Tips to Prevent Tanning While Swimming! Protect Your Skin & Hair Against Sun & Water

Swimming is a wonderful activity whether it be for leisure or sport. While the activity of swimming has several overall health & wellness benefits-physically and mentally speaking, the sun’s Ultraviolet (UV) rays and water can have adverse effects on (harm) one’s skin. 

The most immediate adverse effect on one’s skin comes from the sun’s UV rays in the form of a tan. Swimming outdoors where one is exposed to UV rays increases one’s risk of sunburn and Melanoma regardless of one’s family history/genealogy/ethnicity or pigment of ones’ skin. 

In addition to the sun’s UV rays having adverse effects on one’s skin, the water itself-whether saltwater or chlorine water- can affect the skin by breaking the skin barrier and/or making skin feel dry. So, while you don’t have to combat UV rays when swimming indoors, indoor swimming environments still pose a  risk due to the chemicals used to keep the water sanitary (generally chlorine or bromine). 

Despite the risk of these [potential] adverse effects on one’s skin, many still enjoy swimming regularly. And, if it is predominantly the sun’s UV rays that harm the skin, then we know what to minimize and/or prevent to reduce the potential for those harmful effects.

So, then, how does one prevent tanning (as well as protect their skin/hair) while swimming? Some practices one can take/put into place to prevent tanning while swimming as well as to protect one’s skin/hair from the water/any chemicals in the water include,

  1. Swim early in the morning or later in the afternoon/evening … avoid swimming when the sun is strongest- between 1000 hours (10 AM) and 1600 hours (4 PM).  
  2. Apply a sunblock cream 30 minutes before swimming 
  3. Reapply sunblock cream every 40 minutes (for brands that are water-resistant) or 80 minutes (for brands that are water-proof) and/or after toweling off. 
  4. Apply moisturizer before and after your swim
  5. Apply a Swim Lotion before getting in the water 
  6. Have regular hygiene and moisturizing regiments/routines
  7. Wear [a] UV protective clothing [swimsuit] (i.e. protect the arms and legs) and a swim cap (protect the scalp/hair) 
  8. Because chlorine can strip sunscreen thereby negating its application,  it is recommended to swim in a river, lake, ocean, or indoors (versus in an outdoor pool).

(Source A) (Source B)

Is a Tan from Swimming Permanent? 

Because a tan is a result of [excessive] melanin pigment production that results from contact with UV light and the skin has a natural exfoliation process, a tan from swimming is never permanent. The lifespan of a tan depends on the type of tan (UV light vs Spray/lotion). Generally, a tan from natural UV light (the sun) lasts 7-10 days. Spray/lotion tans on the other hand can fade in as little as one day but can last as long as 10 days. (Source A) (Source B

Though we may do our very best to prevent, or at least minimize, tanning while swimming, it is sometimes an inevitable by-product of swimming outdoors- particularly on those sunny days (though you should still take precautions on overcast days). 

Tanning occurs when UV light, whether from the sun or an artificial source, hits the skin causing melanin pigment to form. This melanin pigment formation is what is responsible for the skin darkening and having that brown “glow” that is associated with a tan- the tan/brown “glow” is a result of excess melanin pigment. 

The fact that a tan is the result of excess melanin pigment production which is caused by UV light contacting the skin means how dark one’s tan gets or how long it lasts will be dependent on the amount of melanin pigment already present in one’s skin as well as the length and intensity of UV exposure. Furthermore, the skin has a natural exfoliation process that affects the pigment of one’s skin. 

How Do You Prevent Dark Skin After Swimming & Reduce Your Swim Tan?

We have established that one’s skin darkens (becomes suntanned) while swimming as a result of UV rays from the sun contacting the skin causing excessive production of melanin pigment. This occurs regardless of whether you are swimming in freshwater, saltwater, or chemically treated water. 

While one will tan in any type of water when UV rays contact their skin, chlorine in conjunction with UV rays can cause excessive tanning. This is why one of the things you can do to prevent dark skin/tanning after swimming is to swim in a lake, river, or ocean versus a pool- it reduces your risk of [excessive] tan from the start. 

Other ways to prevent dark skin after swimming and thereby reduce your swim tan are the very same things that one would do to prevent a tan, in general, from swimming: 

  1. Avoid swimming when the sun is strongest, between 1000 hours (10 AM) and 1600 hours (4 PM)-especially in chlorinated pools. Swim early in the morning or later in the afternoon/evening.   
  2. Apply a sunblock cream 30 minutes before swimming (SPF 30+ for “normal” skin types and SPF 50+ for “fair” skin types is recommended)
    1. If you’re able to do so, reapply sunblock cream every 40 minutes (water-resistant) or 80 minutes (water-proof) and/or after toweling off (or, plan your swim to account for reapplication). 
  3. Apply moisturizer before and after your swim
  4. Apply a Swim Lotion before getting in the water 
    1. For #3 & #4, preferably use products with squalene and zinc in them as they have added protection benefits for the skin
  5. Have  regular hygiene and moisturizing regiments/routines
  6. Wear [a] UV protective clothing [swimsuit] (protect the arms and legs) and a swim cap (protect the scalp/hair) 
  7. When possible, swim in a lake, river, or ocean rather than a pool. 

Should one put these measures into practice and still end up with a tan that they don’t want or that is too dark, one can make what is referred to as a “pack” and rinse their hair and skin with it. 

