chlorine is the most widely used sanitizer for swimming pools chiefly because of its availability, low cost and effectiveness.

So how does it work?

When chlorine dissolves in water, it reacts with water to form Hypoclorous acid (HOCl) and Hypochlorite ions (OCl-). Chlorine kills pathogens by attacking the cell walls. It’s rather complicated process. You can read all about it here if you like.

In order for chlorine to be effective, pools are kept at a pH range of 7.2 – 7.8 (slightly alkaline). This is important to remember later in the discussion about what causes swimmer’s hair.

More Information:
Swimming Pool Sanitation.
How does chlorine work to kill bacteria?
How does chlorine work to clean swimming pools?

Your Natural Hair

When your hair is healthy, it is slightly acidic, it retains moisture, is shiny and soft to touch. Many factors affect the health of your hair. Styling, weather, chemicals–and yes, chlorine–can all damage your hair.

Here is the anatomy of a hair follicle:

Hair Anatomy

Read more about hair science by L’Oreal.

Swimmer’s Hair: The real cause.

Of course exposure to chlorine causes swimmer’s hair, but why? Chlorinated pools are slightly alkaline, but hair in its natural state is slightly acidic. After extended exposure to chlorine, the hair cuticle lifts and chlorine then bonds to the hair shaft. The chlorine dries the natural oil in your hair.

This combination is what damages your hair. This leaves your hair dull, dry, crunchy and brittle–otherwise known as swimmer’s hair.

The photo below shows healthy hair vs. damaged hair:

Healthy hair vs damaged hair

More Information:
Swimmer’s Hair: How you get it and what to do about it?
What causes swimmer’s hair?

Is your hair green?

If you have blonde hair, your hair may have a green tint. This greenish color is not from the chlorine exactly. The chlorine oxidizes copper in the water.

Here’s how it works: Copper pipes leach copper into the water, chlorine oxidizes the copper turning it green and then bonds the copper to your hair. It’s the accumulation of oxidized copper that turns your hair green.

Copper pipes aren’t the only culprit leaching copper into swimming pools. Algaecides, used to keep algae from growing in the pool, also contribute to the problem.

Here is a picture of how oxidized copper pipes turn green. Doesn’t it look similar to the green tint of swimmer’s hair?

copper turns swimmer's hair green

More Information:
Why blonde hair turns green in a swimming pool.
Green hair caused by copper, not chlorine.

Four steps to fixing Swimmer’s Hair

  1. Break the chlorine bond. Use a swim spray, or special shampoo formulated for swimmers to break the strong bond chlorine has made with your hair.
  2. Rinse away the residual chlorine.
  3. Add moisture back into your hair. Use a rinse-out or deep conditioner to add moisture back into your hair. This conditioner also has ingredients that continue to reduce chlorine.
  4. Rebalance the pH and lock in the moisture. Use products that help to rebalance the pH of your hair so your hair cuticle lie flat.


Products that Fix and Prevent Swimmer’s Hair

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3 Steps to Preventing Swimmer’s Hair

  1. Shower before swimming. Your hair is like a sponge. Minimize the amount of pool (chlorinated) water your hair can absorb by wetting your hair before swimming.
  2. Add conditioner to your hair before swimming. Add a layer of conditioner to your hair before swimming. This conditioner has ingredients that reduce chlorine and help keep it from bonding to your hair.
  3. Remember to wear a latex swimming cap. A swimming cap provides a physical barrier between the pool water and your hair. It’s one of the best things you can do to prevent swimmer’s hair.