You’ve probably heard (or personally experienced) horror stories of people getting horrifically dried out skin and hair after an entire summer spent frequenting swimming pools. It’s not a secret that chlorine is a necessary evil that makes swimming pools safe to swim in with some harmful, albeit minor, side effects.
Despite everything you’ve been told or personally experienced with chlorine exposure in swimming pools, you might be surprised to learn that chlorine is possibly good for your skin. Some people have noticed that after taking their first dip of the year, their skin appears to look better. This is not an illusion.
Swimming can provide numerous benefits for your skin. For instance, chlorine has antibacterial properties which can kill bacteria that cause breakouts. Chlorine also strips oil from your hair and skin which causes them to dry out, but this also causes acne to dry out. Furthermore, swimming in a saltwater pool can expose your skin to magnesium calcium, and potassium which can relieve inflammation and exfoliate your skin, helping it to heal.
So how can you reap all of these skin benefits that swimming provides while minimizing the very well-known side effects? The key is, as with many things in life, to do it in moderation. A little bit can go a long way. Too much can aggravate acne and damage your skin and hair. It’s complicated, but let’s discuss this in more detail below.
How swimming benefits your skin
Note that all of the skin benefits below can only be obtained assuming that you are swimming in moderation and taking the necessary precautions before and after swimming (e.g. rinsing with freshwater, applying conditioner, wearing waterproof sunscreen, etc.) to keep your skin and hair healthy.
Reduce and prevent acne
In high school, as we were going through puberty, most of us had to deal with acne. I had one friend in particular who had particularly bad acne that was literally leaving scars on his face. It was so bad he went to see a doctor and was prescribed Accutane. For those unaware, Accutane is the medication prescribed to treat acne when all other treatments have failed.
The way Accutane works is it decreases the size of one’s sebaceous glands in the skin which is responsible for making sebum, which is the natural oil and wax that can clog pores and result in acne.
In other words, Accutane doesn’t strip oil from your skin; it literally prevents the sebaceous glands in your skin from producing more. In the short term, it means one’s skin, and more importantly, one’s acne will dry out and flake away.
In the long term, it will clear away all of the acne and prevent more from popping up. There are a whole slew of side effects that come along with this, which is why it’s the scorched earth option when it comes to getting rid of acne.
How does this relate to swimming pools benefiting your skin? Well it turns out that stripping oil from your skin and drying it out has some short term benefits similar to what Accutane does on a milder level.
That said, you have to remember that prolonged pool time can actually cause acne to worsen. If your skin is continuously having all of its oil stripped from it, your body responds by ramping up sebum (oil) production which increases the chances of your pores getting clogged with excess oil, resulting in acne. If it gets bad enough, you may be forced to take Accutane to deal with this mess.
So what’s the sweet spot? Unfortunately, nobody can say for sure as it can differ from person to person. You will have to monitor your skin yourself to see if you’re getting more acne or less by swimming in the pool.
Some things you can do to keep your skin nice and healthy after swimming is to rinse all of the chlorine or salt off your skin, and then apply moisturizer so that you restore the protective layer of oil on your skin and decrease the amount of sebum your skin needs to produce.
Heal damaged skin
You may have heard an old wives’ tale about how salt water can get rid of acne. Perhaps these claims have been exaggerated, but there is still some truth to them.
Saltwater can have a healing effect on skin which can help soothe acne-scarred skin. The theory is that minerals in water (magnesium, calcium, potassium) can reduce inflammation and open up clogged pores so that impurities can be removed.
Salt is a desiccant which means it absorbs moisture from the surrounding atmosphere. We have discussed at length above how drying out your skin in moderation can help with clearing acne off of skin by having an exfoliating effect. Salt also helps remove excess oil from your skin which can minimize breakouts (but can also be the cause of it if done too often).
Each of the minerals in water has a different beneficial effect. Magnesium can help regulate cellular regeneration which helps it heal from damage caused by the environment. Calcium is needed in the production of sebum, which is like natural moisture that acts as a protective layer of oil against things that can cause dehydration. Lastly, potassium helps regulate moisture in the body.
Lastly, the act of swimming provides many physical benefits, one of which is that it can help your skin have a healthy glow.
When you exercise in the water, your heartbeat will increase to facilitate increased blood flow throughout your body to keep up with the demons of physical exercise. This can boost metabolism and nourish skin cells.
Since your metabolism is stimulated due to the increased blood circulation, if you believe in metabolic detoxification, then this results in more toxins being removed which helps your skin look and feel better.
You don’t really need to do any specific exercises to get this benefit. Even the act of treading water, which is not as easy as most people think, is enough to stimulate your circulation. With good circulation, toxins don’t stay in your body for long. On top of that, swimming is great exercise that will keep you healthy and in shape.
Everything in moderation
Once again, I have to stress that swimming can benefit your skin only if you’re doing it in moderation. What does that mean? It’s different from person to person. Use your common sense and check if your skin is getting better or worse from swimming and adjust your frequency accordingly.
As mentioned, it is well-known that too much salt or chlorine exposure will strip your skin and hair of its natural oils (i.e. its natural moisture) and cause it to dry out. Additionally, your body will increase oil production on your skin to try to replace the oil it lost, but this just increases your risk of getting clogged pores and ultimately more acne.
To protect yourself, make sure to shower both before and after swimming. If you’re spending a long time in the water, don’t forget to re-hydrate to replenish the fluids lost from sweating. Apply lotion on your skin and conditioner in your hair to restore some of its oils so that your body doesn’t need to make so much sebum.
As long as you’re aware of this sweet spot that exists where swimming can actually benefit your skin, then it can legitimately be part of your skincare routine. If your goal is to have clear skin, free from the blemishes that acne causes, consider taking a dip in the pool occasionally.
On the other hand, if you go overboard with swimming, then that may actually be the source of your acne problems. Whether you’re swimming in a swimming pool, the ocean, or your home pool, be cognizant of the effects it can have on your skin and use it to your advantage to keep your skin looking clear and vibrant.