Summertime means it’s time to head to the pool to escape the heat, but unfortunately you might be running from one problem into another. Swimming pools are full of chlorine, and they are notorious for drying your skin out and damaging your hair, among other problems. Prolonged exposure can even lighten or bleach your hair!
While chlorine can bleach hair, it doesn’t do so as quickly or dramatically as hair bleach does. Chlorine can lighten your hair pigment and this is more noticeable the more your hair is exposed to chlorine. Hair containing product or dye can be completely stripped off or discolored by swimming in the pool.
Even though chlorine causes a plethora of side effects, in this article we will only focus on how it affects your hair. Keep reading to learn how you can protect your hair from its bleaching and damaging effects so that you can swim with peace of mind.
Does chlorine bleach or lighten hair?
Chlorine has a similar effect on your hair as bleach does, and it’s because chlorine is the active ingredient in bleach.
When your hair is exposed to chlorine, the melanin in your hair will react to this chemical, causing your hair strands to lighten in pigment.
In effect, chlorine can lighten your hair over time, but this would require prolonged exposure. Most pool-goers notice no bleaching effect on their hair, however someone swimming every single day for hours may eventually notice it.
If you already have bleached hair or light-colored hair, chlorine can cause your hair to turn green. If you’ve dyed your hair recently and haven’t waited long enough for the dye to set in, chlorine can discolor the dye as well as prevent it from setting in.
What else does chlorine do to your hair?
Dry and weaken hair strands
Aside from discoloring your hair and bathing suit, chlorine is actually more notorious for drying out and weakening hair strands. People who spend their entire summer in the pool tend to have dry, brittle hair that seems to have lost its luster.
Human hair is made of predominantly keratin, a type of protein, and is coated in sebum, which is oil that hair and skin naturally produces. This oil keeps hair and skin moisturized and ultimately protects skin and hair from drying out.
However, chlorine bonds with sebum and strips it off your hair and skin, leaving them exposed to the dry air. Very quickly you will find that your skin and hair are struggling to retain moisture, eventually drying out and becoming brittle.
This loss of elasticity in your hair will result in breakage and split ends.
Changes hair strand structure
Chlorine can affect the molecules in the hair, turning some of the keratin protein bonds water-soluble. This results in thin, weakened hair strands.
Hair that has been subjected to chemical treatments such as perming are more likely to absorb more chlorine since the hair is already porous.
Makes hair look dull and faded
Chlorine can suck pigment out of hair, leaving it looking dull and faded. The degree to which this can happen depends on the state of the hair prior to long-term exposure to chlorine.
If you’ve spent the summer at the pool, the first thing you’ll notice about your hair is that it’s lost its shine. Your hair can become lighter in color, but it can also just take on a duller color.
If you have dyed hair, the chlorine can react with the chemicals already in your hair, causing discoloration or damaging your hair.
How long does it take for chlorine to bleach hair?
Are you worried that taking a dip in the pool is going to change your hair color? That only happens if you’ve been spending weeks or months where you spend hours each day in a chlorinated pool.
However, I had a friend who had his hair turn blond in just a few days. It was after a swim meet, and the team had to quickly leave for the airport. He didn’t get a chance to shower, since he was at the last event.
When the team arrived at the airport, they found out that their flight got cancelled because of heavy snow. So the team was stuck at the airport for a few days, and the whole time my friend had chlorine in his hair. His dark brown hair turned grey during that time.
When he finally had a chance to shower, his “grey” hair was washed clean and it revealed nice blonde hair that wouldn’t go away until he stopped swimming.
So if you decided to go swimming and then didn’t shower for a few days, you may end up having bleached blond hair. However, if you’re a normal person and wash the chlorine off your hair after swimming, then this process will take a lot longer.
How to prevent chlorine from bleaching your hair
The best way to prevent chlorine from bleaching your hair is to limit how much chlorine your hair is exposed to. That said, telling you not to go swimming is terrible advice. There are ways you can continue swimming while keeping your hair protected.
Pre-rinse your hair
Before getting into the pool, completely saturate your hair with water. I mean a lot of it. Hair is very porous and will absorb moisture until it can’t any more, at which point the water will just run off. You can see this phenomenon in action on a sponge.
Well, if your hair is saturated with freshwater instead of chlorine, then it will keep the majority of the pool water from getting absorbed by your hair. This not only keeps your hair nice and moist, but also makes it less likely to get bleached.
Apply pre-swim hair defense products
Pre-rinsing your hair should be done at the minimum, but you can also use hair products as an extra layer of protection.
Look specifically for swimming hair conditioners that can apply a protective coating over your hair to limit how much damage chlorine can do.
Wear a swim cap
Swim caps are worn by swimmers to help them swim faster. However, a side benefit is that it can prevent a lot of water from reaching your hair. Expect water to still seep under the cap, but it won’t reach all the way to the top of your head.
Combine this step with all of the other steps above and you have three layers of protection already.
Rinse after swimming
Immediately after swimming, you should rinse all of the chlorine off your body, and especially your hair. Don’t just rely on water alone.
I recommend buying swimmer’s shampoo which is formulated specifically to help wash off chlorine from your hair. You should also apply conditioner (some shampoos are 2-in-1) to restore a protective coating on your hair since the sebum would have been washed off.
Test the chlorine levels
It is highly possible that you may have added too much chlorine to your pool. If you’re unsure, you should test the chlorine levels ahead of time before you decide to swim in it.
You can use either a water test strip or liquid test kit to do this. You should be testing your pool at least a few times a week anyway to ensure all the chemicals are balanced.
If you find that the chlorine levels are too high, you should use a chlorine remover product to bring it down to safer levels. Or you can just leave your pool exposed to sunlight which can quickly evaporate chlorine from the pool, but be careful not to evaporate too much.