04 June 2012

Protecting Your Child's Natural Hair While Swimming

Protecting natural hair while swimming is probably the number one question parents ask during the summer months. Even for our straight-haired friends, swimming in the ocean and/or chlorinated pools can wreak havoc on hair. However, taking a few precautionary steps will allow your naturally curly child every bit as much the opportunity to enjoy swimming as the next kid, while still maintaining a healthy head of hair.

What Chlorine and Salt Do to Hair

Chlorine and salt both have a drying affect on hair because they strip away its natural oils, leaving the strands exposed to either chemicals and/or moisture loss. When the hair is devoid of it's natural protection, it can become overly porous (damaged). The more you swim, the more those precious oils are depleted, and the more vulnerable the hair strands become. Ever wonder why blond hair will sometimes turn green from swimming? Have you ever seen a penny that's oxidized and turned green? Believe it or not, the same thing that is happening in chlorinated water! That is probably the most visual example of hair that has absorbed the oxidized metals, and an illustration of just how harsh swimming can be on hair when the hair is not properly protected.

Darker hair can also turn a slight greenish colour, especially under certain lighting, but most of the time we really only notice the tangled, dried-out mess that results from hair that has damaged. Either way, swimming can cause problems on all types of hair, not just curly kids, and the tips in the post are applicable to everyone who swims regularly.

Option One: Cover the Hair While Swimming

The first option to protect against damage is keeping the hair from getting wet in the first place. This is done, to varying degrees of success, with the use of a swim cap (or two). Swim caps work best if the ears are covered. Does that mean you can't use one if your child doesn't like that? No, just know that if you've used a swim cap and they've leaked, it could be because the ears are not covered. It might also mean that the swim cap is too big.

Swim caps need to be snug to be effective, and often times that can be a little difficult to do with styled hair. Sometimes it's a two-person operation to get them on. Katie over at Keep Me Curly made this excellent video to show how to easily get a swim cap on and off, with the help of her daughters:

Types of Swim Caps

Silicone: Waterproof cap. These are most frequently recommended for natural hair as they have a bit more slip to them and tend to pull less than the latex ones. However, slip is not always the best thing when you want something to stay put and maintain a waterproof seal.
Latex: Waterproof cap. These swim caps have a bit more "bite" to them, so they catch easier on the hair. However, they hold much better for that reason (with less slipping) so tend to be the most waterproof choice. That being said, many people have latex allergies, so keep that in mind when shopping.
Lycra: Non-waterproof caps. These are intended only for holding the hair in place (i.e., out of the face) while swimming. They are not waterproof so they do nothing to protect the hair from the damaging affects of chlorine. However, they do make a great "undercap" beneath a silicone cap.
I've put together a small selection of swim caps in our Amazon Store, for those who are interested in seeing the different kinds that are available. In addition, our sponsor Africa Sleeps sells lycra caps that work fantastically well layered underneath their silicone caps.

When swimming in the pool or at the beach, our favourite option is to layer the lycra cap underneath a silicone cap. The lycra cap both protects the hair from any breakage due to the "grip" of the silicone cap, and the silicone cap keeps out the water. In addition, the lycra cap, worn on it's own, is a great way to keep sand out of the hair. If she is planning on spending all day in the water, we will wet her hair first before putting on the caps, for reasons outlined below, just to combat any water leakage into the caps. If she's wearing yarn extensions, we will not wet it to avoid the yarn getting too musty.

Pros and Cons of Swim Caps

  • Simply the best way to protect against the damaging affects of pools and the ocean by keeping the the hair dry.
  • Can snag and/or break hair while putting on and taking off.
  • Can often be a two-person operation to get them on and off.
  • Do not fit over all hairstyles.
  • Can make a child feel self-conscious of she/he is the only kid wearing one.
  • Swim caps work best when the ears are covered and some kids don't like that.

Option Two: Wet the Hair Before Swimming

Although swim caps are the best way to protect against the damaging affects of water, there are plenty of naturals who swim just fine without them. The way that they do so is by wetting the hair with fresh water before swimming. This works for one very simple reason: There is only so much water a strand of hair will absorb. If you fill the hair up with fresh water, it is not going to suck up any of the "bad" water from the pool or ocean. It's already saturated to capacity.

