While chlorine is an effective option for disinfecting swimming pool water, it’s not without its challenges. In fact, chlorine can be harmful to your eyes, hair, nails, lungs, and yes, even your skin. Not only that, but depending on your age, existing skin condition, and several other factors including the balance of chemicals in the water, chlorine can be anything from irritating to extremely harmful to your skin.
The Purpose of Chlorine
Chlorine is a chemical widely used in personal and public swimming pools. Available in the form of tablets, liquid, and powder, chlorine is widely available and serves its primary purpose well.
The chemical sanitizes water in two key ways. It clarifies the water and kills the majority of the unwanted microbes that may be present in the water. And it oxidizes the pool to attach to and eliminate organic matter in the water. Chlorine also effectively inhibits the growth of algae.
This organic matter can include anything from fallen leaves to bodily wastes, including sweat, oil, and even urine or feces. If untreated, the water in a pool collects this matter and can cause significant issues. Organic material often carries germs, bacteria, and viruses that can cause water-borne infection and illness.
Chlorine effectively eliminates those contaminants. It attacks the disease-causing microorganisms that may be hanging out in the water and prepares a pool for swimming. However, that is not all the chemical does.
The Irritating Truth
Chlorine may be a long-standing disinfection success story, but the reality is that the very process that delivers such good results has an irritating downside: byproducts that are harmful to the skin (and the rest of your body).
When chlorine contacts water, a reaction occurs that forms hypochlorous acid. During this process of chlorination, the hypochlorous acid breaks down the cellular components of pathogens to eliminate them.
That process is what is supposed to happen when a pool is treated with chlorine. However, it doesn’t stop there. Once it’s broken down these compounds, the hypochlorous acid combines with them forming what are known as chloramines.
Chloramines not only smell awful, but they also reduce the potency of the free chlorine remaining in the pool, which in turn, hinders the chlorines ability to further disinfect the water. This reaction makes it easier for pathogens to survive in the pool and contaminate any swimmers.
In addition to potentially causing illness, chloramines are also among the components that cause harm and irritation to the skin. But they aren’t the only issue.
The Other Effects of Chlorine on the Skin
Chlorine itself as well as its byproducts can have a dramatic impact on the outer layer of your skin. Some of the most common issues associated with chlorine exposure include:
- Dry Skin – The acid formed when chlorine contacts water is a natural irritant to the skin. The more time spent in contact with it, the more irritating it can be. Add to that the fact that chlorinated water opens the pores, hypochlorous acid in essence strips the natural oils from the skin, causing dry, itchy, and irritated skin. This drying effect may even be a contributing factor to premature aging.
- Rash – Considered irritant contact dermatitis, the rash commonly contracted with chlorine exposure is the chloramines present in the pool attaching to the skin after long periods of exposure. The risk is greater depending on the amount of chlorine as well as body waste present in the water; nonetheless, exposure may lead to a red, uncomfortable rash as well as inflammation that can progress to blister or hives.
- Burns – Chlorine burns are also a potential hazard of exposure to a chlorinated pool or hot tub. This concern is more an issue of poor ventilation that causes gas build up; however, if your skin does come into contact with the byproducts or off-gas of pool chlorine, you can sustain burns, blisters, and hives.
- Exacerbated Conditions – If you already have hypersensitive skin from a pre-existing condition such as psoriasis, eczema, or dermatitis, chlorine exposure will likely make it worse. The hypochloric acid present in chlorinated water causes further inflammation of the skin, which can lead to an increase of pain, dryness, redness, itchiness, scaling, or rashing already present in the skin.
The Best Way to Limit Chlorine Irritation
While avoiding chlorinated pools and hot tubs is the easiest preventative measure in theory, it may not be quite as easy in practice if you generally rely on a traditionally chlorinated facility. If that’s the case, there are still a number of things you can do to limit chlorine irritation, including:
- Applying vitamin C to your skin after exposure to chlorinated water to neutralize chlorine and chloramines on the skin.
- Showering immediately after swimming to remove any chlorine residue.
- Moisturizing your skin after you rinse to prevent irritation.
- Monitoring chemical balance regularly and adjusting pool chemicals as needed to reduce chloramines and other irritants.
If you own a private pool or hot tub, there are alternative pool chemicals. These include bromine, ionizers, and ozonators. They still require chlorine, but much less. Another alternative is PHMB, which does not require any chlorine. However, these solutions tend to cost more than chlorine. But your health may be worth it. Consult with a pool and spa professional for your best option.
While chlorine is an effective sanitizing solution, it is not without its downfalls. If at all possible, it is advisable to avoid chlorine; however, at the very least, you should be aware of the risks and do your best to limit irritation if exposed. If you ever have a question about medical skin care, be sure to talk to a board-certified dermatologist.
Recently edited. Originally published March 13, 2018.