Monday, 26 August 2019

Hair and Chlorine

Mr Igor and I are going to Högevallsbadet this weekend. It's a small and mildly unimpressive water park in Lund, but it's nearby and it's a good way to spend some hours with hubby for a date day.

It has "relaxing evenings" during the winter months, which I think sounded so interesting I have booked our tickets for a date in October already. It sounds like a good way to take advantage of the dark winter months: Being warm and cozy indoors in a water park where they dim the lights and have lots of candles out. There are also different "events" during the evening, something with essential oils and sauna stuff. They have it every month in the winter half of the year, and it if turns out we enjoy it in October, we will probably want to go again.

But this left me with the question: Wasn't there something about hair and chlorine?

I can only think back to going in a pool one single time the last decade or so, which was on Tenerife last year. I do however have the memory of how much the chlorine in the pool wrecked my skin when I had swim classes as a child. Which I did in this classy swim hall from 1926 right here:

I grew up near some pretty good beaches and my parents own a boat, so I'm a total, unapologetic snob when it comes to where I swim. I only went to said pool because that was where the classes were, and I will forever scoff at Mr Igors bizarre idea that it's fine to swim in a lake. This is something I have only degraded myself to in landlocked Switzerland on really hot days.
No, swimming takes place at a proper saltwater beach with warm and fine sand between your toes. Preferably in the archipelago south of the island where I grew up, so you can just anchor the boat up by one of the little uninhibited islets and have the entire beach to yourself: No screaming children, no broken glass in the sand, no dog shit. Just the entire little islet to yourself.
This is the only proper way to spend a day at the beach. Fight me. I will die on this hill.

Anyways. Hair and chlorine.

If you can’t get to a decent beach and you have to swim in a pool, chlorine in the water is actually a good thing. Chlorine is a disinfectant that kills bacteria in water, such as E. Coli. and Cryptosporidium which can make you very, very sick with diarrhea, Pseudomonas which causes rashes and swimmer's ear, and Legionella, which causes Legionnaire’s disease and Pontiac fever. Basically, chlorine kills all the nasty you get when a bunch of people of unknown hygiene splashes around in pleasantly warm water.

But chlorine comes with a price for your hair and skin.

Just as chlorine is good for killing bad bacteria, it indiscriminately kills the good as well. That means killing the benign bacteria that keeps malign bacteria from colonizing the acid mantle. The skin has something like a thousand different bacteria strains living peacefully on it, and even with names like Staphylococcus epidermidis and Streptococcus pyogenes, those are the good guys. You want to nurture and protect them so they don't die and leave living room for the bad guys.

Chlorine also does a good job of breaking down dirt and oil, which means it will destroy the sebum and the polyunsaturated fatty acids that the good bacteria need for maintaining the right pH for them to thrive. Stripping oils from scalp, skin and hair causes dryness to the skin and hair, which increases the risk of damage. It can also provoke dandruff. Removing the oils from your hair will cause a loss of flexibility in the strands and increase hairs natural porosity. Increased porosity in chlorine water is a bad circle, where the hair can absorb more chlorinated water which again cause more porosity. If your hair is already dry or damaged from perms or dyes, it can increase the damage from chlorine even more. 

Bleached or highlighted hair is also more at risk for turning green. The infamous greenish tint is actually caused by oxidized copper in the poolwater which binds to the proteins in hair. Just like that pretty, turquoise tone on copper we see on some buildings and statues.

If you wear contact lenses like me, chlorinated water absorbs into your contact lenses which can irritate the surface of your corneas. I'm going to bring extra lenses so I can discard mine after swimming. Maybe I will even invest in a pair of swim goggles if the water park becomes a place we will visit more frequently.

How to prevent chlorine damage?
Since the problem with chlorine comes from absorbing it into hair, the first step is to make sure your hair is completely soaked through with unchlorinated water before getting in the pool. Rinse, rinse and rinse. Give your hair time to absorb it. You can also take breaks during swimming to take a quick rinse in tapwater.

