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What Causes Swimmer's Hair?

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Chemicals in a swimming pool strip hair of its natural protection, making it susceptible to damage.

Chemicals in a swimming pool strip hair of its natural protection, making it susceptible to damage.

Jennifer Boggs, Getty Images
Question: What Causes Swimmer's Hair?
Swimming in a pool is great for your body, but hard on your hair! If you swim a lot and your hair has become dry and damaged, you may have a case of swimmer's hair. Here's a look at the causes of swimmer's hair and what you can do to prevent or treat it.
Answer: It may seem strange that exposure to water could make your hair dry and damaged, but it isn't actually the water that causes the problem. Pool chemicals, especially chlorine and bromine, react with the sebum and oils that protect your hair, leaving the hair's cuticle exposed. This allows other chemicals to react with your hair, such as copper compounds, which can give your hair a greenish tint. Your hair also becomes more susceptible to damage from the sun's ultraviolet rays. The ultraviolet radiation breaks the bonds in keratin, the protein that makes up hair, causing roughness and split ends. Pigment molecules also succumb to pool chemicals and the sun, so even if your hair doesn't turn green, it can become lighter or faded.

Preventing Swimmer's Hair

The best way to prevent swimmer's hair is to keep the pool water from soaking into your hair. A swim cap will work for this. Limiting your hair's exposure also helps. You won't see much damage from the occasional dip in the pool, nor will you get damaged hair if you don't get your hair wet.

You can undo some damage and prevent further problems by showering after exiting the pool. It's best if you shampoo your hair, but even a quick rinse in fresh water will help remove the pool chemicals. Follow up with a conditioner to seal your hair's cuticle and replenish its protective coating.

Is Your Hair Damaged?

Healthy hair is less susceptible to swimmer's hair than hair that already has damage. If you have colored, permed or heat-treated hair, your hair is at greater risk for dryness and color loss from swimming than it would be if you had untreated hair. If you swim a lot, try to minimize hair processing and keep up your cut so that chlorine won't get in through split ends.

A Word About Special Shampoos

You can purchase a special shampoo made just for swimmers. These products typically contain ingredients that will chelate copper and other metals so that they won't discolor your hair. The shampoo may leave a waxy coating on your hair, which is intended to prevent it from soaking up pool water. You may wish to alternate this shampoo with a clarifying shampoo, to prevent build-up which can weigh your hair down and dull its shine. Another option is to use a regular shampoo and follow-up with a leave-in conditioner. A conditioner that contains a UV-filter is a nice choice because it will confer protection from both the sun and the pool.

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