Treat dry and damaged hair caused by pool chlorine

A dip in the pool is an absolute pleasure, especially in hot weather. But going to the pool regularly can have undesirable consequences for your hair, as chlorine affects the structure of the hair and can cause dryness and breakage. Chlorine reacts with all organic substances present in water, including hair and body.1

Human hair contains keratin, a water-insoluble protein. The hair is then coated and filled with sebum (oil). Oil is also in the skin, and when it produces too much of it, it can clog pores and cause acne. Nevertheless, we owe the hydration and shine of our skin and hair to sebum.

Normally, sebum protects the skin and hair and keeps them well hydrated. However, once hair comes into contact with chlorinated water, the hair’s natural protective barrier formed by sebum is dissolved, leaving the hair shaft unprotected. This leads to weaker, dull and dry hair. Pool chlorine has also been attributed to lightening hair color. Swimming without a swimming cap or not regularly rinsing off the chlorine after being in the pool will lead to hair cracking in the end. We know that split ends move up, separating the hair as it gets closer to the roots. It makes her hair look dull, wild and unhealthy.

Chlorine can completely change the appearance of hair. This weakens the proteins in the hair, making it thinner and weaker.2

There are shampoos and conditioners on the market that are specifically designed for exposure to the sun, salt or chlorine. And yes, using such hair products often with a clarifying effect will make a real difference for the hair.

Anti-chlorine shampoos contain natural actives to remove chlorine and chlorine smell from hair, which regular shampoos do not contain. Sodium thiosulfate and other anti-chlorine agents react with the chlorine molecules and remove them from the hair, along with the chlorine smell. Sodium thiosulfate, an active ingredient in most swimmers’ hair dechlorinators, is found naturally in hot springs and has many medical uses, from tick treatments to cancer therapies.3 Unfortunately, these types of products, while “clarifying” hair from chlorine, also strip moisture from hair. Thus, it is important to find a product that also has a conditioner to replace the moisture that has been removed.

Conditioners and masks often contain coconut oil as the main ingredient. In addition to providing protection for the hair, coconut oil has been shown to reduce protein and water loss.

To protect the air from chlorine, consumers can apply coconut oil, avocado oil or argan oil to “prep” hair before entering the pool. This creates an additional protective barrier (in addition to the innate sebum) between the hair shaft and the chlorine to prevent chlorine from entering the hair shaft. Any of these oils can be applied from root to tip on strands of hair before entering the pool. A disadvantage is that a silicone swimming cap can simply slip off. Thus, we can consider a latex swimming cap (if not allergic). These tend to slip less. After swimming, rinse off the oil thoroughly. This may leave a film. So a mild sulfate-free shampoo or “swimmer’s shampoo” can be used to oil oils if they leave hair feeling heavy and limp.

Here are some tips and tricks to use before swimming:

  • Rinse hair with clear water before entering the pool. If sufficiently soaked with clean tap water, it will not absorb too much chlorinated water in the pool.
  • Apply oils such as coconut, argan, almond or olive oil, rich in vitamins A, B1, B3, D, E, lecithin and fatty acids.4
  • Use a hair clip. The less contact with water, the more your hair is protected.
  • Wear a swimming cap.
  • Rinse hair with non-chlorinated water immediately after swimming.
  • Avoid using a hairbrush. Use a wide tooth comb.
  • After swimming, wash hair with an anti-frizz shampoo.
  • Use a moisturizing mask. Apply for 5-10 minutes (or as directed on your chosen one), then rinse thoroughly.
  • Defense is the best offense. Take care of your hair every day, eat lots of protein, cut split ends, and if you don’t have dyed hair, fine; this way you will avoid the negative effect of chlorine on your hair.

People with curly or frizzy hair, especially those with textured African hair, should be extra careful with chlorine and salt water. This type of hair can be easily damaged in contact with swimming pool water or sea water.
Textured hair should be handled gently as it naturally forms knots and kinks which break it.6 Textured hair requires hair care products that have gentle formulas that rely on natural ingredients.

Keep in mind that dyed, straightened or bleached hair requires even more care. If the hair now contains a combination of the aforementioned treatments, the triple threat (color, relaxer, chlorine) to hair health must be managed with vigilance. To avoid fading hair color, wait at least a week before going to the pool after coloring or bleaching your hair. If you can’t wait, follow the tips above.

Pool chlorine is your friend, but it can also be your enemy if you don’t care about your hair. Swimming offers a full body workout, relaxation and stress management. Continue to swim safely, just protect your hair while you do so. The best advice is to prevent the effects of chlorine on your hair so you don’t have to wait months for it to regenerate.

There are plenty of tips, but you need to take extra steps whether you go swimming all the time or just a few times a year.






  6. Fundamentals of ethnic hair: the dermatologists’ point of view. C. Aguh G. Okoye. Pages 9-10. © Springer International Publishing 2017

Sharleen St. Surin-Lord

[email protected]


Dr. Sharleen St. Surin-Lord is a Board Certified Dermatologist who has been practicing for over 16 years. She is in private practice at Face Dermatology, Largo, MD. She is an assistant professor of dermatology at Howard University College of Medicine. She also practices at the University of Maryland Capital Regional Health System in Maryland. Dr. Sharleen is a Fellow of the American Hair Research Society and you can follow her on Instagram as DermHairDoc.

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