You don’t have to swear off swimming for good if chlorine irritates your skin.
For many, the pool is a respite from hot summer days—but sometimes, after emerging from a dip, some people may end up with a pretty annoying skin irritation known as a chlorine rash.
Chlorine rashes aren’t actually due to allergies (according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, you can’t really be allergic to chlorine). You can, however, be sensitive enough to it to have a reaction.
But chlorine is necessary for your health and the health of any pool you’re in (it kills any germs that may make you sick with diarrhea, swimmer’s ear, or other waterborne illnesses). So what can you do if you love to swim but your skin feels differently? Here’s what you need to know about chlorine rashes, including what they look like and how to avoid future irritations.
What is a chlorine rash?
A chlorine rash is, essentially, a rash that forms after swimming in a chlorinated pool, Alicia Zalka, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine, tells Health. A rash from chlorine is a sensitivity known as irritant contact dermatitis, rather than a true allergic reaction.
Like most sensitivities, the more chemical you’re exposed to, the greater your reaction. That means you’re much more likely to develop a chlorine rash after swimming in a pool with very high levels of chlorine (think: a hotel or public pool), than you would be in a pool with lower levels of chlorine or a hot tub, Steven Rasmussen, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Austin, Texas, tells Health. “While you may get a rash at one pool, it may not happen at another,” he says.
The amount of time you spend exposed to the chemical matters, too. “Typically, the longer one remains in the chlorinated pool, the more at risk one can be to such a rash,” says Dr. Zalka.
While anyone can technically get a chlorine rash, exposure is key here: People who swim frequently or clean and maintain pools are more likely to get chlorine rashes. Past that, those who already have sensitive skin like individuals with eczema or psoriasis are susceptible to developing chlorine rash, as are individuals with chronically dry skin.
The good news: Chlorine rashes aren’t contagious, so even if you get one, you can’t pass it on to someone else.
What are the symptoms of a chlorine rash—and what does it look like?
A chlorine rash—like most instances of irritant contact dermatitis—can prevent in a variety of ways, but will typically include the following symptoms, according to the ACAAI, Dr. Zalka, and Dr. Rasmussen:
- Skin redness
- Skin tenderness
- Skin itchiness
- Lesions or rashes on skin
- Scales or crust on skin
Skin affected by a chlorine rash or irritation may also feel dry and flaky, primarily because chlorine can strip your skin of its natural oils, says Dr. Zalka. In some cases, if the irritation is bad enough, the affected skin can also crack, bleed, or form sores or blisters, according to Medical News Today.
How is a chlorine rash treated?
If you’re experiencing chlorine rash or irritant contact dermatitis in general, Dr. Zalka advises immediately rinsing your body off after swimming or coming into contact with the irritant. Dry your skin gently, and then immediately apply an unscented moisturizer cream. In the meantime, avoid further chlorine exposure until your symptoms are improved. Taking a cool sponge bath in lieu of a hot shower until your symptoms improve may also be helpful.
If you’re still spending time outside, but out of the pool, the ultraviolet light from the sun can also help to minimize some of the potential effects of chlorine exposure to the skin. Sunshine can also provide some temporary relief from itching, as long as you haven’t overexposed your skin to the point of sunburn, Dr. Zalka says.
“If your skin is very itchy, apply an over-the-counter [1% strength] hydrocortisone cream to the itchy areas,” she says. “If itching keeps you awake, consider taking [an anti-histamine] like Benadryl before bedtime.” (Note that it can cause drowsiness, so you’ll probably want to avoid taking it during the day.)
In rare cases, your doctor may prescribe very small amounts of chlorine bleach to treat eczema, so this may be something you’ll want to ask about if you’re also experiencing eczema and think it might be tied to a chlorine sensitivity. These treatments are called “bleach baths” and are prescribed for specific patients to help reduce the presence of bacteria on the skin and, in turn, minimize symptoms of this skin condition, Dr. Zalka says.
“Applying gentle antioxidants such as topical Vitamin C or Niacinamide serums can also help reverse the effects of the chlorine,” she says. “If a rash persists more than 24 hours, see a dermatologist who can prescribe a stronger cortisone cream and/ or other medication to control the rash.”
How can you prevent a chlorine rash?
One prevention mechanism for avoiding chlorine rash is applying petroleum jelly like Vaseline or an ointment like Aquaphor to the skin before getting in the water.
“It will act as a barrier to the chemical, minimizing its interaction with the skin,” Dr. Zalka explains. “Be sure to also apply a zinc-based sunscreen too, as the Vaseline or Aquaphor can make your skin more reflective of the sun rays and hence at more risk for sunburn.”
Once you’re done swimming, change out of your swimsuit or trunks immediately and rinse your skin thoroughly with plain water in a shower or with a garden hose to remove any residual pool water that may remain on the skin after swimming. It is important to apply your moisturizer after showering so as to not trap the chlorine on your skin, Dr. Rasmussen says. Reapply Vaseline or Aquaphor to your skin before bedtime to areas that feel dry, Dr. Zalka adds.
Finally, both Dr. Zalka and Dr. Rasmussen advise staying away from the pool for a bit if you are experiencing any type of rash or skin irritation. And, according to Dr. Zalka, if you have an underlying skin condition (even if you’re not in a flare currently) and aren’t sure how it will react when you come into contact with chlorine, check with your doctor on that, too.