Does Chlorine Help or Cause Sunburn?

does chlorine help sunburn

Sometimes you’re just having too much fun in the sun that you lose track of the last time you reapplied your sunscreen. What should have been an enjoyable day outdoors can quickly turn ugly when your skin starts to turn pink, then red, and then it starts to painfully peel.

We all know that being in the sun for too long without sunscreen can cause sunburn. The interesting question is whether chlorine accelerated that process, or did it perhaps slow it down? After all, we have chlorine to thank for the pool water being sanitary to swim in, so perhaps it has an extra benefit that we don’t know about?

Chlorine does not cause you to get sunburned faster, but it doesn’t help you either. While I am tempted to say chlorine does not affect sunburn at all, technically that’s not true. Swimming in a pool while you are sunburned can feel extremely painful. Chlorine is a harsh chemical that strips the oil off your skin (as well as sunscreen) and causes it to dry out. Therefore, chlorine does not directly cause sunburn, but it can indirectly contribute to the misery of having a sunburn.

Keep reading on to learn more about chlorine’s real function, how it affects sunburns, and how you can protect yourself from getting sunburned if you’re spending hours at the pool.

How chlorine affects your skin

Let’s talk a little bit about chlorine first. What is it and why is it used in every swimming pool? Chlorine is a chemical that is used to disinfect pool water. It kills the pathogens in the water which prevents the water from turning cloudy, covered in algae, and filled with bacteria. All of this keeps swimmers safe from infection.

Pool-goers bring contaminants into the pool and increase the risk of spreading waterborne diseases. Chlorine will eventually neutralize them, but it can take some time. Plus, chlorine gets used up each time it needs to neutralize a pathogen, so chlorine concentrations need to be closely monitored, otherwise it will become ineffective.

Chlorine, being such a harsh chemical, also affects our skin. It can easily strip off the natural oils our body produces. If you are wearing sunscreen, it can strip some of that off too, making it less effective.

The result is that your skin can dry out and become very sensitive. If you happen to get sunburned while swimming, it will become even more sensitive. The chlorine can contribute to a burning sensation and make you feel itchy or otherwise uncomfortable. It’s not a good idea to go swimming with a sunburn.

What you should know about sunburns

Sunburn is the result of prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, or UV rays. UV rays are very damaging, and if you will be out in the sun for longer than 15 minutes, you should be wearing sunscreen.

Exposure to UV rays will cause damage to the outer layer of skin, causing it to dry out and wrinkle. Prolonged exposure over a period of years can lead to skin cancer.

Light skin will turn pink and eventually red when overexposed to sunlight. Then irritation, swelling, followed by sloughing off of dead skin (peeling skin) will occur, and this is a painful process.

The skin will produce melanin to try to limit the damage, which turns skin dark; that’s what’s really going on when you’re sunbathing.

Not everyone reacts the same way to the sun. People with darker skin are less likely to get sunburned. Conversely, redheads never tan and always burn. Others burn first and tan later.

Whether you’re swimming at the pool, beach, or lake, you should wear water-resistant sunscreen. The label should warn you to apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before you enter the water. This allows the sunscreen to get absorbed into your skin.

If you fail to do this, the chlorine will simply wash the sunscreen right off your skin, and you will not be protected from UV rays at all while swimming, which will result in a painful sunburn.

How chlorine affects sunburns

Chlorine can dry your skin out and cause itchiness or general discomfort. The sun can also dry your skin out and cause it to wrinkle and peel off. When you combine these effects together, you are in for a world of pain.

Dry, chafed skin is more susceptible to damage from sun exposure, which further dries and chafes your skin. Your skin will crack and chlorine can reach further inside, which can cause a painful burning sensation. Your already irritated and inflamed skin will get even worse because of it.

Thankfully, infection is not as much of a concern, since chlorine neutralizes the pathogens in the pool. That said, the discomfort you face from being sunburned is further amplified from chlorine, and vice versa. Long term exposure to UV radiation can cause wrinkles and skin cancer, which is why it is so important to wear water-resistant sunscreen while swimming.

