Chlorine is a commonly used chemical, added to the water of swimming pools across the globe, but is it actually safe?
Chlorine has a bit of a complicated reputation: while it’s known as a highly toxic chemical that’s harmful to humans, it’s actually one of the most widely used substances on the planet, and has multiple uses in cleaning and sterilising products. Without chlorine, tonnes of water would not be safe to drink, and air-freighted salads would go rotten before they reached the plate.
So why the bad rep? Well, you certainly wouldn’t want concentrated chlorine on your skin, or indeed anywhere near you! Breathing chlorine gas can result in extreme difficulty breathing, lung and eye irritation and even pulmonary oedema.
But chlorine gas is generally not something you’d come across in your daily life. And the way it’s used in public swimming pools, chlorine isn’t any kind of threat to life. The balance between the effective sterilisation of water used by hundreds of bodies, and need not to harm those swimmers, is carefully worked out by pool maintenance companies. This means that jumping into well-diluted chlorinated pool water is very unlikely to cause major problems for most people.
Having said that, it’s true that chlorine is a skin irritant, and it’s pretty hard to avoid if you’re literally swimming in it. The properties that allow chlorine to neutralise viruses, bacterial and fungal infections also mean it’s rough on the skin barrier; prolonged contact can lead to chlorine rash, an itchy and uncomfortable condition which can manifest in spots, weals and soreness.
Chlorine, even at low dilution, can also make existing skin conditions worse, triggering eczema or psoriasis flare-ups, or making sore or broken skin sting. It’s counted as a cause of contact dermatitis, and can provoke an inflammatory response if it gets through into the bloodstream.
So while it’s safe, in as far as it will do no lasting damage, chlorine in swimming pool water can be extremely uncomfortable to those with sensitive skin.
In conclusion, chlorine is usually seen as too useful a chemical not to use in swimming pools; the benefits of keeping water clean and safe for thousands of users are thought to outweigh the drawbacks to those who find it problematic. (Although, it's worth noting, some people with eczema do find the low concentration of chlorine in swimming pool water can help manage skin infections in the way that bleach baths for eczema do! As with anything to do with eczema, everyone's skin is different... )
We’d suggest taking proactive steps to help protect sensitive or eczema-prone skin from chlorine rash. Check out our article How To Protect Skin From Chlorine Rash for more information!
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