To further block the absorption of the chlorinated water, a swim cap is the way to go. It will keep your hair nice and compressed and decrease the flow of chlorinated water into the tapwater soaked hair. Silicone swim caps are the way to go because they are flexible, hair friendly and bacteria can’t grow on clean silicone.

A quick google search found a ton of specialised, chlorine-combating products. Often expensive. And often without a listed ingredient list. I’m deeply skeptic of any product like that, especially if they don’t list the ingredients. I'll save my money.

Even though leave in products will eventually be broken down by the chlorine and washed away by the flow of water, they can slow down the process of chlorine absorbing. Amodimethicone is not water soluble and is known for causing build up, but in this case it’s a good thing and might prevent silicone absorption. Quaterniums bind to microscopic damaged areas of the hair to protect them and some of them are known for building up: Polyquaternium 10 and 11 especially. Again, this is normally something to avoid in large doses, but before swimming in a pool it could be a good idea to load up on amodimethicone and quaterniums.

And of course there are oils. Oils will naturally repel water and keep water from absorbing into the hair.

“Repairing” chlorine damage
Yes, I know. You can’t repair damaged hair. But still…

First step out of the pool is to rinse. Rinse, rinse and rinse. Get as much of the chlorine out before anything else.

Just as the chlorine damage-preventing the products mentioned before, I found lots and lots of specialised, chlorine-damage repairing products. Again: Often expensive. And often without a listed ingredient list. I would not spend money on those.

If anything, I would go for a weak apple cider vinegar rinse to remove build up from chlorine and poolwater residue. Or go for a shampoo I know and trust. Basically not Head and shoulders and not something that promises too much, doesn't want to show the ingredient list and is too expensive.

A deep conditioner would be a good idea afterwards too. Get something with protein in it to replace the broken protein molecules in your hair. Look for cetearyl alcohol, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, panthenol, propylene glycol, sodium PCA, sodium lactate and sorbitol for moisturizing ingredients. Niacinamide aka vitamin B3 is a very effective skin-restoring ingredient against ageing and environmental stress.

(Pool's closed by Internet historian)


  1. I used to be a professional swimmer for eons and went to the pool for training at least three times a week. My hair actually was never bothered all that much by the chlorine, but then I also went to a "pro pool", these are usually using less chlorine than the strictly commercial ones. And of course I wore a silicone cap.
    When I started growing out my hair in earnest I usually oiled my hair lightly and then braided it really tightly before putting it into a tight bun under the cap. That way, even after an intense training session a good chunk of my hair was actually still dry. A good shower with shampoo and a richer conditioner took care of the rest for me. Skin was always much harder for me to please, I always broke out like crazy from the chlorine.

  2. Loved this blog post...interesting and educational...Lady Igor always a superb writer...have fun when you do this also! ♥

  3. I did a lot of research on this as many of the farms I travel to have pools. Since I now color my hair with permanent color, I am very careful not to go under water, but that does take the fun out of it. Sadly, in my area this time of year, our lakes are almost all polluted. And oddly enough, from bird poop. Go figure. They have water quality available online, but our lakes are so small, the bacteria multiplies quickly and the very hot days don't help. No one in their right mind would swim in Lake Ontario--you might come out missing a limb--it's that polluted.

    So, pools are what we use, and many people are switching over to salt water pools instead of chlorinated. But, only a few so far.

    From what I read, like you wrote, soaking your hair in water first (unchlorinated) and really get it saturated is the best way to go. I also read articles that said a braid would help keep the water in your hair (the none chlorinated) There are conditioners with lots of silicones you can use, or just use oils, but oils sadly can leave a tell-tale slick in the water. You can also use a conditioner, but again, being in the water for a full day at something like a water park, I think it may just rinse out.

    I think you've nailed the things I read about and I hope you have loads of fun---though reading about the places you swam when you grew up made me miss our cottage in New Hampshire! Its a little island in the lake there and we had a beach like you described, where we would go and swim, with soft sand and pure water. Even that lake is sadly polluted (boats and resorters who have zero respect of NOT throwing beer cans in the water :/ )