How you can protect yourself from sunburn at the pool

Wear broad spectrum water-resistant sunscreen

You must specifically wear water-resistant sunscreen, with a sun protection factor (SPF) value of 15 or higher. If you burn easily, look for sunscreen with a SPF value of 30 or even 50. The SPF value can go all the way to 100, but honestly, there is not that much difference in the amount of UV protection SPF 50 and SPF 100 offers.

You should also look for broad spectrum sunscreen, which means it protects against both UVA and UVB radiation. That’s right, there are two types of UV radiation, one specifically causes skin aging and the other skin burning; you can learn more about them here. Needless to say, they are both bad and broad spectrum sunscreen will provide protection against both.

Remember to apply sunscreen evenly to all areas of exposed skin, and don’t forget about areas like behind the ears or behind the knees. If there is an area that is hard to reach, such as your back, ask someone to help you apply it there.

Lastly, remember to wait at least 15 minutes after applying sunscreen before entering the pool. Try not to touch any surfaces or wipe your body with a towel, because you can easily wipe off the sunscreen before it gets absorbed into your skin. Water-resistant sunscreen can be applied when you’re wet, but it’s safer to dry off with a towel first prior to application.

Wear swimsuits with more skin coverage

Similar to how sunscreen has an SPF value, most swimsuits have an equivalent called an ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF. Think of it like the SPF value but for swimwear. Most swimsuits have a UPF value of around 50, which means it blocks 98% of the UV rays.

Areas of your skin that are covered by your swimsuit should be safe from UV rays, which reduces how much sunscreen you need to use. Another benefit is that you never have to reapply sunscreen to those areas either.

Therefore, the best sun protection is to simply wear swimsuits that cover up most of your skin. Rather than trying to get the most revealing swimsuit, do the opposite and look for the most conservative swimsuit.

You can wear a full body rash guard, much like a surfer, to protect yourself from the sun. The downside is that it is obviously more restrictive than a regular swimsuit, which can affect your swimming ability. But, you can literally apply 90% less sunscreen than usual, so that’s a plus.

Avoid swimming during the sun’s peak hours

It is quite obvious from weather forecasts that the sun gets more intense over the course of the day before it reaches a peak, and then finally it gets cooler as it begins to set and night approaches.

Following this trajectory, you should not be surprised that the amount of UV radiation outdoors also rises and falls similarly over the course of the day.

Therefore, you should try not to go swimming during the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., which are the sun’s peak hours. Even if it is cloudy outside, the sun’s UV rays can still penetrate through the clouds and cause sunburn. Do not think that a cloudy day means you are safe to go outdoors without sunscreen.

Use after care products

Sometimes sunburn can just sneak up on you. It’s hard to keep track of when the last time you applied sunscreen was, especially when you’re having so much fun. Next thing you know, some patches of your skin have started turning pinkish and it has already begun.

Pink skin is a symptom of sunburned skin. If you notice it, you are sunburned. It will turn from pink to red as the day goes on, so expect it to get worse. It is a good idea to get out of the sun at this point, otherwise you will only cause the burn to worsen. You must take good care of your skin before, during, and after a day in the sun.

Sunscreen goes a long way in protecting your skin. Water-resistant sunscreen lasts around 80 minutes,or nearly an hour and a half. That should give you plenty of time to have some fun before needing to reapply it.

If you are already sunburned, you can at least do some damage control. Rub moisturizing cream and ointment to soothe itchy skin and keep it from drying out more. If you’re in pain, take some ibuprofen to help manage the pain. Again, stay out of the sun from now on until your skin has healed. See a doctor if you have moderate to severe pain or if you notice a lot of swelling.

Parting words

Chlorine does not help cause or prevent sunburn, but it can make the aftermath of getting sunburned much worse. Since it is a harsh chemical, prolonged exposure to it can cause your skin to dry out and become sensitive. To get sunburned on top of that will cause even more pain and discomfort.

Thus, you should avoid sunburns at any cost while swimming at the pool. Consider swimming indoors or wearing a swimsuit that provides more skin coverage, such as a rash guard. If you are swimming outdoors, use water-resistant broad spectrum sunscreen and remember to reapply it every 80 minutes or so.

No matter what, you will always be dealing with chlorine’s effects on your skin if you are an avid swimmer. Don’t let yourself get sunburned on top of that.