What is a chlorine rash?

Chlorine is an element that pool owners use to disinfect water, making it safer to swim in it or to get in a hot tub. Thanks to its capabilities as a powerful disinfectant, it’s also added to cleaning solutions.

While chlorine has a lot of benefits, if you love to swim, frequent exposure to it can have some negative effects. The element can be drying to skin and lead to irritation, even if you’ve previously been swimming in chlorine and haven’t had skin problems.

If you get a chlorine rash after swimming, you aren’t necessarily allergic to chlorine, just sensitive to it. Fortunately, there are ways to treat chlorine rash without having to avoid swimming entirely.

Picture of a chlorine rash

Chlorine Rash

A chlorine rash appears soon after a person has been in a swimming pool with chlorine.

What are the symptoms?

Chlorine rash can cause the skin to itch after swimming. Other symptoms can include:

  • itchy, red rash
  • scaling or crusting
  • small bumps or hives
  • swollen or tender skin

Your eyes may also be irritated from chlorine exposure. Sometimes chlorine can also be irritating to the respiratory tract. You may notice you frequently cough and sneeze when you’re exposed to chlorine.

How is this different than swimmer’s itch?

Both a chlorine rash and swimmer’s itch are swimming-related rashes. However, a chlorine rash is a reaction to chlorine exposure while swimmer’s itch is caused by microscopic parasites that live in fresh water.

These parasites are released from snails into the water. When a swimmer comes in contact with them, the parasites can burrow into the skin. The result is a rash that can cause pimple-like responses or small pimples. The medical name for this condition is “cercarial dermatitis.”

Identifying the difference between a chlorine rash and swimmer’s itch often depends on where you’ve been swimming. Pools have chlorine added to them, while fresh water doesn’t. If a pool is well-maintained and uses the appropriate amount of chlorine, it shouldn’t have these parasites.

You’re more likely to experience swimmer’s itch when swimming in fresh water or salt water, especially the shallow water by a shoreline.

What causes this?

Not all people who swim experience a chlorine rash. People often experience chlorine rash related to repeated exposure to chlorine. The immune system may identify the chlorine as a “foreign invader” like a bacteria or virus and become inflamed and irritated. The chlorine can also remove the natural oils on the skin, causing it to become dry.

Even if you bathe or rinse off after exposure, some element of the chlorine remains on your skin. The continued exposure can cause prolonged irritation. This means those at risk for reactions include:

  • lifeguards
  • professional cleaners
  • swimmers

Sometimes a pool’s caretakers may add too much chlorine to the pool. An excess of exposure to chlorine can be irritating.

How is it treated?

You can usually treat a chlorine rash with over-the-counter (OTC) products. This includes corticosteroid creams, such as hydrocortisone. However, most doctors don’t recommend putting hydrocortisone cream on the face as it can thin the skin or get in the mouth and eyes.

If you experience hives, you can apply a diphenhydramine cream or take a medication that contains diphenhydramine, such as Benadryl. You can also purchase body washes or lotions that remove chlorine and are designed to soothe the skin. Examples include:

Avoid lotions that are highly perfumed, as they can add to the potential irritation from chlorine. Ideally, these topical applications will help to reduce the incidence of chlorine rash and keep you swimming and cleaning more comfortably.

When to see a doctor

If you have a severe allergic reaction, such as hives that won’t go away or difficulty breathing, you should seek emergency medical treatment.

A medical specialist — an allergist — can help to diagnose and treat further problems related to chlorine rash. This is true for those who experience a chlorine rash but plan to continue their exposure, such as swimmers.

If your chlorine rash does not respond to OTC treatments, you should see an allergist. The allergist can prescribe stronger treatments such as prescription corticosteroid creams.

Tips for preventing a chlorine rash

Some of the ways to prevent a chlorine rash include:

  • Taking a bath or shower before and after you’re exposed to chlorine. If you apply lotions to skin that has chlorine present, it’s only likely to irritate it more.
  • Applying petroleum jelly, such as , to areas that are irritated before going into a pool or doing cleaning. This provides a protective barrier between your skin and the water.
  • Another option is to take a break from a pool or cleaning solution that contains chlorine for a while and allow the skin to heal.

Repeated exposure when you have a chlorine rash will likely only irritate the skin further.

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