About swimming and eczema

swimming pool water

Many different environments can trigger eczema, and swimming pool water is no exception. No child with eczema should be excluded from learning to swim. Swimming skills are fundamental to safety in and around water. Swimming is also a fantastic low impact form of exercise for people of all ages, and an enjoyable family activity. In addition to being a very important life skill, swimming is a reasonably skin-friendly form of exercise as it doesn’t involve getting too hot and sweaty (and therefore itchy).

How does swimming pool water affect eczema?

Skin dryness after swimming is most likely to occur if there is calcium build-up in the water or if the pH level is raised above neutral (pH 7.0). Chlorine can also cause dryness but, since it is essentially a bleach and recent research in eczema has recommended diluted bleach as a way of reducing bacteria on eczematous skin, it is not all bad and may even be helpful for some people with eczema.

Skin irritation is likely to be due to the skin reacting to chlorine or to any of the other chemicals added to sanitise or alter the chemical balance of the swimming pool water. If your skin (or that of a child) appears to be irritated by a particular pool, it is worth trying others in the area as they may use different chemical-treatment systems. For example, a salt-water chlorinated pool may suit some people with eczema better than conventional chlorination.

What can be done to help the skin?

  • Avoid swimming if the eczema is flaring badly or infected.
  • If swimming indoors, apply your usual emollient cream or, better still, an emollient ointment, before entering the pool (i.e. after using the toilet and showering). It is a good idea to put on more cream than you usually would, so that it acts as a good barrier to the water.
  • If swimming outdoors, remember that the sun reflects on water and therefore waterproof sun protection will be required. First, go to the toilet and shower, then apply emollients about half an hour before applying sunscreen – this will prevent the sunscreen becoming diluted by the emollient and ensure that the sunscreen keeps its reflective properties and protects your skin. Try not to overdo your emollient when outdoors as it may produce a ‘frying’ effect in the sun if it hasn’t been properly absorbed.
  • As soon as possible after swimming, shower off using your usual emollient wash/oil/gel. Then apply more leave-on cream than usual. If the pool showers use chlorinated pool water, it is best to go home and take a shower/bath as soon as you get there.
  • Children who are self-conscious about their eczema may prefer to wear UV-protection swim suits/clothing. These may do the trick in covering elbows and the backs of knees; however, since they’re not just designed for people with eczema, you do have to look hard to find ones with longer sleeves/trousers.
  • If swimming pool water is an irritant, consider going to another swimming pool where different chemicals may be used. Alternatively, try to find a salt-water pool, or swim in fresh or sea water (especially in the summer months).
  • When trying out a new pool, spend just a short time in the water and see how it goes.
  • Remember that even when you get out of the water, your skin is still exposed to chlorinated fumes around the poolside, so don’t hang about unnecessarily.

For more information on swimming and eczema, please see our Swimming and eczema factsheet