All You Need to Know About Chlorine in Pools - Is it Dangerous?

by Mihai Pinzariu on November 10, 2020

For some people, the smell of chlorine is synonymous with swimming and pool water. It’s used by almost all public swimming pools, and most pool owners, to keep the water clean for swimmers. Without chlorine, swimming pools would be a petri dish of bacteria, dirt, dust, and wanted contaminants and pollutants that can be harmful to swim in (not to mention gross!).

There’s a lot to be thankful about when it comes to chlorine, but let’s not forget that it is a chemical. But does that make it dangerous to swim in chlorine? Here’s all you need to know about chlorine in swimming pools, including:

  • Why chlorine can be unsafe,
  • How to know if you have chlorine irritation,
  • How to treat and prevent chlorine irritation,
  • How to minimise the harmful effects of chlorine, and
  • Alternatives to using chlorine.

Why chlorine can be unsafe

We can understand why some people might be suspicious about swimming in a pool that smells like a strong chemical. But for the most part, chlorine actually makes water more safe to swim in - especially when we're talking about public swimming pools. Chlorine helps to disinfect pool water from harmful microbes and bacteria that can come from dirt and mud or other people's pee, sweat, and sunscreen.

We’ve all seen bandaids floating around in a public pool - yuck! Without chlorine, swimming pools would be teeming with all sorts of nasty stuff that you don’t want to soak yourself into. That said, it’s all of the other stuff that’s in the water that can make chlorine unsafe.

Chlorine and chloramines

When pool chemicals mix with other chemicals in the water, like ammonia in urine, sunscreen, shampoo, lotion, deodorant, and other products, they can create a reaction. This reaction releases volatile organic compounds, known as chloramines, which can be harmful to breathe.

That chlorine smell you associate with an indoor swimming pool? It’s actually the result of chloramines, which can turn into gas fumes in the air. Since chloramines hover just above the water of a pool, they are almost always inhaled when a swimmer takes a breath.

While there's no proof that these fumes can lead to serious issues, there are no studies confirming that they're safe either. So, should you be worried? In outdoor pools, the volatile compounds tend to blow away with the wind and pose less risk of exposure. But indoor pools - especially ones that have that strong chlorine smell - are less likely to have enough ventilation.

Chlorine can also be unsafe when it's used in excess amounts, leading to irritation of the eyes and dry skin and hair. Some people are also sensitive to chlorine and can have reactions known as chlorine irritation or chlorine rash.

What is chlorine irritation?

While nobody is allergic to chlorine per se, sometimes the skin can be sensitive or have a reaction to chlorine exposure. This is known as chlorine irritation, and it can happen even to seasoned swimmers who’ve never reacted to a thing in their lives. Symptoms of chlorine irritation can include anything from redness and itchiness to hives and dry skin, typically known as irritant contact dermatitis.

Chlorine can also irritate the eyes and respiratory organs, especially for asthmatics. If you experience chlorine irritation, or you want to prevent it from happening, there are lots of things you can do to make swimming in chlorine safe.

How does chlorine irritation happen?

Chlorine irritation can be unpredictable and happen sporadically, but there are a few common causes:

  • Prolonged exposure to chlorine - This can include long-term swimming in a chlorinated pool (especially indoors) as well as a sudden increase in chlorine exposure,
  • Eczema - If you already have eczema, then chlorine exposure can aggravate it by causing further dryness of the skin,
  • Overchlorinated pools - If too much chlorine has been used in the pool then this can cause irritation.

Chlorine irritation can affect the skin, eyes, and respiratory organs and manifest in different ways and intensities depending on your history and exposure.

Chlorine irritation of the skin

You can see signs of chlorine irritation on the skin straight after swimming, or sometimes they won’t show up for a few days afterwards. Usually, these symptoms will appear like any other skin reaction to an irritant. This condition is known as irritant contact dermatitis, and can also happen from exposure to other harmful substances.

Symptoms of chlorine irritation of the skin

Some signs of skin irritation from chlorine exposure can include:

  • Dry or chapped skin,
  • Redness,
  • Itchiness,
  • Crusty skin,
  • Inflammation,
  • Rashes or hives,
  • Swollen or scaly skin,
  • Burning or stinging,
  • Sores or blisters, and
  • Eczema flare ups.

If you start to experience any of the symptoms above, seek the advice of a doctor or follow our tips below. Whatever you do, don’t hop back into a chlorinated pool or your symptoms will worsen. Red skin might not seem so bad until it becomes a burning blister.

