10 Genius Tips to Protect Natural Hair While Swimming

Brooke Fasani Auchincloss

Getty Images / Brooke Fasani Auchincloss

Unfortunately, laws which prohibited Black folk from enjoying community pools during the worst era of segregation have led to a ridiculous stereotype and a million bad jokes. However, there's another issue that has nothing to do with legalities: hair. Men and boys can hop into a lake or the ocean with few worries, but after the tedious work of straightening natural hair, who wants to mess everything up by swimming? Even advancements like relaxers haven't really helped much. If you spend hours styling your hair, or waited all day at a salon and paid someone to style it for you, ruining your 'do with a dip in the pool doesn't make a lot of sense.

Today, however, with the natural movement only growing, many women are shaking off their fear of water. No more running out of the rain, or avoiding the pool at a pool party. Regardless, you don't have to be natural to enjoy swimming. Yes, there will be more upkeep and maintenance to your hair if you swim regularly, but with some care and planning, everyone should be able to swim worry-free. Whether you take a dip every day or only on occasion during the summer, following a routine designed for swimmers will keep your locks healthy and not dry.

Here are some expert-approved tips to protect your natural hair while swimming this summer.

Meet the Expert

Leysa Carrillo is curly hair and color specialist, a Mizani and Redken ambassador, and founder of Forever Curls, an educational curly hair workshop.

Wear a Swimming Cap

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Swimming caps have come a long way, thank goodness! The old caps didn't even really do their singular job of keeping the hair dry. Today's swim caps are much more varied, and some are even stylish. As for fit, it can still be hit-or-miss, and you can't always try on a cap to see if it's snug and secure before buying. Whether you wear a cap or not is entirely up to you; if it doesn't keep all water out, there's not much point in spending unnecessary money on one.

Wet Your Hair Before Swimming

Black Woman with wet hair in pool

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If you choose to swim bare-headed, wet your hair completely before getting into the pool or ocean. Don't apply conditioner, only fresh tap water. Running it under water prevents your tresses from soaking up as much chlorine, other chemicals, and salt as they would if you dunked them completely dry.

Braid or Twist Hair Before Hitting the Pool

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Long, natural hair can easily become tangled when wet, so before hitting the water, twist or braid your tresses in several sections. It's not necessary, but it will make detangling an easier task when it's time to cleanse your mane after a day of fun in the sun. Carrillo says, "I normally do a high bun/ponytail, a braid or two French braids to keep the hair from getting too tangled."

Rinse Hair with Clean Water

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When you're done swimming for the day, rinse your hair completely with clean water. This is especially important if you won't be able to wash your hair for a couple of hours after your swim—you have to remove any salt or chemicals as soon as possible to prevent damage to your locks.

Wash Your Hair with Conditioner

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If you swim often, shampooing after each swim won't be the best option: you don't want to dry your hair with excessive cleansing. Cowashing is a safe alternative. Focus on cleansing the scalp, while retaining moisture and make sure your locks are completely rinsed with clean water. Carrillo told me, "If I’m going to swim multiple times in a day (like on vacation), I will rinse it really well and clean with cleansing conditioner instead of shampoo. Then use a mask and jojoba oil mixture so the hair is protected for the next day. If I don’t end up swimming then the hair is hydrated and ready to be styled."

And Make Sure to Use a Clarifying Shampoo When Needed

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Even women who don't use clarifying shampoos any other time should use one during swimming season. You don't need to use them often, even if you swim frequently. Once a month is still the suggested time frame. These specialized cleansers remove buildup from products and chemicals that coat your hair while in a chlorinated pool.

Embrace a Deep Conditioner

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Sun and chemicals can be very drying to your mane, so conditioning after every swim is important. But depending on how often you swim, you may even need to ramp up deep conditioning to as often as once or twice a week. Look for conditioners that are typically recommended for Black hair textures, moisturizing, and designed for dry and damaged manes. Carrillo suggests to "Use a conditioner or hair mask and add a little jojoba oil into the mixture," to help retain your hair's moisture levels.

Lock In Moisture With a Leave-In

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Include leave-in conditioners after each cleansing/co-wash session for additional moisture, whether you prefer a liquid leave-in that keeps your curls lightweight and bouncy, or a creamier formula that coats your strands and prevents further damage on a deeper level.

Add in Some Protein

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If your hair is colored and/or relaxed, protein treatments are something you have to do to keep your hair healthy. It's best to maintain a routine so that emergency treatments aren't required. Using products like Joico's Defy Damage Protective Masque ($22) or Olaplex No. 3 ($28) a couple of times per month keeps your tresses strong. Even if your locks are all natural, applying occasional protein will help to maintain your hair's strength.

Dry Hair Thoroughly After Swimming

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Carrillo advises to "Make sure to not go to bed with the hair wet from swimming." Going to bed with wet hair causes tangled hair that can be a pain to work with in the morning, and sometimes an unpleasant smell. Instead, blow dry hair if necessary and sleep on a satin pillowcase, like one from Slip, to avoid damage to your tresses.

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