One of the more common “packs” that people use consists of raw milk, gram flour, and turmeric. Once these ingredients are combined to form a “pack” (a thick paste/cream consistency) you slather it on your hair and skin and let it sit for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, rinse the “pack” off, pat yourself dry, and apply moisturizer.  Another common “pack” is made of papaya and honey – it is the same premise as far as consistency, letting it sit, and then rinsing it off ( just different ingredients). 

Another way to help naturally prevent dark skin after swimming and/or reduce your swim tan is via your diet.

Foods that can help combat the [harmful] effects of UV rays include tomatoes, berries, broccoli, watermelon, and bell peppers.

If you are not into the DIY or natural methods or are just looking for more of a quick fix to reduce your swim tan, you could look into laser technology for tan removal.

However, it should be noted that because a tan is due to melanin pigment production a laser will do only so much and, in fact, may not be that successful. Also, it is the more costly of the options out there. Nonetheless, it is an option. (Source A) (Source B) (Source C)

Does Swimming Ruin Your Skin?

Water, whether it is chlorinated or salt, affects the skin. It can damage the skin barrier and make the skin feel dry. Chlorine(obviously found in chlorinated water), in particular, steals the natural oil of the skin.  So, while swimming is great for one’s health/has amazing health benefits overall, it can have some adverse and/or harsh effects on one’s skin (as we’ve previously mentioned). 

Chlorine is a toxic gas at room temperature. Due to its toxicity, it is used for such things as making water drinkable and keeping pools sanitary. Though it is toxic as a gas, chlorine is also an essential nutrient that all living organisms need to survive. While chlorine has its benefits, it is still an irritant and [potentially] harmful as a gas. Therefore, it can harm one’s skin

In addition to the water having potentially adverse/harsh effects on one’s skin and hair, UV rays from the sun also have adverse/harsh effects on one’s skin and hair.  Exposure to UV rays can cause dry skin, early aging, sunburn, and, in some cases, Cancer such as Melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer).

Though the water and sun can have adverse and/or harsh effects on one’s skin and hair, one can keep their skin healthy and still enjoy swimming by taking care of their skin before and after each swim. (Source A)

How Do Swimmers Protect Their Skin and Hair? General Regular Daily Practice

By now we have established that swimming, overall, has amazing health and wellness benefits, but it can come with some adverse/harsh effects on one’s skin and hair. We’ve also established that it is possible to protect your skin and hair to maintain a healthy appearance while swimming despite these potentially adverse/harsh effects on one’s skin and hair. 

So, nothing to fret about- whether you are a veteran swimmer or a newcomer to the activity/sport- you can take steps and put practices in place that will help keep your skin and hair protected (and looking healthy).

So then, how do those that swim regularly protect their skin and hair?  Those that swim regularly put into practice the aforementioned practices not only before and after each swim but on a regular basis

In case you forgot what those recommended practices are, here they are with a few extra regular basis practices… 

  1. Pre-swim skin and hair care regimen (SPF, moisturizer, shower/rinse off) 
  2. Post-swim Skin and hair care regimen (Rinse off/shower ASAP upon exiting the water (use sulfate-free products; also, shampooing the hair first and using conditioner second helps to protect the hair), talc powder as needed, pat self dry, moisturize + Vitamin C Serum)
  3. Have a regular hygiene regimen (regular showering/bathing and moisturizing) 
  4. Avoid using a hairdryer as much as possible. Opt for patting hair dry with a towel and using a wide-tooth comb. 
  5. Drink herbal tea
  6. Exfoliate once per week 
  7. Stay hydrated while swimming + drink plenty of water regularly
  8. Don’t stay in the water too long 
  9. Wash and care for swimwear properly and regularly 
  10.  When possible opt to swim in open water(lake, river, ocean) versus a pool 

(Source A) (Source B) (Source C

On a side note, we do recommend that you check out our post ” Swimming After Laser Hair Removal: What You Need to Know

What to Apply to The Skin Before Swimming?

Swimmers can maintain healthy skin while swimming via a pre-swim skincare routine, a post-swim skincare routine, and regular hygiene and skincare routine. The latter two routines are pretty similar and each encompasses cleansing the skin, thoroughly drying the skin, and moisturizing.  

The pre-swim routine is a bit different and has a few more steps to it. It is recommended to include as many of these steps as possible (and that are applicable) in your pre-swim skin and hair care routine. Here are the recommended steps for a pre-swim skin and hair care routine: 

  1. Apply a broad-spectrum sunblock of at least SPF 30 about 30 minutes before getting in the water (only needed if swimming outdoors; if swimming indoors, one can skip this step)
  2. Apply a moisturizer and/or pre-swim lotion about 20 minutes before getting in the water (it is recommended to use a product(s) that has (have) squalene and zinc in them as they provide added protection to the skin) 
  3. Just before getting in the water shower/rinse off. This super-saturates the skin and hair helping them to absorb less chlorinated water/saltwater. 
  4. After showering/rinsing off, apply a leave-in conditioner to your hair before putting on your swim cap 

Once you’ve followed these practices in your swim prep, you’re set to go. You can enjoy your swim and have peace of mind that your skin and hair are protected and will remain healthy (or at least, you’ve taken every precaution to protect them and maintain their health).

 (Source A) (Source B) (Source C

Melissa Frank

My passion, outside of animals, is helping people and adding value to their lives…I strive to leave the world a little better than I woke to it each day. The first part of my career, for a total of about 15 years, was spent in the public safety field as a Volunteer Firefighter/EMT-B and 9-1-1 Operator. In 2019 I obtained my personal trainer certification (ACE certified) as well as many group fitness certifications and certification as a Corrective Exercise Specialist.

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