Warning: swimming can harm your teeth, skin, eyes and nails

Follow these tips to stop chlorine and other pool substances from doing you damage

Take precautions to protect children from pool-related problems this summer.
Take precautions to protect children from pool-related problems this summer.

We’re now well into Spain’s swimming pool season. Some people will make the most of it by swimming a few laps, but you don’t have to be a potential Olympic champion: not drowning is enough to be considered a swimmer. In fact, 24.2 percent of Spaniards say they swim regularly, according to a survey carried out by the Higher Sports Council, making it the country’s most popular sport (soccer is a spectator event here).

Many other people just head to the pool to splash about, play with their kids, or simply cool off. But there are also those who prefer to stay out of the water, convinced of the perils that lurk within. Though dangers do exist, there’s no need to be afraid: experts say that with a few precautions, particularly after bathing, it is possible to enjoy a refreshing splash around without any negative side effects.

Enemy number one: chlorine

Chloramine can cause allergies and asthma in young children, because they tend to spend more time in the water” Pulmonologists association Neumosur

Chlorine is an essential addition to swimming pools if they are not to become breeding grounds for all sorts of nasty germs and bacteria – although fortunately, there are a growing number of environmentally friendly options. The problem is that it dries the skin out by attacking the grease we produce, according to the Spanish Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. “The skin’s pH is 5.5, the water’s is seven, and that will dry skin out,” says dermatologist Elia Roó, who both runs a private clinic and works in one of Madrid’s main hospitals. These adverse effects can be mitigated by plying yourself with waterproof creams; the problem is that when everybody does so, a greasy film soon forms on the surface of the water – which is why we’re supposed to have a shower before taking a dip. The better solution, unless your skin is drying out alarmingly, is to have a proper shower after your swim and then apply re-hydration creams at the end of day, suggests Roó.

Preventing allergies

While chlorine tends to get most of the blame, swimming pool water contains a number of other substances that can irritate the skin: for example, chloramine, the result of the chemical reaction between chlorine and other organic fluids in the water, such as saliva and uric acid from urine. “This can cause allergies and asthma in young children, because they splash about and tend to spend more time in the water this way,” says Neumosur, an association of Spanish pulmonologists.

The tendency of young children to urinate in swimming pools means that pools frequented by kids will likely contain more chloramine, which can result in chest problems, especially in younger children. Australian Olympic swimming champion Ian Thorpe suffered so badly from allergies when he was a child in the 1980s that he had to swim with his head out of the water in one school competition – he still managed to win the gold, though.

It’s a good idea to remove contact lenses when swimming to prevent bacterial infections

Much worse is the picture painted by Ernest Blatchley in the study Environmental Science & Technology, published in the journal of the American Chemistry Society. The report says that, in large amounts, chloramine can result in heart or brain damage. Needless to say, parents need to instill in toddlers that they should not urinate or spit in the pool. By the way, Ian Thorpe later admitted that he too had relieved himself under the water on more than one occasion.

The dangers of hard water

There’s water, and then there’s water. The stuff that ends up furring up your washing machine or kettle with limescale isn’t good for the skin either, but is widely found along Spain’s Mediterranean coastline. “In regions where water reserves have large amounts of minerals, particularly calcium and magnesium, there are up to 10 percent more cases of eczema as a result of atopic dermatitis in young children,” says dermatologist Cristina García Millán.

There are two ways of preventing skin problems among children in summer: you can ban them from swimming in pools – which only applies to heartless parents – or you can minimize the effect of pool chemicals and products on their skin. “This means using barrier creams that combine the calming and repairing properties of oatmeal extract and copper and zinc,” says Elena Saldaña, a pharmacist based in San Sebastián. “These need to be applied 15 minutes before children bathe. At the end of the day, we then shower them using special hygiene products for atopic skins.”

Goodbye to red eyes

It’s not chlorine that changes hair color. That’s done by copper sulphate, a bluish substance added to water to kill fungi” Hairdresser Juan Pedro Atienza

After a day in the swimming pool, our eyes often end up bloodshot. The Nuestra Señora de América Hospital in Madrid recommends using protective goggles in the water, and to use sunglasses the rest of the time. It’s a good idea to remove contact lenses when swimming to prevent bacterial infections. In the event of soreness in the eyes after a day at the pool, wash them with a sterile saline solution and apply a few drops of artificial tears. “If the symptoms don’t begin to diminish after a few hours, then we recommend a visit to the ophthalmologist,” says the hospital.

No more green hair

Let’s call things by their right name. “It’s not chlorine that changes hair color. That’s done by copper sulphate, a bluish substance added to water to kill fungi,” says hairdresser Juan Pedro Atienza. The rest is down to chemistry: blue plus dyed blonde hair equals green. So aside from keeping your hair out of the water, “hair oils or a hair mask can be used to create an impermeable film,” says another hairdresser, Eduardo Sánchez.

An end to brown teeth

If you’re somebody who prefers to spend most of their time sunning themselves by the pool rather than swimming or splashing about in it, you don’t need to worry about your teeth. But if you’re training to win an Olympic medal, you might have cause for concern. “People who swim for more than six hours a week are exposing their teeth to large amounts of water that has been chemically treated,” says dentist Marta del Pozo, who is based in Córdoba. “These products give the water a pH higher than that of saliva, meaning that the saliva proteins decompose quickly, forming organic deposits or brown plaque on the teeth.”

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It is known as swimmer’s plaque: “It mainly appears on the front teeth, giving them a yellowish-brown look,” she says. Her advice to avoid dental erosion is to use fluoride toothpaste and to undergo twice-yearly treatments at the dentist.

Avoiding yeast infections

A swimmer just out of the pool is a five-star hotel for vaginal fungi. “Women who are particularly prone to vaginal infections should change into a dry swimsuit after bathing,” says gynecologist Laura Rodellar. “At the end of the day they should use a shower gel with a pH of 5 to 5.2 for genital areas. Normal shower gel has a different pH and it can be aggressive for the vaginal flora.”

Silky smooth hands

There is an urban myth that nail fungi can be cleaned with chlorine. “I wouldn’t consider it a remedy,” says Isabel Guillamon of nail-care chain Nail’s Secret. “If you have fungi, the best thing is to see a dermatologist. Chlorine dries the skin out, and that applies to the cutis and the nails. That is why it’s best to shower and then hydrate when you come out of the pool.”

Take care of your tattoos

If you’ve recently had a tattoo, you need to wait at least five days before swimming. Tattooist Esteban Pérez says: “To begin with, short sessions in the pool are recommended, and it is worth cleaning the area with mineral water afterwards. Then dry the skin with kitchen paper and apply a healing cream.” Warning: you should also keep the sun off new tattoos.

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