How to treat chlorine irritation on the skin

If your skin is showing signs of irritation, try the following tips:

  • Rinse yourself off with fresh water immediately after a swim - and try to scrub, because chlorine can leave a film on your skin,
  • Apply body lotion or moisturiser to any dry, chapped areas of the skin, or as a preventative,
  • Use a hydrocortisone based cream to soothe itchiness and swelling if these are amongst your symptoms,
  • If you have hives or inflammation, try an antihistamine cream to soothe irritation,
  • Some companies now manufacture sprays that remove the chemical coating that chlorinated pools leave on your skin.

If symptoms persist or seem serious, then seek the advice of a dermatologist.

Chlorine irritation of the eyes

Most of us have probably experienced chlorine irritation in our eyes, and it sucks. This happens because chlorine strips the layer of film which coats our cornea and protects the eyes from harmful substances.

People with sensitive eyes are especially prone to irritation, and it can be incredibly uncomfortable and discouraging for children learning to swim. Luckily, there are ways to soothe eye irritation from chlorine so you can keep on swimming.

Symptoms of chlorine irritation in the eyes

Signs of eye irritation as a result of chlorine exposure can include:

  • Soreness,
  • Blurriness or distorted vision,
  • Redness of the eyes,
  • Itchy eyes, and
  • Dry eyes.

Can you go blind from chlorine?

OK, so chlorine is bad for your eyes and can put you at risk of infections, but can it make you go blind? As we mentioned earlier, chlorine will strip the layer of film coating the cornea, which protects the eyes from dirt, bacteria, and other harmful substances in the water.

Without this film, or eyes suffer irritation and sometimes more serious issues. Over time, this constant irritation to the eye can be harmful.

Chlorine gas can also react with water in our eyes to form hydrochloric acid, which can cause blindness according to Science Focus. Should this be something to be afraid of, though? Not in our opinion. You’re far more likely to experience irritation to the eyes or an infection than straight out blindness, but some preventative measures like wearing goggles certainly won’t hurt.

How to soothe eye irritation from chlorine

The best way to prevent eye irritation from chlorine exposure is to wear goggles while swimming. If that’s not an option for you, then try the following tips to soothe chlorine irritation in the eyes:

  • Immediately rinse your eyes with cold fresh water after swimming,
  • Continue to rinse your eyes every couple of hours to soothe them,
  • Apply saline drops eye drops right after swimming to soothe itchiness and pain,
  • Use lubricating eye drops to restore the film on your cornea

Chlorine irritation of the respiratory system

People with sensitive respiratory systems, like those with allergies or rhinitis, can suffer chlorine irritation in the lungs. This isn’t because of the chlorine itself, but because of the chloramines which are released into the air when chlorine mixes with other chemicals.

Symptoms of chlorine irritation in the lungs

Some signs that you have chlorine irritation in your respiratory system can include:

  • Stuffy nose or runny nose,
  • Sneezing,
  • Difficult breathing,
  • Wheezing,
  • Coughing when laughing,
  • Shortness of breath,
  • Chest tightness or pain,
  • A cough that gets worse at night.

If you find yourself experiencing any of the above respiratory symptoms then you should definitely take a break from chlorinated pools for awhile and give your lungs some time to recover. Swimming in open air pools may also be a better option than indoor chlorinated pools.

If you think you may be suffering from asthma, bronchitis, or allergic rhinitis, then you should see an allergist for expert advice. They might prescribe you some medication or an inhaler that will help reduce inflammation in your lungs so you can get back in the pool.

8 ways to minimise the harmful effects of chlorine

Sometimes you can’t escape chlorine, so it’s better to learn how to live with it than to try to avoid it completely. If you have a chlorinated pool or swim in chlorinated pools, there’s a lot you can do to minimise the harmful effects that it can have on your body.

1. Swim outside

If you’ve signed the kids up to swimming lessons, try to choose somewhere with an outdoor pool rather than an indoor one. Better ventilation outdoors will help reduce the amount of exposure to chloramines, making for a safer swim.

2. Rinse before you get in

You can’t just eradicate the problem, you have to help get rid of the cause too! Part of the reason why chloramines are released is because of the exposure to chemicals on our skin, including deodorant, sunscreen, body lotion, and makeup as well as dirt. Rinsing off before you get in a chlorinated pool will mean less chemical reactions which means less chloramines in the atmosphere.

3. Go to the bathroom first

We’re not pointing any fingers at anyone, but urinating in the pool is part of the chloramine problem. The ammonia in pee reacts with chlorine and creates fumes which are unsafe to inhale, so don’t do it!

Help yourself out by going to the bathroom before you jump in a pool, and if you have kids, make sure they use the toilet before they get in the water. It’s also a good idea to take them out for bathroom breaks every hour (because nobody is going to leave the pool willingly).

