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Pool Chlorine: Why and How It Harms Skin—and What You Can Do About It

Posted by Blue Haven Pools & Spas on Sep 6, 2016 9:49:39 AM

Ways to minimize chlorine’s impact on your body and other smart solutions


Although chlorine is highly effective for disinfecting swimming pool water, it comes with a price: This chemical can be harsh on your eyes, hair, skin, nails, and even your lungs.

Depending on your age, certain skin conditions, the amount of time you spend in the water, and how well the pool chemicals are balanced, chlorine’s effects can be particularly irritating or downright harmful to your skin.

Sanitizing needs: Contaminants in your pool water

Available in tablet, liquid, and powder forms, chlorine is widely used in backyard and public swimming pools.

It plays two key roles: It serves as a sanitizer to kill most unwanted microbes and as an oxidizer to combine with and remove organic matter. It inhibits algae growth as well.

Organic matter ranges from falling leaves to body wastes such as sweat, oils, and yes—urine and fecal matter. Left unchecked, they can pose threats. They may be loaded with contaminants like germs, bacteria, viruses, and other unwanted microbes that cause water-borne illnesses and infections.

They must be destroyed. That’s where chlorine saves the day. The chemical effectively annihilates most forms of disease-causing microorganisms and maintains swim-ready pool water.

Chlorination 101: The aggravating truth

While chlorine is a decades-old disinfection success story, the chemical process that delivers such great results has an ugly downside: Harsh byproducts.

Let’s look at the basics of what these caustic byproducts are and how they come to exist.

When chlorine comes in contact with water, it forms hypochlorous acid. In the chlorination process, hypochlorous acid breaks down the cells of various pathogens to stop them in their tracks.

That’s what we want to happen. But here’s the bad news. Like a black widow spider that kills and eats her prey, hypochlorous acid combines with the various compounds it has destroyed. Among them: ammonia, which comes from urine and perspiration in the pool. That merging of substances results in nasty spinoffs called chloramines.

Chloramines are the villains in any swimming pool. Along with smelling awful, they reduce the potency of remaining free chlorine—hindering its ability to disinfect. That makes it easier for pathogens to survive and spread illnesses to anyone in the pool.

Chloramines cause a host of other problems for swimmers. The aggravation they bring to various body parts includes wreaking havoc on skin. Let’s look at some ways that chlorine and its byproducts can take a toll on your body’s vital outer layer.

Dry skin from prolonged contact

Hypochlorous acid, which forms when chlorine comes in contact with water, can be a natural irritant to swimmers. The more time spent in the water, the greater the odds for irritation.

Chlorinated water actually opens up pores, and since hypochlorous acid is inherently corrosive, it can strip away some of the natural oils and sebum in your skin that help keep it moist. At one time or another, you have probably experienced the results: Dry, itchy, sensitive skin.

Even after exiting the pool, chlorine can remain on your body, leeching precious moisture. A sunny day makes it worse; ultraviolet rays from direct sun increase dryness and irritation.

Chlorine’s drying effect may even contribute to premature aging. Some people believe that regular swims in chlorinated, chloramine-filled water can hasten the formation of wrinkles.

Rash (Irritant contact dermatitis)

Depending on the amount of chlorine and body waste is in the water, chloramine levels can be particularly high. They can adhere to your wet skin or swimsuit while you’re in the pool. If chloramines attach to your skin, they can produce irritant contact dermatitis.

That’s a medical term for a very uncomfortable, red, itchy rash or inflammation. It may even progress into blisters, a burning sensation, or a case of hives. The more chlorine that comes into contact with your skin, the worse a case of contact dermatitis may become.

Chemical burns and ulcerations

Who’s in charge of your pool’s maintenance and adding chemicals? If it’s a family member, they face added risks. You may be directly exposed to chlorine when adding it to your pool by tablet, liquid, or powder—a form called calcium hypochlorite.

When calcium hypochlorite comes into contact with skin, it’s highly corrosive, and its oxidizing nature can cause significant tissue damage! Depending on the length of contact with the chemical, you or a family member could end up with painful chemical burns or skin ulcerations.

Rashes or burns from chlorine gas

If you have an indoor pool or an enclosed spa with poor air circulation, take special caution. Chlorine byproducts can off-gas—floating up out from the water and hovering above the pool surface. With poor ventilation, this gas can build up.

If it does, and your skin comes into contact with the chlorine gas, you can develop hives, rashes, or blisters. A high amount of these toxic vapors can even cause skin cells to die because they struggle to regenerate due to the chlorine's corrosive properties. Burns may also occur from prolonged exposure to chlorine gas.

Exacerbation of existing skin conditions

Those with pre-existing skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or dermatitis, may face greater ill effects from chlorinated pools. Skin is already hypersensitive, and a harsh chemical can take a current condition to a whole new level of misery.

