Ocean water can change your skin’s microbiome, so swim safe this summer

Clean waters, cleansing showers and no open cuts are the key to avoiding an infection after swimming

Swimmers compete in Le Defi Monte-Cristo (Monte Cristo Challenge) swimming event at the Chateau d'If, off the coast of Marseille, southern France, on June 21, 2019. Created in 1999 and inspired by Alexandre Dumas' character of Edmond Dantes, the Monte Cristo Challenge will take place from June 21 to 23, 2019. / AFP / Boris HORVAT
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Exposure to ocean water changes the composition and diversity of a swimmer’s microbiome – that is, the naturally occurring probiotic microbes that exist on our skin’s surface – according to a study by the University of California, Irvine.

The team found that organisms present in the water were detected on people’s skin up to 24 hours after swimming, raising questions about harmful pathogens being transferred should they be present in the water. While most healthy adults and children who swim in relatively clean waters are not at risk for an infection, those with lowered immunity and open wounds should avoid the ocean.

Be vigilant of any signs indicating the water may not be safe because of bacteria or other hazards; for example, avoid swimming where fish die-offs or algae have been spotted.

If you’re heading to the beach this summer in the UAE or while on holiday, here are some precautions doctors recommend you take. Dr Sonia Wilson, a specialist dermatologist at RAK Hospital, says: “Be vigilant of any signs indicating the water may not be safe because of bacteria or other hazards; for example, avoid swimming where fish die-offs or algae have been spotted.” Other visible contamination, such as plastic and sewage, too should raise a red flag.

“A few minutes before dipping in, use a water-resistant barrier cream to reduce the risk of exposure. Once you’re in, try not to get any seawater in your mouth,” adds Dr Wilson. “It’s best for individuals who are immunosuppressed or have any kind of open cut or wound, including tattoos and other skin surgeries, to avoid ocean water.”

Dermatology specialist Dr Rekha Santhosh, from Burjeel Hospital, says that while acquiring skin infections from the beaches and seawater of the UAE is “extremely low”, swimming here during the summer comes with an increased risk of sun burn, and harmful effects from strong UVA and UVB rays. “I would advise people to use a sunscreen with SPF50 and above to protect the skin from damage. Do not leave on wet clothes for too long after coming out of the water as this may increase the risk of acquiring fungal infections in the skin folds.

“A quick shower with lukewarm water immediately after swimming will help to clean the body of any harmful residue, while applying a moisturizing lotion will help hydrate the skin and restore its normal pH balance.”

Specialist dermatologist Dr Shadan Nadji, of Valiant Clinic, further says: “Taking a quick shower while you’re on the beach aside, make sure to shower and soap up properly once you reach home; don’t delay this for more than couple of hours after you’re done swimming.

“After taking a shower, pay attention to any open wounds you might have and make sure to clean these with an antiseptic,” Dr Nadji adds.