Today’s inquiry came from a fellow named Gary who wanted to know about the relationship between concentrations of dissolved copper in swimming pool water and the tendency of hair (and skin?) to turn green.

Pool Check Copper 3-Way Test Strips
Pool Check Copper 3-Way Test Strips
for Copper, pH and Alkalinity

Can any amount of copper in pool water color your hair and skin green? If so is there an antidote for this? Thanks—-Gary.

The simple answer

Yes, the copper in pool water does play a part in the creation of a greenish tint in a person’s hair. We do not know about the greenish tint to skin, though.

The more complex answer

Slight concentrations of copper in pool water may play a part in the formation of a green tint in a person’s hair, yes, but most of the blame should get aimed at the pool water’s chlorine concentration.

The chlorine oxidizes copper (and other metals) which then become attached to various exposed proteins in human hair. Once attached, oxidized copper has the opportunity to impart its greenish color directly into the hair’s root.

Low copper concentrations in water lacking oxidizers like chlorine, or containing extremely low concentrations of chlorine or bromine, typically will not affect a person’s hair color — hence many of the ‘safe for hair’ claims made by alternate sanitizer systems that use biguanides or ionized minerals (with very, very low chlorine levels).

SenSafe Water Metals Check
SenSafe Water Metals Check
for Dissolved Metals

Source(s) of copper in pool water?

Typically a concentration of copper in pool water results from one of three sources:

  1. Source water used to fill the pool — Copper occurs naturally in many well water sources and so it stands to reason that if you fill your pool with well water, you may want to test for minerals (like copper) before adding chlorine.

    Those of you using municipal (i.e. city water, hydrants — with help of fire department, of course!) water sources should also test for the presence of dissolved metals in the pool water before adding chlorine. Why? Because most municipalities use metal service lines to get water to your home and as water passes through those lines it sometimes picks up little bits of the metals it comes in contact with.

  2. Chemicals used to kill/prevent algae — Most people refer to chemicals that help to prevent and/or kill algae as algaecides (also spelled algicides apparently)… a good number of the ones commonly sold online and in pool stores these days contain traces of copper that could cause a problem if used too frequently or if used in larger than suggested amounts.

    When used according to direction, most algaecides that contain copper will not impart enough copper in the water to cause a problem since ‘splash out’ (water splashed out of the pool during use) removes copper slowly and subsequent refilling of the pool with fresh water dilutes the copper levels.

  3. Pool equipment — And finally, swimming pool and hot tub heaters will normally contain copper heating elements that will, over time, add trace amounts of copper to the water they heat. This process accelerates greatly when the pool or spa water pH balance gets low and the water becomes acidic. Water with a lower pH tends to have corrosive tendencies.

So now that you know what happens to make hair turn green, naturally, as Gary did, you will want to know ways to possibly prevent it from happening, right?

  • Healthy, properly conditioned hair stands a better chance of resisting the coloring effects of oxidized metals. Some experts have suggested shampooing and conditioning one’s hair prior to going swimming.
  • Most people already know that it makes a lot of sense to wash one’s body and hair thoroughly right after getting out of the pool. Doing so reduces the amount of time the pool water’s disinfectants — and other sometimes not-so-healthy components — have to affect skin and hair.
  • ‘Damaged’ hair makes for an easy target. Split ends, dyed hair, bleached hair, and otherwise unhealthy hair makes an excellent receptor for unintended hair dyes like oxidized metals.
  • Limiting the amount of time that one spends with soaked hair may also help. Rather than allowing the warm sun to dry your hair you may want to dry it as best you can with a towel when you get out of the pool.

In most cases a person probably ought not have too many problems with hair turning colors as long as the water they swim in contains a proper water quality balance and their hair does not have pre-existing conditions that would make it more susceptible to attack by oxidized metals.

John's Copper Test for Dissolved Copper in Water
John’s Copper Test
for Dissolved Copper in Water

One will not KNOW, however, if the water in a pool ‘too much of this or too little of that’ unless… they test the water.

The following products should make testing source water as well as actual pool water for dissolved metals a quick and painless process:

  • Heavy Metals Check — Great way of determining if water contains any dissolved metals at all. Will not tell what metals it detects, if it detects any, but it will alert you to the presence of dissolved metals at concentrations as low as 10ppb (parts per billion). Perfect for testing source water.
  • John’s Copper Test — Detects ONLY copper in a water sample. Low detection limit of 0.5ppm (parts per million) and an ideal, easy method for testing source water.
  • Total Iron Visual Test — Fast, accurate method for determining total iron concentrations in a water sample.Low detection limit of 0.3ppm (parts per million).
  • Pool Check Copper — Designed to test for dissolved copper levels down to 0.2ppm (parts per million) as well as a water sample’s pH and total alkalinity. Great tool to have in anyone’s pool maintenance kit who has a heater on their pool, uses algaecides that contain copper, or suspects their pool’s source water may contain copper.

Got more questions about dissolved metals in pool water or drinking water? Feel free to drop us a line using our online Contact Us Form.