Myth or fact: Is salt water good for your skin?

Image: iStock.

“Go and have a swim at the beach, that’ll clear it right up.”

If you’ve ever had a pimple — so that’s all of us, isn’t it? — you’ve probably been encouraged to give your face the ocean treatment.

Salt water is not only known to do great things for your hair (hello, texture), it’s also widely believed to be good for your skin. That said, a long day spent in the sea can also leave your skin feeling a bit dry and dull.

So is all that saltiness helping or hindering your complexion? According to Dr Adam Sheridan, a spokesperson for the Australasian College of Dermatologists (ACD), it’s a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

Though he was unaware of any scientific research to indicate sea water can benefit skin, there is some anecdotal evidence that it helps with certain dermatological conditions.

At the correct concentration, Dr Sheridan says salt water can help to clean pores, balance oil and sebum production, and kill the bacteria that can contribute to acne vulgaris and rosacea. It also has a slight exfoliating effect, which increases the turnover of the outer skin layers.

Watch: Paper Tiger share their tips for a healthy holiday. 

On top of that, he adds, the right amount of exposure to sea water can increase the hydration of the outer site later of your epidermis.


However, we can’t separate sea water — or its potential side-effects — from the environment it exists in. For instance, what you actually do in the water can also have an effect on your complexion.

“[Swimming] is a great resistance exercise to stimulate circulation. You get oxygenation and massaging of the soft tissues and muscles … so you get a good circulatory effect that is positive for the skin,” Dr Sheridan explains.

Exposure to sunlight can have an impact on the skin, and Dr Sheridan says the calming psychological associations we have with the sea might also come into play.

Don't get too salty.


"Everyone feels relaxed with the sounds of the waves and all of that, so there’s probably a psychological benefit of swimming in sea water because you’re at the relaxing seaside," he explains. Interesting, no?

However, it is absolutely possible to have too much of a good thing.

"[Salt water] is hydrating up to a certain point, so if you go for a relatively short swim it’s good for you, but it will be dehydrating if you get in there too long," Dr Sheridan explains.

Same goes with the exfoliating effect, which can tip over into redness and irritation, along with potential photodamage that can also contribute to dehydration and irritation.

One thing is for sure, however: drinking sea water to get the same dermatological benefits as swimming in it is a terrible, terrible idea. And yes, there are people out there who actually do this. (Post continues after gallery.)

"It's a worrying fad. Obviously, please don’t drink sea water, or in excessive amounts, because that overloads your kidneys and that’s how people have died from renal failure," Dr Sheridan says.


If you want to harness the benefits of salt water without trekking to the beach, a bath could do the trick. Add one third of a cup of sea salt (not just plain ol' table salt) to an average tub of warm water, swishing it around, then sitting in that for between 15-30 minutes.

"We would recommend that as a relaxing thing even once or twice a week, even for someone with normal skin — it would be healthy and cleanse your skin. But especially for some one with several forms of dermatitis or psoriasis, that’s quite a helpful soak," Dr Sheridan says.

Saltwater isn't the only feature of the ocean getting kudos for its effect on skin. In recent years "marine" cosmetics containing kelp, algae, caviar and other sea-harvested ingredients have appeared on shelves. (Post continues after gallery.)

Arguably the most famous of these is La Mer's Creme de la Mer, which translates to 'the cream of the ocean'.

There's quite a bit of buzz around marine products and their various agents — which are said to smooth and firm skin, reduce the appearance of lines and leave it looking more rejuvenated —  but Dr Sheridan says he hasn't yet observed any solid evidence to prove or disprove their effectiveness.

"Usually [the products are] said to be positive because they’ll be organic and have less preservatives which is great, but whether the actual products themselves add something beyond that is not shown," he says.

Do you find sea water has an effect on your skin?