In the United States, more than 30 million people have eczema or atopic dermatitis, including children. Individuals with these skin conditions, as well as others, may encounter increases in pain, rashes, dry skin, redness, itchy skin, or psoriasis scaling from exposure to pool chlorine.

With hypochlorous acid’s parching effects on skin, problems become further inflamed. Worse, if the acid damages cell structures, it can be difficult for the skin to heal properly.

Cut chlorine impact on your skin

If you or your family members swim in a pool that relies on traditional chlorine to maintain cleanliness, then it’s important to find ways to cope with the chemicals’ consequences to your skin—and reduce them where possible. Here are some tips to lower the risks and hassles like smelly skin:

  • Don’t add fuel to the fire: Treat sensitized skin with extra care. If your skin is recovering from a sunburn, if it’s particularly dry or flaky, or if you have a chronic condition that’s flaring up, avoid swimming in chlorinated water.

  • Get some Vitamin C: To neutralize chlorine and chloramines clinging to your body after a dip in the pool, use Vitamin C directly on your skin (and hair). Make a spray mix of pure water and a form of the supplement such as rosehips, Ascorbic Acid, or Sodium Ascorbate. Some versions include apple cider vinegar in the mix as well. Check here to learn how.

  • Remove chlorine residue: Once you exit the pool, immediately take a shower. Make sure you use soap to help wash off chlorine and other chemicals that might still be clinging to your skin or swimsuit.

  • Trap in moisture: After you rinse, use a rich moisturizer on your body to help prevent skin from drying out and becoming irritated. Use a separate product specially formulated for your face.

  • Maintain balance: Be sure to regularly monitor and adjust your swimming pool chemical levels—especially the pH, free chlorine, calcium hardness, and total alkalinity.

    When pool chemistry is out of whack, there are repercussions. The water may have an unnecessary oversupply of chlorine. It may require the addition of more harsh chemicals to bring it into balance. Or, the water can end up with high acid or alkaline levels that amp up irritating effects on the skin.

  • Remember your scalp and hair: Don’t forget about protecting the skin on your head, as well as your hair. See our post on how to protect your hair from chlorine exposure.

  • Get a pool boy: Reduce chances for direct exposure to chlorine in its pure, concentrated form. Hire a pool service, and let someone else handle the routine of buying, storing, and handling calcium hypochlorite—chlorine in liquid, powder, or tablet form.

Another precaution: Avoid chloramine-laden pools. If you’re near the water, and you catch a whiff of a bleach-like odor, it’s likely from those menacing chlorine byproducts. Do your skin a favor: stay out of the water.

How to avoid chlorine pitfalls in the first place

If your swimming pool depends on off-the-shelf chlorine, make a change. The single biggest way to prevent chlorine hazards to your skin—and other body parts—is to minimize exposure to it. Do so by converting your old-school pool to a modern, healthier sanitizing system. You have several superb options for doing so.

Saltwater Pools:

With a saltwater system, chloramines can still form—especially when many swimmers use the pool. A saltwater pool may not be the perfect solution; however, compared to a conventionally chlorinated pool, the even, continual dispersion of the produced chlorine gives rise to fewer chloramines overall. The result is reduced worries over bothersome chloramines stirring up unwanted dermatological issues.

UV Sanitizer:

An even better alternative is an ultraviolet pool sanitizer. Germicidal light is used in an array of applications, from pasteurizing food to sterilizing medical equipment. In a pool, UV allows you to slash the amount of needed chlorine.

UV rays disinfect water and destroy algae, bacteria, and viruses. The light even wipes out chlorine-resistant microbes like Giardia, Cylcospora, and Cryptosporidium (“Crypto”). Water gets treated inside a chamber in the pool equipment and swimmers are never exposed to the rays.

Ozone Generator:

Finally, you can make your water sparkle and feel silky soft with ozone. Ozone is a go-to technology for helping purify drinking water in major U.S. cities and by many brands of bottled water.

Along with a small of amount of traditional chlorine, pools at health spas, the Olympics, and in thousands of backyards across the country depend on safe, powerful ozone for a swim-ready environment. Ozone destroys organic matter, except it’s 3,000 times faster than chlorine and handles its job without any noxious side effects.

Tip: You achieve even better results for superior disinfection by combining both UV and ozone systems in your pool.

The Takeaway

Everyone wants to keep their skin in good condition. Now that you better understand the woes chlorine can pose, you can take precautions. If you have no choice but to swim in a traditionally chlorinated pool, use the methods described here to help limit potential harm.

Above all, consider breaking up with your current chlorine routine. Instead of calling a dermatologist, call a pool specialist to convert your pool to a smarter purification system. If you have a chronic skin condition, adopting a new pool disinfection method is particularly important.

Whether you turn to a saltwater sanitizer, ozone generator, or ultraviolet light, your whole family will benefit. Everyone will enjoy pristine water, a more comfortable swimming environment, and healthier skin.

Topics: Equipment/Technology, Purification, Health & Safety, Maintenance


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