For years, I avoided swimming pools because of my fussy, fussy skin. It's prone to dryness, eczema and breakouts and reacts to fragrance, citrus oils (I can't even squeeze a lemon into my beer) and even sodium benzoate, a preservative commonly found in soy sauce. Whenever I considered plunging into a vat of chlorinated water, I would picture my skin melting right off my face, like it does on the bad guy at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark . But when the rec centre on my street starting offering free lane swimming recently, I decided it was time to find a way to protect my skin while perfecting my whip kick.
Before slathering myself in products that purport to protect and moisturize, I consulted Dr. Jason Rivers, a dermatologist with Pacific Dermaesthetics in Vancouver. He wasn't surprised by my summer skin woes. "Chlorine," he explained, "is an irritant," one that strips the skin of natural oils and contributes to rashes, dryness and even wrinkles, especially in those whose skin is already sensitive. On the other hand, Rivers added, "saltwater is closer to what we started in in the womb." Indeed, saltwater is a boon for my troubled skin, but outdoor swimming of any sort means an increased risk of UV damage and requires consistent use of a non-irritating, waterproof sunblock.
Rivers has three golden rules for anyone who regularly takes a dip, F whether they suffer from sensitive skin or not. First, he suggests using a physical sunblock such as zinc oxide, which is an anti-inflammatory compound that not only offers water-resistant sun protection but also blocks irritants from penetrating the skin and, unlike chemical sunscreen, won't damage the health of coral or fish species. (Oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreen, has been shown to turn male fish into females.) Second, it is critical, once you're done in the water, to "wash off," according to Rivers, who noted that not only chlorine but also pathogens from waterfowl and other wildlife can irritate the skin. Finally, a gentle moisturizer should be used to replace your natural emollients, preferably something that is "fragrance-free, without preservatives that can sensitize [your epidermis]," Rivers said.
With this advice in mind, I began my search for pool-friendly products starting with a homemade chlorine barrier, namely olive oil from my kitchen (extra-virgin, but not particularly pricey), which I use on occasion underneath moisturizer during the depths of drying winter weather. The pros: It's cheap, readily available and keeps my skin decently moisturized. The cons: When I used it before hitting the pool, it ran into my eyes while I swam, slightly blurring my vision. (It also made me smell like hummus.) In a pinch, I'd use it again, but only below my cheekbones.
Another decent option was Rocky Mountain Soap Company's Dry Skin Body Butter , made in British Columbia out of cocoa butter, beeswax and sesame-seed and sunflower oils. It isn't quite tough enough for long swims, but the light barrier it forms is suitable for a quick dip or a parent-and-tot class and comes in a handy stick form that makes it easy to apply without getting it all over your hands.
In the end, another Canadianmade product solved my problem best: Live Clean Baby's Non-Petroleum Jelly . The texture is just like Vaseline and other petroleum jellies, but this formula is eco-friendly, given that it isn't made from gasoline byproducts. It slides on easily and forms a thin physical barrier on top of the skin that lasts for a good halfhour set of pool lengths.
On the sunblock front, yet another Canadian product came out in front: Pure + simple's All Natural SPF 30 Face + Body sunscreen , which was formulated by Kristen Ma, co-owner of the Toronto company. The screen is made of zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and minerals that sit on top of the skin.
"I have one swim-instructor client who spends a lot of time in the pool and loves it as a chlorine barrier," Ma said. Sure enough, when I tried it, it created a good, thick barrier on my skin that stayed put during a 45-minute swim, offering sun protection to boot.
As for post-swim hydration, the best cream I tested was Clinique's Moisture Surge Intense Skin Fortifying Hydrator , a pale pink cream with a rich consistency that cooled and soothed my dried-out skin. Like all of the products in the French line, it's also fragrance-free and non-irritating.
With careful attention to my skin care both before and after swimming, I have been successfully able to add laps to my roster of summer activities. There are caveats of course, mainly that not every solution makes me look pretty while swimming. The Pure + simple sunscreen, for instance, goes on slightly white (though less so than other natural sunblocks), while the jelly gives my face a slightly greasy cast. The important thing, however, is that both help my fussy skin stay moisturized and rashfree – and considering that I'm already wearing a swim cap and goggles, it seems like a small price to pay.