Many people mistakenly assume that swimmers wear swim caps to keep their hair dry. There is some truth to that – swim caps can protect one’s hair and scalp from chlorine’s harmful effects by limiting exposure, but that is not its true purpose.
Swim caps were originally worn by competitive swimmers because swim caps keep their hair packed down, streamline their head shape, and ultimately reduce underwater drag. This helps swimmers swim faster than if they didn’t wear a swim cap. In other words, the swim cap’s purpose is to improve swimming speed above all else.
With that said, swimming gear is versatile, and for the swim cap that means that it also provides many other side benefits that some find more important than reducing drag. For instance, it can keep hair from clogging the pool filters, keep hair semi-dry, protect hair and scalp from UV rays and chlorine, increase visibility in the water, insulate the head, and keep water from entering one’s ears.
Despite being originally worn for a very specific purpose, now swim caps are worn by all types of swimmers for their various benefits, not just by competitive swimmers to improve their speed. In this article, we will discuss each benefit in more detail to help you understand why swim caps are a crucial item in a swimmer’s swim bag.
Reasons why you should wear a swim cap
Reduces underwater drag
If I had to pick which one of the swim cap’s many benefits is a worthy answer to the question “what is a swimming cap’s purpose”, it’s that it reduces underwater drag. Looking at the table of contents for this article, you might have seen a sneek peak of the various benefits a swim cap provides, all of which are good, but decreasing drag is chief among them.
Ask a competitive swimmer why they wear a swim cap. Every single one of them will, without hesitation, say that it makes them swim faster by reducing underwater drag. They won’t have to mull over the swim cap’s other benefits – they are all irrelevant in a competition where speed is king.
To put it simply, drag is the resistance you experience underwater as you are trying to maneuver your body through it. We know that having our hair exposed increases underwater drag because free-flowing hair increases surface area that the water resistance can act on.
Therefore, when it comes to reducing drag, you must keep your hair packed tightly and covered up so that you can swim with minimal impediment.
We call this streamlining – getting rid of any excess surface area that can slow us down while swimming. That’s why swimmers also shave most of their exposed body hair (eyebrows exempted) and wear form-fitting swimsuits.
These are all the principles of reducing drag at play, and wearing a swim cap is a necessary step because that is where the greatest source of hair is located. Again, if there was literally only one reason to wear a swim cap, it’s to reduce drag.
Keeps the pool clean
Take a close look at your bathroom floor, especially if you have long hair. Unless you’re regularly cleaning it, expect to see strands of hair strewn everywhere. We are constantly shedding our hair. It’s estimated that we shed 50-100 strands of hair every day on average.
When you are at a pool, where do you think those strands of hair go? And if one person is capable of shedding this much hair, how about a hundred or more? There would be clumps of hair just floating along the surface and you could get a mouthful of hair each time you tried to take a breath, except thankfully the pool filter catches the hair and removes it from circulation.
That said, the pool filter can only collect a finite amount before it clogs. Pool staff are constantly working to get rid of all the debris caught in the filter, but you can do them a favor and not be a contributor to this mess.
If you’re wearing a swim cap, all the hair you shed will be collected in the swim cap. It looks scary at first; many people have this misconception that the swim cap pulled out large clumps of their hair. But nope, you just didn’t realize how much hair you naturally shed, and a swim cap ensures the pool is at least kept free of that much hair.
Keeps your scalp and hair healthy
Chlorine is known to dry hair out and irritate the skin. Frequent exposure to it can cause your hair to become brittle like straw, and for red patches to occur on your skin if you have a bad reaction to the chemical.
While a swim cap isn’t able to keep your hair or scalp completely dry (at least, not without some help), it can drastically limit how much water your hair and scalp is exposed to. This can cause a reduction in the symptoms that chlorine causes and can keep your hair and scalp healthier.
Keeps hair out of the way
One practical benefit of a swim cap if you have long hair is that it keeps your hair out of your way. It also keeps it from catching on the lane ropes and prevents others from accidentally pulling on your hair.
This way, you can swim in peace knowing that your hair is not going to be painfully pulled out nor will it block your vision again.
When you’re swimming outdoors, you need to be highly visible. This helps others see you in the water so that you don’t end up on a collision course. If you end up colliding with a boat, canoe, or kayak, it would end disastrously for you and not so much for the other party.
Another benefit of being more visible is in case you need to be rescued. Search and rescue parties can more easily find you if you are wearing a bright and reflective swim cap. Conversely, if you’re wearing a blue swim cap, you could easily blend in with the water and decrease your safety.
Keeps your head warm
Depending on the swim cap material, particularly silicone and neoprene, a swim cap can keep your head warm. This is beneficial if you’re swimming outdoors and want to keep your head warm. Of course, you’d also need to wear it with a thick wetsuit to retain your body heat, but a swim cap is how your head is protected.
That said, be careful about wearing a neoprene cap when swimming indoors. You may end up insulating too much heat that you overheat which is a problem as well.
Keeps your ears dry
Not everyone wears their swim cap over their ears; some prefer to keep their ears out in the open, others like to partially cover their ears. If you want some extra protection, you can wear it over your ears and in addition to swimming ear plugs.
Are swim caps mandatory?
You may not have realized just how beneficial it is to wear a swim cap prior to reading this article; it almost sounds ridiculous, as if I am overselling a piece of fabric. But the truth is, it really is that useful, which begs the question: should all swimmers be required to wear swim caps?
The answer, of course, is no, swim caps are not a mandatory requirement. While pool staff would prefer it if all of their guests wore swim caps so that there is less hair clogging the pool filter, ultimately you don’t have to (that said, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the pool dress code to make sure you aren’t wearing something you shouldn’t).
If you’ve gone to a public pool or the beach recently, the majority of the people aren’t wearing a swim cap. Perhaps they should for practical benefits like warmth and visibility, but there’s no rule saying they have to. No one is going to give you the stink eye because you’re not wearing a swim cap.
That said, swim caps are mostly worn out of necessity rather than any other reason. When the time comes, you won’t feel like someone is strong-arming you to wear a swim cap; you’ll want to wear a swim cap depending on factors like your hair length, scalp sensitivity, or a desire to feel like you’re effortlessly gliding through the water.
If you care about safety and performance in the water, it is an eventuality that you’ll wear a swim cap for its primary purpose: to reduce drag. If you’re a casual swimmer who only occasionally goes swimming, you might wear it for another purpose, then again you might not swim enough to bother wearing a swim cap ever.