Ready for the pool? Here’s how to stop chlorine damaging your hair – Sydney Morning Herald

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As a nation known for our love of the water – whether it’s laps, lessons or summers spent poolside – swimming is part and parcel of living in Australia.
In fact, according to research from AusPlay, swimming is one of Australia’s leading sports, with more than three million Aussies doing it regularly during 2022.
Chlorine can easily damage all shades and types of hair.Credit: iStock
But while swimming is known for its wide range of health and well-being benefits, including building muscle strength and reducing stress, one area that it can wreak havoc on is hair and scalp health.
“Chlorine is very much an alkaline product, and it really strips the sebum and the natural oils of the skin, the hair and the scalp,” says Dr Li-Chuen Wong, head of dermatology at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and Senior Clinical Lecturer at the University of Sydney.
This damage, colloquially known as “swimmer’s hair”, varies but due to its accumulative nature, experts say the greater the exposure, the higher the risk of damage.
“Hair damage is most common among people who frequently swim in chlorinated pools,” says Lauren Drane, salon director at The Society of Hair.
“We also see a lot of people return from holiday with chlorine damage, due to using over-chlorinated hotel pools and spas.”
Because chlorine is an irritant, the chemical can also damage the scalp’s moisture barrier and lead to scalp irritation, dryness and redness.
While this can happen to anyone, Dr Leona Yip, a consultant dermatologist and alopecia specialist from Brisbane’s Skin Partners, says people who have scalp eczema, psoriasis or sensitive scalps may suffer more severely, and experience flares of these conditions with regular swimming pool chlorine exposure.
The good news is that most hair and scalp issues can be prevented by utilising simple measures, including the use of a well-fitting swim cap or tying your hair into a tight bun, which minimises contact with the chlorine, says Wong.
Pre-rinsing or -wetting hair with regular tap or shower water before entering the pool is also recommended, as it can act as a barrier and lessen the capacity to absorb chlorinated water. Doing this again post-swim is also advisable if you can’t wash it with a gentle shampoo and conditioner straight away.
“It is important to avoid hot water or prolonged washes that can damage the scalp moisture barrier further. Use tepid water and keep showers short,” Yip says.
And once you’ve washed your hair, Yip advises avoiding brushing your hair until it’s dry, as wet hair tangles easily and can cause further damage.
”Use your fingers instead of a brush to gently detangle when wet; towel dab or squeeze hair dry instead of rubbing it on the towel to reduce breakage; and let hair dry completely before tying it into a ponytail or bun to avoid moisture retention on the scalp that can aggravate dandruff or dermatitis,” she says.
Some of the signs of chlorine-damaged hair include split ends, brittle hair, frizz or hair that easily breaks. “The hair starts to feel like it has a coating on it like synthetic hair and becomes more tangled and drier,” says Drane.
Chemical reactions with chlorine can also change or bleach hair colour, even natural, non-dyed hair, says Yip.
“Some swimmers may find their hair looking green after coming out of a chlorinated pool, as chlorine oxidises copper metal in the pool that coats hair whilst swimming. This is not harmful and can be washed off after swimming,” she says.
Professional hair treatments including hair dye and hair extensions, especially those applied with tape, can also react adversely to chlorine.
“Having colour-treated hair does weaken the hair structure, making the hair more porous,” says Drane.
If your hair and scalp are showing signs of chlorine damage, there’s no need to stop swimming. Instead, Yip recommends using a leave-in moisturiser or deep conditioning mask that has plant-based oils as the active ingredients, including coconut oil, argan oil and shea butter.
“These are hypoallergenic and have a low risk of irritancy,” she says.
They can also double as a protective barrier – similar to wetting your hair with tap water – if applied before swimming, says Drane.
And if you’re experiencing any symptoms of scalp irritation or redness that do not settle within a few days, Yip says to seek professional help from your GP, as prescription anti-inflammatory treatments may be needed.
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