For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Though Eau de Chlorine is the signature scent of every triathlete, that lingering smell is a sign that even when we’re not in the pool, we’re still saturated with pool water. Chlorine is great for killing bacteria in public pools, keeping swimmers from getting sick from E. coli and other nasty germs. It’s also not-so-great for your post-swim hair, as it strips the natural oils that protect your locks from damage and daily wear.
“Chlorine is bad for our hair, period,” said Sarah Wood, owner of Blazing Shears Salon in Mammoth Lakes, California. “It not only dries it out, but can be damaging as well.” This is true for all hair types, be it straight, curly, color-treated, or braided. The good news, however, is that with a little bit of TLC, it’s possible to prevent and treat the damage done by swimming. Here’s what you need to know:
“Before entering the pool fully wet your hair in the shower,” advised Gardner. “Towel blot, then use a leave in conditioner like Redken’s All Soft Mega Hydramelt Leave-In Treatment ($25, amazon.com) and put on your swim cap. This helps even out porosity and creates a little buffer between your hair and the chlorine.”
In the Water
What you wear in the water matters–a lot. Lycra and spandex caps are porous, and water can easily pass through to saturate (and damage) hair. Choose a silicone or latex cap; though they aren’t 100% watertight, they are enough to limit the amount of water that can reach your hair. Those with thick, long hair may want to opt for a cap designed with a bit of extra room, such as the TYR Long Hair Wrinkle-Free Swim Cap ($10, amazon.com). Ditto for swimmers with dreadlocks or braids–try the XL Swimming Cap by Soul Cap ($17, amazon.com), a silicone swim cap designed to contain and protect voluminous hair.
“It’s important to get the chlorine out of your hair as quickly as possible,” said Gardner. “Ideally, you would shower at the pool.” If that’s not possible, shower as soon as you get home, lathering up with a sulfate-free shampoo. Sulfates harsh surfactants which further dehydrate the hair, which is already zapped from chlorine.
Clarifying shampoos designed to strip built-up chlorine in the hair, may be worth considering, especially if you swim frequently. Wood recommended the Malibu C Swimmer’s Wellness Collection ($30, three-piece kit, amazon.com). No matter what shampoo you use, however, a conditioner is a must for combatting chlorine. “All hair types need moisture after chlorine,” explained Wood. “Look for products with water as the first ingredient. I also love anything that has aloe, argan oil, or Shea.”
Post-Swim Hair Products for Every Type
In haircare parlance, “Type” refers to your hair’s natural curl pattern. This is important to know, as different types have differently-shaped follicles (and require different tactics for post-swim care). The four main types:
Type 1: Straight
Type 1 hair has no natural curl, falling without waving from root to tip.
Type 1 hair has a tendency to become oily, so many stylists recommend that you check the label to be sure the product you’re buying isn’t going to add extra oil to your hair.
Try: Redken’s Clean Maniac Hair Cleansing Cream Shampoo, $40 (33 oz), ulta.com
Type 2: Wavy
Type 2 hair has undefined and/or “S-shaped” waves. If you straighten these waves using heat (such as a blowdryer or straightener), it’s adding another level of damage to that of chlorine, so heat-protective products are a must.
Try: It’s a 10 Miracle Leave-In Conditioner, $17 (4 oz), Amazon.com
Type 3: Curly
Loose loops are the trademark of Type 3 hair. Gardner says curly hair is more porous than straight or wavy hair, and thus more susceptible to damage. Chemical build-up and heavy product can wreck curl definition, so look for a gentle cleanser that removes residue.
Try: Devacurl Build-Up Buster Micellar Water Cleansing Serum, $17 (8 oz), amazon.com
Type 4: Coily
Type 4 hair is the most delicate hair type, and requires the most moisture to combat chlorine. In addition to using shampoo and conditioner, swimmers with Type 4 hair should consider a regular deep-conditioning treatment.
Try: Amika Soul Food Nourishing Mask, $42 (16 oz), amazon.com
Treated Hair: Colored, Bleached, Chemically Straightened, Permed
“The more chemical services you’re having done, the more chance there could be an undesirable reaction to chlorine,” said Gardner.
Most hair color fades out quickly with exposure to chlorine, but bleached blonde hair is at greatest risk for showing chlorine damage, as they can get green ends from copper in the water, which gets oxidized by chlorine.
Wood also adds that if a hair color appointment is on the agenda, skip your swim that day and do a deep cleaning instead. “Never get your hair colored while there is leftover chlorine in your hair. Bleach and color react very badly with chlorine. Make sure it is completely washed out before visiting your stylist.”