Chip, a 31-year-old expat living in Ireland, spent nearly a decade of his life working at the city pool in his hometown. The job left many lasting impressions, but nothing haunted him more than the realization of just how filthy people could be.
“There were clearly people who used the pool to bathe,” Chip tells me. “Mostly the ‘pool rats,’ we called them. Families that were there every day, or kids of parents who just treated the pool like daycare all day, every day.”
After a while, he started to recognize the kids whose primary bath was the pool. They were going home, eating, sleeping and coming right back. “We [lifeguards] knew it, but there’s nothing you can really do besides try to get them to follow the showering rules before jumping in the pool. Maybe remind them about the kid who pooped in the pool a few days earlier.”
Does swimming in a pool actually count as a bath? I was surprised to find how acceptable this practice has become. Chlorine is a cleanser, water is water and the kids don’t get sick, parents argue — so what’s wrong with letting kids “bathe” in the pool? Like Earth being flat or giraffes not existing, “the pool is a bath” has the perfect recipe of on-its-face logic and anecdotal evidence that leads to fights on social media.
Even before social media and the internet poured jet fuel onto the trash fire of misinformation, Chip says, groupthink won out. The noble protectors of the pool — lifeguards like Chip, a devout germaphobe — stopped showering regularly.
“By the end of the summer, you just become so overcome by the pool-rat lifestyle that you slowly become one of them: Skipping a shower here and there, then eventually saying, ‘I swam today, I don’t need to shower.’ And soon, the pool was our shower.”
At a certain point, Chip adds, “the realization slowly dawns on you that you are doing what everyone else is doing, their filth is your filth, and we are all connected in that vast array of intermixing filth. Black, white, male, female, gay, straight: It’s all one filth, and the pool was all our shower.”
Using the pool as a bath isn’t about bad hygiene, Chip argues — it’s about a unifying pool-rat mindset. But that matters little to the parasites living on your butt.
The Pool Makes You Feel ‘Clean.’ You’re Not.
Dr. Dave Westenberg, an associate professor of biological sciences at Missouri University of Science and Technology, goes by “The Germ Juggler” on Twitter. I ask him if the pool is a bath. He can’t stress this enough: The pool is not a bath.
“No matter how clean someone feels, [swimming in a pool] is no substitute for soap and water from a bath or shower,” he tells me. “The pool water will only remove very loosely attached transient microbes, and even then, most transient microbes and dead skin cells can only be washed off with soap and scrubbing action.”
People only “feel” clean after getting out of the pool because, coupled with the belief that chlorine kills the germs, they feel “the coolness of the water evaporating from their skin when they get out of the pool,” the professor explains.
Sure they’ve removed “some of the loose grit and grime and salt on the surface of the skin,” he adds. “But think of it like when you were a kid and you were told to wash your hands before dinner and you just ran your hands under some cold water. To get clean, you need soap and warm water. End of story.”
In fact, the professor says, using the pool to bathe could be worse than a shower or bath, since chlorine might kill the “good” microbes living on you body.
Humans depend on maintaining a “healthy microbiome” to protect us from unwanted pathogens and help us digest our food, he says, and unlike soap specifically designed to clean human skin, “the chlorine in the pool water is indiscriminate in what microbes it kills. So while it will kill many pathogens it could also kill some of our native microbes and that could put us at risk.”
And while the biologist doesn’t think this is a “great risk,” nor has he seen studies on the impact of pool chlorine on humans’ microbiome, “it is something to consider,” he says, pointing to recent research from the American Society of Microbiology that even ocean water alters our skin’s microbiome, “increasing vulnerability to infection.”
In addition, dermatologist Dr. Fayne Frey warns against the potential skin damage that extended exposure to chlorine can cause.
Too much exposure to water alone can cause skin irritation, flaking, burning and dryness, and the addition of chlorine exacerbates the damage, Frey says. “Chlorine is necessary in a pool to prevent bacterial and fungal overgrowth and infection, but chlorine can also damage the skin-barrier lipids, which is why it is advised to shower after swimming in a chlorinated pool,” she tells me.
“Sure, swimming in a [chlorinated] pool may remove some bacteria, skin sebum and superficial cells,” the dermatologist continues, “but the risks of keeping chlorine from the pool water on the skin for long periods of time may have consequences.” Frey adds that while she couldn’t find any “randomized double-blind studies comparing the cleansing effects of showering to swimming in a chlorinated pool, but if 30 years of dermatological and life experience count for anything, I’d recommend a quick post-swim cleanse to remove the chlorine and any other byproducts that might be lurking in pool waters!”
Actually, Pools Are More Like Toilets
Speaking of byproducts lurking in pool waters, a recent report from the CDC warns of an outbreak of a “crypto-parasite,” or cryptosporidium, an organism that can survive in a chlorinated pool for up to two weeks.
If the kids in Chip’s pool couldn’t be swayed by microbiology, perhaps they’d be convinced to bathe if they knew every single person in that pool — unless they’ve waited two weeks after having diarrhea — is leaking millions of parasites out of their behinds.
“There are two issues here, pardon the pun,” says Dr. Marc Leavey, a retired physician in Maryland. “First, when one has diarrhea, residual fecal matter around the rectum and anus can be present both due to small amounts of leakage secondary to the liquid stool, and incomplete cleaning following multiple bowel movements and irritation of the area. Either or both of these can result in contaminated fecal material … entering the swimming pool water, potentially resulting in disease.”
In other words, even after the symptoms of a nasty bout of diarrhea pass, your butt can house, and continue to leak, the parasites for up to two weeks.
Westenberg explains this further. “An infected individual can ‘shed’ parasites for a while after the diarrhea stops,” he tells me, pointing to a study published in The Journal of Hygiene that found most infected people “continue shedding the parasite for a week after the diarrhea ends.”
“A few people continued to shed parasites for two weeks,” he continues, “which is why the CDC recommends not swimming for two weeks [after diarrhea].”
“It’s not so much a matter of the parasite sticking around someone’s [guts] for two weeks,” Westenberg says. “But that every time they poop they are still shedding parasites and routine cleaning is not going to completely get rid of them — even if you use the wet wipes that are becoming more popular.”
Leavey builds off that point, saying it doesn’t take a lot of parasites to make someone sick. “Swallowing just ten crypto germs can infect you, and an infected person can shed 10 to 100 million such germs in a single bowel movement,” he tells me. “And because it tolerates chlorine, which is used to disinfect swimming pools, it can persist in the pool water for a long time.”
Perhaps it’s time we rethink the entire concept of “clean,” Westenberg concludes.
“Traditionally, people think of being clean as being germ free but we know that can never happen and we wouldn’t want that to happen because we need our microbes,” he tells me. “Perhaps clean would be better defined as free from the things that don’t belong on our skin. The hard part though is defining what belongs there in the first place.”