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Getting to the office with goggle eyes isn’t the only way your morning swim session follows you to work. Itchy legs, scaly fingers, and ashy skin can also be telltale signs of a swimmer—and no amount of lotion seems to cure dry skin after swimming, especially in the winter months. What gives?
“On average, the normal skin pH is around 4.7, and chlorinated pools are a bit over 7,” said Dr. Anthony Rossi, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. “This can disrupt the oily covering of your skin, known as sebum, which acts as a moisturizing barrier.”
It’s not just chlorine that can wreak havoc on your skin. Spending a lot of time in any body of water, whether chlorinated, salt, or even a hot shower can also be dehydrating. But when it comes to your dry skin after swimming, chlorine and other pool chemicals are the primary culprit.
“It removes the layer of natural oils necessary to hold moisture in our skin,” said Dr. Chris Adigun of Dermatology & Laser Center of Chapel Hill. “Excessive exposure to chlorine and water removes that oil barrier, making our skin lose water and become inflamed. This can be followed by rashes which are patches or red, scaly, and often itchy or painful skin. If severe, blisters can develop.”
This is compounded during the winter months, when cold climates bring lower temperatures and drier air. “These conditions can leach the moisture out of the skin through a trans-epidermal water loss, which leads to increased dryness,” Rossi said.
Though there are many products on the market that claim to “pre-treat” the skin prior to a swim and block out chlorine, Adigun said to save your money—if your skin is immersed in chlorinated water, it will be exposed to the chemical, even if you lotion up before diving in. The trick to preventing and treating dry skin after swimming is to remove all chlorine residue as soon as you get out of the pool.
“The best way to prevent dry skin from chlorine exposure in the pool is to shower immediately after swimming,” Adigun said. “After an athlete gets out of the pool, chlorine remains on the skin. The longer the chlorine is on the skin, the more irritating it will be. Showering immediately after will decrease the level of irritation the athlete will experience. Thoroughly cleaning, ideally with a moisturizing, liquid body soap, will effectively remove the chlorine.”
Rossi agrees, saying that an immediate shower after swimming and using a gentle body soap is key for preventing dry skin. Avoid exfoliants, antibacterial soaps, and soaps containing acids or enzymes, which can inflame the skin even further; the same goes for aggressive scrubbing with loofahs or washcloths. After the shower, pat the skin dry with a towel (don’t rub, as this can be irritating) and use a gentle moisturizing lotion to repair the skin and combat the drying effects of chlorine.
If you are experiencing recurrent dry skin that does not improve with moisturizing, or dry skin is accompanied by itching, burns, rashes, or blisters, you should seek help from a dermatologist. “Not all dry skin is dry skin. There are many infections or even cancers that can mimic dry skin. Skin that is irritated or inflamed, and accompanied by itch, redness, pain, or cracking are all signs of a more clinical dermatitis,” Rossi said. “It’s best to see your board-certified dermatologist if issues are lingering or persistent.”
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