4. Don’t swim if you have diarrhea or similar symptoms

Unfortunately, you might just have to stay in bed if you have diarrhea. Same goes with your kids. If there are any signs or symptoms of diarrhea then stay out of a chlorinated pool to keep the water safe and clean.

5. Wear a swimming cap

Wearing a swimming cap in the water will prevent the chemicals from shampoo, conditioner, and hair oils from mixing with the chlorine in the pool. This is another factor in releasing chloramines. It’ll also help prevent the hair roughness and dryness that can come from swimming in chlorinated pools.

6. Wear goggles

To minimise the harmful effects of chlorine on your eyes or children’s eyes, try to swim while wearing goggles. As mentioned earlier, chlorine removes the film which protects the cornea and can expose eyes to harmful bacteria, dirt, and infections.

7. Use coconut oil as a barrier

Your skin can leach chemicals into a chlorinated pool, but the chlorine will also leave a layer of chemical film on your skin, too. Lathering on some coconut oil before jumping into the pool will create a barrier that prevents the chemicals from permeating into your skin.

8. Spray vitamin C after swimming

Vitamin C neutralises the effects of chlorine and chloramines on the skin. After rinsing off in the shower, you can use a vitamin C based lotion, spray, or serum to restore balance to your skin. There are many companies selling products for this purpose.

Alternatives to using chlorine

If you have a swimming pool and don’t want yourself or family to suffer chlorine irritation, then there are many alternatives to chlorine. Remember that chlorine is used to sanitise pools, and many systems now exist to either reduce the amount of chlorine used or replace it completely.

Saltwater

Saltwater is the archnemesis of chlorine, offering a much more gentle and natural way to keep your pool clean. Saltwater pool systems work by feeding salt into the pool water and then converting it into chlorine with a generator. The generator works by passing the salt through a cell and giving it an electric charge which breaks it down into chlorine.

This method generates chlorine in a more natural way that doesn’t cause irritation, and also keeps chloramine levels low. Salt is cheaper than most pool chemicals, but the generator that’s used to convert it into chlorine needs to be replaced every few years.

Ozone pool systems

These systems don’t sanitise water on their own. In fact, they still use chlorine but in much lower amounts that will drastically reduce the exposure to irritants. Ozone pool systems help break down organic contaminants in the water so that less chlorine needs to be used to keep it clean.

Using less chlorine means less chloramines will be released, and less risk of irritation to the skin, eyes, and lungs. Ozone pool systems use a UV light to generate ozone, which is then circulated through the pool water to break down contaminants.

Non-chlorine shock

Like ozone pool systems, non-chlorine shock won’t sanitise a pool on its own but drastically reduce the amount of chlorine you need. Non-chlorine shock oxidises organic pollutants in the water, like sunscreen, body oil, and urine.

This breaks them down and destroys them, helping keep the pool cleaner so that less chlorine needs to be used. Again, with less chlorine used there is less exposure to chloramines. Non-chlorine shock is used mostly in indoor pools or pools that are used by lots of swimmers.

Bromine

Consider this to be chlorine’s more expensive cousin. Bromine works a lot like chlorine and helps sanitise the water very efficiently, but is a lot less irritating to the skin and mucus membranes than chlorine can be. Bromine is also more stable than chlorine, especially in higher temperatures, which makes it great for spas.

Mineral pool water systems or ionisers

These systems are skyrocketing in popularity thanks to their ease of maintenance and ability to drastically reduce the amount of chlorine needed to clean your pool. Ionisers or mineral pool water systems work by feeding small amounts of copper, silver, or other minerals into the pool. These help to sanitise the water, while small amounts of chlorine or bromine are added just for oxidisation.


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9 comments
by Christina on November 25, 2020

Great pool advice. Thank you

by Gayle on November 24, 2020

Great article. We opted for a mineral water pool filtered through copper and it’s great in every way….apart from, it turns my hair green! 😆

by L on November 24, 2020

Thanks Ninja

by Jeenah on November 24, 2020

Very interesting information.

by Erin Leslie on November 24, 2020

Very helpful

by Tony R on November 20, 2020

Thank you so much – a really useful article. Great tips especially for those with kids!

by Moiraynch on November 16, 2020

Our local public swimming pool is notorious for causing respiratory irritations. We have spoken to management about the issue and they claim that the chlorination levels are perfect. Maybe it’s just everyone peeing in the water and creating all those chloramines! Any suggestions how we get the management to take our concerns more seriously?

by Jessica Hensley on November 11, 2020

Some really great information here. Really explains a lot. My boys suffer from irritated skin from swimming in chlorine pools.

by Nicole collins on November 11, 2020

Very informative thank you

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