Skin- and hair-care secrets from California Olympians

Olympic swimmer Dara Torres recommends rotating shampoos to keep hair looking good.
(The Washington Post / Getty Images)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

Looking beautiful isn’t the goal, but it’s often a natural byproduct of the discipline, tenacity and good health required to be an Olympic champion. The beauty and fashion industries have taken note, sponsoring athletes, naming them brand ambassadors and featuring them on magazine covers, as Vogue did this month with a picture of tennis star Sabrina Williams and soccer goalie Hope Solo arm in arm with swimmer Ryan Lochte, all dressed in swimsuits and running on a sandy beach. Now that it is officially summer, we turned to some California Olympians for their thoughts on how to beat the heat and humidity that are intrinsic to their sports. Swimmers Dara Torres (she was born in Beverly Hills and grew up in L.A.) and Natalie Coughlin (a Berkeley grad) plus volleyball player Jennifer Kessy (a USC grad born in San Clemente) shared their secrets for looking lovely even in humidity and sizzling summer sun.

Protect skin

Without sunscreen, “I absolutely burn,” says newly anointed CoverGirl brand ambassador Kessy, whose volleyball training includes running on the beach. “If I go out in the sun, even just to the grocery store, I’m definitely putting [sunscreen] on my face and on my arms. Or even if I go on a 20-minute hike I’m wearing something or I would burn for sure.

“I wear at least an SPF 70, and if I can’t find that then it’s at least a 50 all over my body — my hands, my feet, my arms, my legs,” she says. “I think that a lot of women forget to put it on their legs because they’re so worried about their face.”

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group’s 2012 Sunscreen Guide warns that only 25% of sunscreens are effective and that it’s important to constantly reapply even high SPF sunscreen. Many EWG-recommended sunscreens use minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that can leave a whitish tint.

When it’s really hot, Kessy and Torres prefer those cream sunscreens that may look white on the skin. “That helps me know where I’ve applied it,” Kessy says, adding that especially during long tournament days, skin safety trumps vanity.


Kessy says it is important to test sunscreen before taking a long run or engaging in any type of competition to make sure it won’t run into your eyes and sting when you perspire.

Darker skin needs plenty of sun protection too. “I have Spanish blood in me, so getting burned really isn’t an issue, but I’m so worried about my skin,” Torres says. She uses MD Solar Science and Ocean Potion sunscreens and Neutrogena Cleansing Wipes to take it all off at the end of the day.

Ready, set, glow

Coughlin, who’s also an avid surfer, credits her glowing skin to her diet. “I have mostly a plant-based diet, so I try to get as many fruits and vegetables in every meal as possible,” she says. “If your skin and hair look dull, a lot of times that has to do with your diet as well as your skin- and hair-care routine.”

Bronzers, self-tanners and spray tans are options for boosting a healthy glow.

Five-time Olympic swimmer Torres once struggled with an eating disorder. “I know what it’s like to deprive myself of food and then crave it even more and end up eating more than you should,” Torres says. For health and good looks, she counsels, “Don’t deprive yourself of food and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.… Drink lots of water.”

Topical moisturizer is also really important, “especially in the summertime by the pool or by the ocean,” Torres says. She uses La Mer and Sisley face moisturizers and body lotion by Amlactin (her sponsor). Thick body butter doesn’t necessarily translate to hydrated skin, she warns.

Banish the green

“Some swimmers’ hair turns green and some doesn’t,” Torres says. “But hair definitely can get damaged from the chlorine. What I suggest to people who aren’t heavy-duty, in-elite-training-for-the-Olympics swimmers is to put conditioner underneath your swim cap.” Torres likes WEN shampoo but recommends rotating shampoos. She doesn’t use a chlorine-removing shampoo on her own hair but does on her daughter’s.

Like Torres, Coughlin trains outdoors year-round, and she’s in the water up to four hours a day. But she’s not a fan of chlorine-removing shampoos, saying, “I really recommend against those because they strip your hair of all its natural moisture and then that makes hair more susceptible to the chlorine damage, so it creates a vicious cycle.”

Instead, she says it’s important to use a gentle shampoo and a really moisturizing conditioner after every pool session. She’s a Pantene spokeswoman and uses its Moisture Renewal shampoo, Moisture Whip leave-in conditioner and a deep conditioner at least once a week.

“The sun definitely has bleaching effects on your hair … and over time also makes hair more susceptible to damage,” says Coughlin, who advocates a swim cap for laps and wearing a hat outside the pool for general sun protection.

The frizzies

“As a teenager my hair was pretty frizzy and more damaged,” says Coughlin, who’s one-quarter Filipino. She credits a healthful diet, good hair-care products and working with instead of against her hair type for her healthy mane. “It’s important that hairstylists shape my layers so that when I do wear it wavy and play up my natural curls it looks good,” Coughlin says, adding that leave-in conditioner makes her frizz more manageable.

“But as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to really embrace my hair’s natural waves and natural texture rather than constantly straightening it,” she says.

Hot and dry

“Sand is my life,” Kessy says. “I have sand in my car, in my bed; I have sand everywhere.... After one practice you can feel my scalp and it’s full of sand — it’s even in my ears and mouth. I’ll have a sandwich and I’ll be like ‘That tastes like sand, hmmm.’”

In a long volleyball tournament her hair feels hot and dry, “It feels like my hair is going to light on fire,” Kessy says. “I try not to wash my hair every single day because that dries it out. I may have a little sand in my hair, but I just try to wear my hair up.”

Warrior goddess glam

“For the Olympics the last thing on my mind is how I’m going to look,” Torres says. But there are other sporty or post-sporty occasions when glamming it up is in order. “For photo shoots they always want to do something in the water… They’re making waterproof makeup much better now, so it runs less.”

For the last Olympics Torres kept her hair short, and she likes slicking her hair back into a “wet” look or sometimes putting it into a ponytail when it’s longer. “It’s clean, it’s kind of glamorous, but yet it’s easy to take care of and to deal with, you know?”

Kessy says that brushing a little powder over her sunscreen and a bit of foundation keeps her makeup from melting off. She uses CoverGirl Waterproof LashBlast Volume Blasting mascara for a dressier look. “But you have to be careful. If you put too much on it’s going to hit your sunglasses,” she says.

To keep her lips from drying out, “I always have something on them,” Kessy says. SPF options are good for daytime. She also likes CoverGirl Outlast All-Day Lipcolor.

But don’t overdo the makeup. “Natural beauty,” Coughlins says, “is what defines California style.”