Updated 7/20/20. If you are someone who enjoys swimming in the ocean, whether for leisure or for regular exercise, you may have wondered if saltwater is good for your skin, or bad: Is it drying? Does it offer any benefits? How should one care for their skin when going for a swim in saltwater?
So, Is Saltwater Good For Your Skin, Or Bad?
For the most part, I believe ocean water can be very helpful to the skin and can treat various conditions.
For starters, it’s important to know that seawater contains many vitamins, amino acids, and minerals like magnesium, potassium, and sulfur. The therapeutic effects of bathing in mineral-rich waters have been known since the Greeks Herodotus and Hippocrates proclaimed the curative powers of relaxing in natural hot springs, forming the basis for balneotherapy, or “taking the waters,” which is still practiced everywhere from Calistoga, California to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon.
Thalassotherapy is another therapeutic use of seawater as a form of therapy to restore and remineralize the body with the most spas being located along the coast of France (Brittany), where they have special marine water pools using this super-charged water with minerals. How about all the people who travel to the Dead Sea every year to bathe in its healing waters? It looks amazing.
It’s also interesting to know that seawater and blood plasma have a nearly identical chemical composition in terms of mineral and trace element levels. Seawater is so close to the body’s internal environment that if white blood cells are removed from the body and placed in a sterile diluted seawater solution, they are able to maintain normal cell function—this is the only solvent that will accommodate continued cellular activity. Pretty incredible.
So if you’ve been longing to be a mermaid, or just wondering if saltwater is good for your skin, the sea is a wonderful place to be and when it comes to the skin and various conditions, overall, it can be quite beneficial.
Does Saltwater Help With Breakouts?
Saltwater has natural antiseptic drying agents (like sulfur) that are used in blemish treatments so if you’re prone to breakouts, a swim in the ocean can heal these up fast. Of course, you’ll always want to be wearing sunscreen to protect your skin from the damaging rays given off by the sun, however, UV light also helps to destroy bacteria so the combination of the saltwater and the sun can give great improvement for blemishes. For those with back acne, where it’s often difficult for a person to reach that area on your own to properly treat it, the seawater can really improve this, too. (Read more about how to clear up body and back acne.)
Pro Tip For Breakouts
Bring along a bottle to the beach and fill it up with saltwater. When at home, you can try using this as a toner on your acne-prone skin after cleansing. After washing your face with a gentle cleanser, apply the saltwater to a cotton pad, wipe it over the face and leave it damp on the skin, and immediately apply a moisturizer for your skin type. (What’s your skin type? Take my Skin Type Quiz.) By leaving the saltwater damp, you are sealing in all the therapeutic benefits into the skin to help heal blemishes. Note: When using tap water at home to wash your face, I recommend that you use an alcohol-free toner post-cleansing to wipe away the chlorine and chemicals found in water that can be very drying to the skin.
Saltwater Can Help Heal Wounds
Many find the ocean’s water to be beneficial for healing cuts and any open skin (like blemishes).
Skin Rashes Like Eczema and Psoriasis
Due to the slightly drying effects from the sodium found in saltwater, many find that red, irritated skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis can get improvement. Particularly for psoriasis, a skin condition causing redness and severe irritation, the addition of UV light from the sun can help greatly.
Does Salt Water Help Dry Skin?
If you’re already prone to dry skin on your face or body, saltwater can make this worse for some people. Granted, the pH balance of the water in which you swim can vary greatly so some ocean water may be less drying than others.
Pro Tip For Dry Skin
It’s always a good practice for dry skin types to rinse off the saltwater after swimming and follow immediately with moisturizer. You can also protect skin dryness from occurring by using a water-resistant sunscreen prior to swimming. This type of sunscreen is formulated to use heavier emollients than non-water-resistant ones so it creates a protective barrier over the skin so the water will bead off and not penetrate as deep into the skin and disrupt the skin’s natural moisture barrier. Save your lightweight sunscreen for times when you’re not swimming such as for daytime use under makeup.
When it comes to the elements found in the ocean’s water, it’s important to know that although they contain enzymes, minerals, vitamins, and amino acids, you can only get so much benefit in its natural form. An ongoing trend in skincare, fueled by the popular green and craft movement, is the concept of taking items found in nature (and in this case seawater and seaweed) and using them topically on the skin in an effort to deliver a certain result. The thought of using something in its natural, unadulterated form seems to be the healthiest, non-toxic way to go — right? Well, not necessarily. There is a term that is used by cosmetic scientists called “biomimicry”: using plant biotechnology to harness the best of what’s in a good thing and make it even better. (Read more for my thoughts about making home skin care recipes.)
Don’t Get the Chance to Swim in the Ocean, But Want to Harness the Benefits From Seawater?
Many elements found in the ocean are actually used in skincare products since they can be very beneficial. I use some sea-based ingredients in my own skincare line.
Sulfur is a mineral that is often used in blemish treatments to dramatically dry out infection associated with blemishes to heal them fast.
Red marine algae is found along the shores of the Hawaiian Islands and can be very helpful for hydrating and repair the skin’s moisture barrier.
Chlorella vulgaris extract is a microalgae known as a “superfood for your face” and may help to increase collagen synthesis to encourage tissue regeneration.
Sea whip extract is known to be the most calming of all sea-based ingredients making it very effective for decreasing redness and irritation.
I hope you enjoyed learning a few of the basics and feel inspired to seek out the healing powers of the sea.
NOTE: As for saltwater swimming pools that are fairly popular, versus a traditional chlorinated pool, it’s important to know that saltwater pools still contain chlorine. So while they are not quite as drying to the skin, it’s still important to care for your skin like you would in a regular pool. Read five skin tips for pool swimmers.
Headed out for some camping this summer? Read my foolproof guide to camping skincare.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”