Is Ocean Water Good For Your Skin? A New Study Warns Against Lingering Bacteria

Protecting your skin means more than just applying sunscreen.

By Brittany Leitner
ocean swimming

I’m the first one to run into the water on a beach vacation, but as I’m wading neck-deep in the ocean and dodging fish, sometimes a scary thought disrupts my fun: Is this water as clean as I think it is? Is the ocean so vast that I’m free of harmful bacteria — or should I be avoiding the water altogether? According to June 2019 research conducted by the University of California, Irvine, ocean water may not be good for your skin. In fact, ocean bacteria can linger on your skin for hours, and possibly weaken your skin’s natural microbiome that helps fight infections

Marisa Chattman, lead researcher at the University of California, Irvine, Nielsen, said after testing the skin conditions of nine participants in the study, all nine people tested had their pre-existing/normal resident bacteria completely wiped off and replaced with ocean bacteria after a dip in the water. The volunteers had all gone without bathing for at least 12 hours, were not used to being in the ocean regularly, and went without sunscreen. They were swabbed behind the calf before swimming, after air drying, and again after six and 24 hours after swimming.

This might not sound so groundbreaking at first glance; it makes sense that the bacteria on your skin would alter in some way, considering you were just submerged in a natural body of water. But what researchers were really surprised by was the concentration of the bacteria — particularly Vibrio bacteria — that was found on the skin vs. in the water after just 10 minutes of swimming. According to the study, “The fraction of Vibrio species detected on human skin was more than 10 times greater than the fraction in the ocean water sample, suggesting a specific affinity for attachment to human skin.” Even after air drying, and at six hours post-swim, Vibrio was still present on the skin. After 24 hours, they were still present on one out of the nine test subjects.

A type of Vibrio most commonly causes cholera, a bacterial disease that is easily treated, but can be life-threatening, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Though cholera is unlikely in the United States and other developed nations, it’s definitely a risk if you’re traveling to Africa, Southeast Asia, or Haiti. Symptoms include severe diarrhea and dehydration.

According to Ubiome.com, skin is the body’s first line of defense against disease. According to the University of California, Irvine study, your body might be at an increased vulnerability to infection. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to rinse off with natural soap and water after visiting the ocean to help your skin get back to its normal natural biomes.

As water quality continues to decrease in America and around the world, due to wastewater and stormwater runoff, more studies like this will likely be conducted. Though you don’t need to panic the next time you go to the ocean, it’s a good idea to rinse off as soon as possible, as opposed to spending the day sightseeing or staying out after you’ve taken a dip in the water.

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Article written by Brittany Leitner