To add an additional layer of protection, you can "seal" this fresh water in with conditioner. The layer of conditioner on the outside will help keep the fresh water inside the hair. Further, some people will even use a silicone-based product (yes, the same stuff that is used in the swim caps spoken of above) to seal the hair. However, when doing so it is important to remember that if you use anything that "seals" the hair, that means that nothing new can get in, even after it's been "rinsed." You will need to use a clarifying shampoo to remove silicone-based products, so the downside of using them regularly is that the hair can dry out from too much washing. That's why most people compromise and just use a water-soluable conditioner. It's not a fool-proof method and there will be some water that will eventually get into the hair, especially if swimming every day and/or for long periods of time, but with proper rinsing and moisturizing afterward it is very effective.

With this option, it also requires rinsing the hair after swimming with fresh water, then reapplying a moisturizer and sealing that in. This is a good option for kids and tweens who are beginning to care for their own hair because rinsing their hair and adding products is something they can do themselves. Parents with a lot of little ones who's hair they have to care for might find it just easier to use a swim cap than do all of these steps for several heads of hair.

Pros and Cons of No Swim Caps

  • Allows kids to not be the only kid with a swim cap on.
  • Can be done with any hairstyle (although some more easily than others).
  • Some pools will restrict hair product usage, including conditioners.
  • Requires a lot of effort before and after swimming to ensure proper care.
  • Constant manipulation of the hair can cause breakage.

Swimming with Yarn Extensions

Either method above can be used with yarn extensions, but please be aware that yarn, when wet, will get very heavy and can pull on the hair. That can lead to them slipping out and/or breaking the hair, so use your discretion. It also takes a long time for them to try; they can get a little musty-smelling if left wet for too long.

If you want to use a swim cap with yarn, we have found that using a lycra cap first (to hold the yarn in place) and then using an extra large, or long-haired, silicone cap on top works very well. Otherwise, putting the hair up in a loose ponytail (or pineappling it) makes it easier to put the swim cap on.

Swimming with Locs

Just like any other hairstyle, swimming with locs can be done with or without a swim cap. However, if locs are new and/or haven't been established for a while, it would be best to use a swim cap to make sure that they don't come out. As with longer hair and extensions, it's always helpful to band the hair on top of the head, so as to make sure that the bulk of the hair goes into the area of the cap that has the most space and is off the hairline.

Hairstyles for Swimming

Box braids and twists are usually the easiest for swimming without a cap as they can be easily rinsed and maintained, both before and after swimming. Cornrows and flat twists are excellent choices to be warn under swim caps as they are usually flush to the scalp, allowing for a better fit. Puffs are fine, too, just so long as the hair can somehow make it's way to the top of the cap (the area with the most room). Bantu knots are usually not the best as they neither fit well under caps, nor stay put very well while swimming. Extensions will work fine with and without swim caps, although making sure that you have the right sized cap for the extra hair is important, as is making sure that they dry quickly before they get smelly.

Be Tolerant of Less-Than-Perfect Hair

As I've mentioned often in other posts, children like to play. I personally feel they should be allowed the opportunity to experience their childhood without constantly worry about their hair. There is a fine line between teaching them to be responsible for their hair needs, and teaching them to hate their hair because it's "so much trouble." Perfectly slicked hair is not a part of childhood in our house, and fuzzies are a regular part of curly-haired life. If you can be tolerant of them, your child will likely be able to enjoy his or her hair more, while still being able to swim and play.

There is no right or wrong way on how to approach swimming and hair. It's really just a matter of personal choice and what works best for your family. Some people are consistent swim cap wearers, others won't touch the things. There are even some who do a combination of the two methods (wet and condition the hair and use a swim cap), so clearly everyone has their own preference. As with most things related to natural hair, it will likely take some experimenting with the different options to figure out what works best for you and your family.

So what do you do if you have dry, brittle, and/or green hair from swimming? Check out our post on Chelating versus Clarifying when it comes to washing.