Color Me Safer 2023: Choosing Children’s Swimsuits

Who would think that choosing a swimsuit could affect water safety? But it really can! The visibility provided by a swimsuit can aid water watchers in spotting a swimmer in distress, a point proven by Natalie Livingston, co-founder of Alive Solutions, an aquatic safety consultancy serving pools and aquatic centers, insurance companies and others with a professional interest in water safety.

“I’m a water safety expert, but I’m also a mom of two kids,” she says. A visit to the store in spring, when many people shop for their swimsuits, sparked a realization. “Everything on the shelves this time of year is pastels, or blacks or whites. From my time as a lifeguard, there are certain things that just stand out to you” – specifically the way certain colors pop while other seem to disappear underwater.

Pool and Lake Tests: Think Bright, Think Contrast

So Natalie set up a test using 14 different swimsuit colors in a pool, showing how they appear in three feet of water, with a still and agitated surface. The results were remarkable: “The white and the blue just disappeared,” especially with agitation.

While many dark colors were visible against the blue-bottomed pool, they would be easier to dismiss as shadow or debris, especially when their profile is broken up by surface agitation, and their apparent size possibly altered by refraction. The winners for visibility? “Neon orange, neon green, bright yellow and hot pink,” says Natalie. “Think 1980’s colors.”

Pool test

(Images courtesy of Alive Solutions)

A follow-up test in 18 inches of lake water confirmed those results, although the pink was less visible. With a dark bottom, dark colors disappeared completely. While lake clarity differs and reflections change with the sky, in this case everything disappeared in two feet of water.

Lake water test

(Images courtesy of Alive Solutions)

Avoid Large Patterns and Prints

After her tests Natalie received many questions about how patterns affect visibility. So she recently re-ran her tests, using a range of colors, each with different print variations: small or large, with light or dark patterns. The conclusion:

  • Small patterns don’t alter visibility much
  • Larger patterns do, especially dark patterns, and for the worse – think about how camouflage patterns reduce visibility by breaking up shapes
  • Lighter patterns could be seen, but could resemble surface reflections
  • Most importantly, once again, the brightest neon colors were best

“As a drowning investigator, you hear so many people say they saw something underwater, but they dismissed it because they thought it was a shadow, or a towel, or a pile of leaves,” she says. “Having a bright color can make a person look twice.”

Pattern Test

(Images courtesy of Alive Solutions)

No Color can Substitute for Close Attention

It’s vital to remember that the first rule of water safety for kids is to have a responsible adult offering close observation any time kids are in or near water. “If you have on a bright color and nobody is watching, it doesn’t help,” Natalie stresses. “But in those cases where the unexpected happens, anything to help draw attention is good.”

Natalie shared one anecdote of a mother who credited her son’s orange suit for drawing her attention to the bottom of the pool after she and her husband, who were in close proximity, were briefly distracted. “She said, if he were in a darker color, I might not have caught it out of the corner of my eye.”

In addition to the blog on Alive Solutions, where you can read Natalie’s original pool water visibility and lake water visibility test posts and her 2023 pattern visibility test post, she also offers her quarter-century of aquatic safety experience to parents and individuals through Facebook groups, including Aquatic Safety Connection (a great resource for any FOSS family.)

As you prepare for a summer of fun in the water, we hope this helps you make smarter, safer choices. Spread the word and we’ll see you at the pool!

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