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How Chlorine Damages Your Hair
Caring for your hair means knowing how different chemicals, products, and environment factors affect it. In the summertime, and in some climates all year, one of the most common hair damaging chemicals we come in contact with is chlorine. If you spend a lot of time at the pool, you’re surely no stranger to the havoc chlorine wreaks on your hair.
Understanding how chlorine does its dirty work on your tresses is the first step towards preventing damage. Knowledge is power, so we’re going to explain to you what happens to your hair when it comes in contact with chlorinated water, as well as the steps you can take to prevent damage without giving up swimming.
Amino acids form proteins called keratin, and keratin forms each strand of hair on your head. Minerals bond to the external surface of the keratin comprising your hair shafts.
Your hair follicles produce an oil known as sebum, which gives the hair of protective coating. Sebum is responsible for your hair’s flexibility and shine. If your hair is lackluster and breaks easily, you probably don’t produce enough sebum. If you produce too much, you probably battle with oily hair. With the right amount, your hair has a healthy sheen and is strong and healthy.
Your hair’s color is genetically determined. All hair, regardless of color, contains two melanin variants. Your particular shade is determined by the content of these variants.
As you can see, every single strand of hair on your head is the products of several complex biological processes.
Hypochlorus acid, commonly known as chlorine might be public enemy #1 when it comes to hair, but it also serves a very important purpose. It kills viruses and bacteria on contact, making swimming pools and hot tubs safe for the public. Once or twice a year, there’s a news story about someone catching e-coli or some other nefarious illness from an improperly chlorinated swimming pool, so we know that without its use, our health would be in peril every time we took a swim.
That being said, chlorine isn’t just deadly to germs, its murder on your hair. As soon as chlorine makes contact with organic matter, it starts a chemical reaction. Since hair is organic matter, the minute you submerge your head in a pool, the process of hair damage begins.
When chlorine makes contact with your hair, the direct chemical reactions begin to change its physical properties. It reacts with by the protein comprising your hair shaft and the minerals that are bonded to its surface. It doesn’t just break your hair down, it actually changes the electrical charge, too.
What this means for your hair is that it is affected on every level, including color pigmentation, the integrity of the protein, and breakdown of oils. Your hair color can fade, and sometimes it is affected in even worse ways, such as taking on a green hue if you have blonde hair. The stripping away of oils leaves your hair looking dry and dull. The attack on both keratin and sebum causes split ends and breakage, and makes your hair more susceptible to damage caused by styling and coloring.
When chlorine and keratin meet, it causes the chlorine to form water soluble chemicals that break down the bonds between the keratin fibers that make up a hair shaft. When the chlorine makes its way in between those fibers, it crystallizes there, and those crystals cause split ends.
Meanwhile, chlorine is also forming salt crystallizations that affect your hair’s cuticle. A hair cuticle is the outer layer of hard cells that form in the shape of scales that are undetectable to the naked eye, but can be viewed under a high powered microscope. In healthy hair, those scales lay flat, and your hair’s surface looks sleek and smooth. But when these salt crystals form, they wedge themselves between the scales, pushing them upwards. This makes your hair look rough and dull, and it weakens the structure, making it unable to withstand stress without breaking.
By now you’re probably convinced that chlorine is horrible for your hair, and you might be ready to swear off swimming forever. Luckily, such drastic measures aren’t necessary. You can enjoy regular swims and still keep your hair in tip-top shape.
Make sure you’re using a high quality shampoo and conditioner. This is always important, but it’s doubly so if you swim in chlorinated water. Shampoos formulated specifically for swimmers, such as Ultra Swim, and Malibu brand shampoos like Swimmer’s Shampoo and 2000 UN Doo Goo are particularly good choices.
Before you go swimming, shampoo your hair and rinse it thoroughly before applying conditioner. Slather on a thick coating of conditioner, and instead of rinsing it out, cover it with a swim cap. Take two or three cans of seltzer water to the pool with you, and as soon as you’re done swimming, rinse the conditioner out of your hair with them. This process stops chlorine damage before it begins, and your hair will look like you skipped the pool all summer!