Swimmer Annamay Pierse

Combatting chlorine

Olympic viewers are bound to be inspired as they watch the world’s best swimmers vie for gold at the upcoming Summer Games in London. But while Canada’s medal hopefuls spend countless hours training and competing in chlorinated waters, recreational swimmers sometimes shun the pool for a very superficial reason: dry hair. Elite swimmers can relate to the problem.

TORONTO — Olympic viewers are bound to be inspired as they watch the world’s best swimmers vie for gold at the upcoming Summer Games in London.

But while Canada’s medal hopefuls spend countless hours training and competing in chlorinated waters, recreational swimmers sometimes shun the pool for a very superficial reason: dry hair.

Elite swimmers can relate to the problem.

“My hair is usually very dry and brittle and breaks and has split ends and sometimes can just be this fuzzy mess because it’s just so dry,” said Annamay Pierse, who spends about 20 hours a week in the pool.

Part of the problem is that she spends much of the day with wet hair, added Pierse, who is the world record holder in the women’s 200-metre breaststroke but did not make the cut for London.

“You swim in the morning, and then it barely dries by the time you get back to the pool in the afternoon,” said the swimmer.

“Then, you put it in a ponytail and then there’s more breakage.”

Valerie Welsh, a team captain with Synchro Canada, estimates roughly 35 of the 45 to 50 hours a week spent training each week is done in the pool.

The Saint Nicholas, Que., native says she usually puts a little conditioner on her hair prior to donning her silicone cap — but even that method can have its drawbacks.

“The chlorine attacks the conditioner instead of my hair, but I can’t put too much because my cap will slip when I’m going to do a dive in the pool,” she said in a phone interview from London.

“The chlorine is really rough on our skin, so we need to moisturize a lot, but still we need to be careful because we’re wearing a nose clip,” said Welsh. “We cannot put moisturizer cream on our nose because we don’t want the nose clip to slip during the routine.”

While most recreational swimmers aren’t logging Olympian hours in the pool, it’s hard to beat the health effects of a casual dip. The full-body, calorie-burning exercise places little to no stress on bones, joints and connective tissue.

For those worried about their locks, Dr. Paradi Mirmirani, a faculty member of the American Academy of Dermatology, offers up a few suggestions.

One tip is to put some kind of emollient onto the hair to protect it. Out of conditioner? Check your kitchen cabinet for olive oil.

“It’s an emollient, it’s a moisturizer, it’s a vegetable oil as opposed to a petroleum oil, so it would work just as fine,” Mirmirani said in an interview from Vellejo, Calif.

Mirmirani said she doubts infrequent exposure to chlorine does damage.

“If you picture the hair has its protective layer, a protective barrier, it’s over time that that protective layer gets worn,” she said. “The longer your hair is, the older it is, the more damage it’s seen over the years, so that hair is going to have a lower threshold for developing problems. (With) shorter hair you’re not going to run into too much trouble.”

Another effect of swimming in a chlorinated pool is the deposit of certain metals — specifically copper — onto the hair.

“People with very light blond hair may notice that the hair turns a bit greenish. The greenish colour is the copper,” said Mirmirani.

Using a cap and specific shampoos that attach to the copper can help, but often just rinsing out the hair after swimming can be beneficial, she noted.

Caring for the hair after a swim or lengthy time in the pool will vary depending on the length and caliber of your locks.

“The longer your hair is, the finer your hair is, if it’s colour-treated or you use heat, you’re going to have to be more vigilant about those things to protect your hair; so conditioning, you’re going to want to do more of it,” Mirmirani said.

As for skin care, Mirmirani said those with dry skin will want to opt for a thicker moisturizer and a higher oil content.

“The guideline I give folks is if you’re scooping it out it’s going to be better than if you’re pumping it out or pouring it out.”

She cautions against using very hot water while bathing which can further dry out the skin.

“(Try) to keep the shower as cool as possible,” she said. “And then, you don’t need to use a lot of soap because that can be drying as well.”

After a Saturday morning practice, Pierse, a Pantene brand ambassador, will usually go home for a long shower and saturate her hair with product to help repair any damage. But after swimming for 22 years, the 28-year-old said she’s just grown accustomed dealing with the dryness as a part of the job.

“I think over this time my hair has kind of slightly gotten used to it in a way — it’s used to the chlorine more than someone who isn’t in the pool that often,” said Pierse.

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