The Itch. Many a swimmer is frantically scratching these days and wondering what to do about the tender red blotches that dot his skin. With more people plunging into pools, especially heavily used indoor pools that tend to be saturated with chemicals, the bothersome rash has spread almost as fast as the fitness craze.
But breathe easier, swimmers. Dr. Stephen B. Kurtin, Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at New York City's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, doesn't believe "The Itch" should cause a great deal of concern. "Most swimmers have had it at one time or another," says Kurtin, a nationally ranked Masters breaststroke swimmer in the 40-44 age group. "And they've been able to cure it themselves."
Swimmer's itch, which Kurtin clinically refers to as aesteatotic eczema, is not an allergic reaction to chlorine, as most swimmers fear. Instead, it is simply caused by excessively dry skin.
"Chlorine does not penetrate the skin, but it sucks out the oils that keep the natural moisture in," says Kurtin, who sees several patients each year with swimmer's itch. "The amount of water determines the skin's suppleness. After a swimmer experiences repeated, prolonged immersion, any water that is added to his skin is rapidly evaporated. As a result, the skin becomes very dry. From then on, it's a vicious cycle. Chlorine is an irritant. It causes a tingly sensation on the already dry areas."
Usually, The Itch runs its course in three days. But there is a slight hitch.
"The best way to get rid of the rash is to wash with mild soap after each swim," Kurtin says. "Don't dry off completely afterward. Instead, apply a moisturizing lotion. Those containing urea or lactic acid are best." Kurtin says he doesn't recommend the soaps and lotions now on the market that claim to be especially for swimmers. "They are of no advantage," he says.
However, relief in another form is in sight. Several nonchemical purification systems that reduce the need for chlorine and other chemicals in pools are now being refined. Scientists believe these systems may rub The Itch right off the sports malady map. One uses short-wave ultraviolet energy, which explodes unwanted microorganisms. Another, ionization, kills bacteria and algae with electrical current. A third technique, ozone generation, sterilizes the water by breaking down organic matter into carbon dioxide and water. Until those methods catch on, though, swimmers will have to arm themselves with moisturizing lotion.