That refreshing dive into a cool—but chlorinated—pool comes at a cost: hair with a bleachy smell and the Swamp Thing look. Nicole Rogers, a dermatologist on the faculty of Tulane Medical School in New Orleans, offers tips for treating tresses.
What does chlorine do to your hair, chemically?
There is a misperception about how hair turns green during the summer months. It isn’t, in fact, due to the chlorine but due to the presence of copper oxide and copper sulfate in the water. They come from old brass fittings, gas-heater coils, trace copper in the water supply or residue from copper-based algicides that are dissolved in the water. These positive ions get deposited into the hair, which is negatively charged. It is more obvious with blonds. The brittleness many swimmers experience in their hair is from the process of weathering. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation, heat, wind and chlorine itself can cause wear and tear on the hair.
How can I reverse the damage and greenness?
You can coat and seal the cuticle of the hair before swimming to make it harder for the copper to penetrate. Look for conditioners and leave-in treatments that have silicone polymers like dimethicone or cyclomethicone. I like Paul Mitchell Smoothing Gloss, Sunsilk Thermashine and Mega-Rich Conditioner by Peter Thomas Roth. If you want to be more natural, simply apply a little coconut, sesame or olive oil to your hair before swimming. One of my favorites is Aveda Damage Remedy Daily Hair Repair, which contains natural oils as well as dimethicone. And then, when you get out of the pool, always rinse with plain water to limit the potentially drying effect, then smooth on a deep conditioner and occasionally do a hot-oil treatment to keep the cuticle sealed. The alternative is to wear a watertight swim cap. Not so attractive in the short term, but in the long run, it will definitely help protect your hair.
There seem to be a lot of specialty shampoos that promise to get the smell and tinge out. Do they work?
At the end of the day it is all about chemistry. If the pool water is at a higher pH than it should be, copper ions dissolved in it can deposit in your hair. So what you want to do is lower the pH of your hair to get the copper out. Chelating shampoos will sequester metal ions and wash them out. These are products with the active ingredient EDTA (ethylenediaminetetra acetic acid), a nontoxic polyamino carboxylic acid and a colorless, water-soluble solid. You’ll find it in cleaning agents to get rid of soap scum in your bathtub, too. Or use shampoos containing natural citric acid, such as Shampure from Aveda or Pantene Daily Moisture Renewal.
What about home remedies? My co-worker swears by vinegar.
Vinegar (5% acetic acid) will lower the pH and help those copper oxides to be removed from hair. Tomato juice and lemon juice, both acidic formulations, will work, too. I would take a half-cup and gently pour it over your hair. The chemical reaction should happen right away, and the green will be gone. Of course, then you have to wash the product out or you’ll smell pretty pungent.
What about color-treated hair?
Keeping your hair SPF protected will keep your color lasting. You are constantly stripping away color when you wash your hair, plus the sun will bleach out some of the dye (which results in brassiness), and then you’ve got the chlorine and copper. A few companies make hair products that have sunscreen built in.
You could also take a couple teaspoons of sunscreen and mix it up in a spray bottle with water, or simply take an SPF spray, like Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunblock (SPF 45) and spritz your hair. I’m a dermatologist, so I always recommend that my patients wear hats. This won’t only keep your hair from weathering and going brassy, but will more importantly prevent potentially life-threatening skin cancers.
You’re blonde. Did you go ever go green?
I can’t say I’ve had too many problems with that. But when I was younger I had a neighbor-friend who was on the swim team. She was a champion, even with her green hair.
A version of this article appeared July 24, 2012, on page D3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: QUICK CURES / QUACK CURES: Swimming Pool Hair.