Home Eye Care | Why does salt water burn your eyes?

Can you stop salt water from burning your eyes?

man in ocean with eyes closed due to salt water burning his eyes

What makes saltwater burn your eyes?

Saltwater burns your eyes when the amount of salt in the water is much higher than that found in tears or saline solution. A high concentration of salt can dehydrate your eyes. This can cause eye burning, stinging and redness.

Why does ocean water burn your eyes?

Ocean water burns your eyes because it contains so much salt. Because salt tends to draw in water, saltwater pulls water out of the eyes. This can cause eye burning, stinging and dryness. It’s also common to experience red eyes from ocean water after swimming.

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The saltiness level in parts per million (ppm) of ocean water compared with freshwater and tears is:

  • Seawater or ocean water – 35,000 ppm

  • Tears – 9,000 ppm

  • Freshwater – under 1,000 ppm

You can prevent saltwater from burning your eyes by wearing swim goggles or a dive mask while swimming in saltwater. This is a good practice, regardless, to protect your eyes from pathogens and other irritation. 

Ocean water also contains bacteria, viruses and other germs that can cause eye infections.

SEE RELATED: Why are tears salty?

Does a saltwater pool burn your eyes?

The water in a saltwater pool may burn your eyes. However, saltwater pool water will likely sting less than ocean water because it’s not as salty.

A typical saltwater pool contains about one-tenth of the amount of salt in ocean water. The salinity of a saltwater pool is about 3,500 ppm. That means a saltwater pool may be less likely to burn your eyes than ocean water.

But keep in mind that a saltwater pool still contains chlorine, which is an eye irritant. Chlorine and other chemicals may cause chemical conjunctivitis, which can make your eyes red, itchy and watery. Pool chemicals also may cause dry eyes

To avoid burning eyes from a saltwater pool, it’s a good idea to protect your eyes with swim goggles or avoid opening your eyes underwater.

Can you wash your eyes with saltwater? 

No, you should not wash your eyes with ocean saltwater or a homemade saltwater solution. Instead, rinse your eyes with commercial eye rinses or contact lens solutions that contain saline. These products are different from ocean saltwater in several important ways.

First, these solutions are sterile, so they’re safe to use without risking an eye infection. Second, they contain a balance of dissolved salt that is similar to or lower than human tears. Thus, they won’t draw moisture out of the eyes.

Some commercial products available that contain saline include:

  • Eye wash – A sterile saline wash made for rinsing the eyes after exposure to dust, dirt or chemicals

  • Saline solution – Made for rinsing contact lenses but may also be used to rinse an irritant out of the eyes

  • Isotonic saline (seawater) wash – Has a lower salinity than tears to relieve irritation and dry eyes

You can use a commercial saline solution or eye wash to rinse an irritant, such as a speck of dirt, dust or sand, out of your eyes. 

But avoid using homemade saline solutions or rinses in or around the eyes. Eye solutions made at home may irritate the eyes or lead to eye infection that could cause vision loss.

Seawater for the eyes may also help relieve dry eyes. One study found that sterile isotonic seawater wash made for use in the eyes may be more effective than artificial tears for treating dry eye disease (DED). DED is a condition that can cause symptoms such as blurry vision and eye irritation. However, additional research is needed.

Can saltwater cause swelling of the eyes?

Saltwater may cause swelling of the eyes if you get chemical conjunctivitis or an eye infection from swimming in a saltwater pool or the ocean. As long as it’s due to irritation, and not an eye infection, this swelling should go away on its own with rest and at-home treatment.

If you experience swollen eyes or other symptoms that don’t go away in a few hours to a day, see your eye doctor. Lingering symptoms could be a sign of an eye infection or other eye issue that requires treatment.

What happens if salt gets in your eyes?

If you get salt in your eyes, whether it’s table salt or saltwater, your eyes may burn and get irritated and dry. Even a little bit of table salt could be very irritating since salt can draw water out of the eye.

It’s a good idea to keep a commercially prepared eye wash on hand for exposure to saltwater or other eye irritants. For example, if you accidentally get salt in your eye while cooking, rinse your eye with a commercial eye wash as quickly as possible. 

It’s not recommended to rinse your eyes with tap or bottled water except in an emergency.

How to stop saltwater from burning your eyes

You can prevent saltwater from burning your eyes by wearing goggles or a diving mask when you swim in the ocean or a saltwater pool. If you don’t have googles or a diving mask, don’t open your eyes underwater. 

If your eyes hurt after swimming in saltwater, there are several ways to stop the burning and soothe your eyes. 

You may get relief with cool compresses using a clean, damp washcloth. You can also use preservative-free artificial tears to moisten your eyes and reduce irritation.

Lastly, see your eye doctor for routine eye exams, and any time you experience eye issues. It’s best to catch any eye problems early so you can get the right diagnosis and treatment.

Ask a scientist: Underwater eyes. National Eye Institute. January 2015.

Saline water and salinity. U.S. Geological Survey. June 2018.

Pools. Oregon Health & Science University. Accessed June 2022.

A comparison of bacteria present in South Florida ocean and pool water with known ocular pathogens. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science. May 2003.

Pools equipped with a chlorine generator from salt. Portage County Combined Health District. Accessed June 2022.

Swimming and eye health. U.S. Masters Swimming. March 2015.

Recognizing and treating eye injuries. American Academy of Ophthalmology. March 2021.

How to take care of contact lenses. American Academy of Ophthalmology. April 2022.

A randomized multicenter study comparing seawater washes and carmellose artificial tears eyedrops in the treatment of dry eye syndrome. Clinical Ophthalmology. March 2019.

Conjunctivitis (pink eye): Symptoms. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 2019.

Is it OK to wash your eyes out with tap water? American Academy of Ophthalmology. July 2016.

Swimming with the sharks. Review of Optometry. June 2014.

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