Does chlorine damage hair?

Swimming is great exercise, but frequent exposure to pool chemicals takes its toll on your hair.  

Exposure to chlorinated water isn’t great for our eyes, skin and hair, causing irritation and dryness. But chlorine is highly effective, at fairly low concentrations, for keeping pool water free from harmful pathogens.

How chlorine affects hair
Short, occasional swims in chlorinated water shouldn’t affect your hair much, but frequent exposure can result in damage. The chlorine strips away the natural oils, leaving hair porous and brittle. Sometimes called “swimmers’ hair”, it becomes noticeably dry and coarse.

Swimmers aren’t more likely than anyone else to experience hair loss, however. There’s some evidence to suggest that in cases of extremely high exposure to chlorine, the scalp may become dry and flaky, with consequent hair thinning or shedding – but this is with chemical levels far exceeding those in a normal pool.

Hair colour changes from swimming-pool water
The greenish tint that sometimes appears in swimmers’ hair (mainly in blonde hair) isn’t primarily due to the chlorine in pool water.

This discoloration is in fact caused by oxidised metals in the water, although hair colour treatments and chlorine might exacerbate the process. Because both chlorine exposure and certain hair treatments can cause hair to become brittle and porous, it can more easily absorb the other chemicals that cause discoloration.

Hair protection tips for swimmers
• Rinse your hair with fresh water, and condition it, before swimming – this hydrates the hair, which helps prevent further absorption of chlorinated water once you get into the pool.
• Wear a snugly-fitting swim cap.
• Rinse, wash and condition your hair as soon as possible after swimming to get rid of pool chemicals and to replace lost natural oils and moisture. Ask your hairdresser or pharmacist about hair products that are specially formulated to protect swimmers’ hair.
• Add some variation to your swim exercise routine in summer by skipping chlorinated water occasionally. Go for a dip in nature instead – a cool mountain pool or the invigorating ocean waves.  
• Pools sterilised by alternative methods, such as salt or ozone cleaning systems, are becoming increasingly popular, too, so look out for them at gyms and spas in your area. If you’re fortunate enough to have your own pool, you may want to consider these disinfection options – or use plants to filter the water, creating a “natural pool” or “swimming pond”.

(Health24, January 2014)

- American Academy of Dermatology. “Tips for healthy hair”.
- Hair Transplant Institute. “Can Chlorine Cause Hair Loss?”

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