How To Protect Your Skin & Hair From Hard Water

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hard water map of the USA
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Do you live in an area that has hard water? 

85% of the area in the US has hard water so chances make it likely that you have some level of hard water in your home. If so, you may be wondering if hard water is doing damage to your hair and skin.

Hard water is the worst. This nuisance is responsible for a whole host of problems around the house, from persistent stains on your clothes to the slow destruction of your water heater.

The term “hard water” can sound a little silly, but it is, in fact, a serious issue that shouldn’t be ignored. That fact is, you may be struggling with hard water and not even realize it.

When hard water is coming out of your pipes, you are likely to experience the effects of it every day on your skin. One of the surest signs that you have hard water is dry or red skin, though there are other even worse skin issues that can arise because of it.

If you have hard water in your home and you’re tired of the damage it’s doing to your skin, we’re here to help.

What is hard water?

The hardness of water is related to the minerals that can be found in it. Though all-natural water will have minerals in it, hard water has a higher concentration. In particular, calcium and magnesium salts or iron are the most common minerals found in hard water.

These minerals interact with the various surfaces that water comes into contact with and causes a variety of problems. The iron might leave a red stain on your clothes, or the magnesium sticks to the metal of your water boiler.

Though hard water generally comes directly from the ground and is most common in homes that get water from a well or natural source, actually the majority of US homes have some level of hard water.

In and of itself, hard water is mostly an irritation. However, some minerals in hard water can carry dangerous bacteria, so if it’s at all possible, you should look to rid your home of the issue.

How does hard water affect your skin?

shower spray

Though minerals like calcium and magnesium aren’t inherently bad for you – in fact, they are a necessary part of your diet and vital to life – your skin can react adversely to excess amounts of them. There are actually numerous ways in which hard water can hurt your skin, either directly or indirectly.

The first indication that hard water is having an effect on your skin is dryness. This dryness is a result of that interaction that your skin has with minerals. In addition to the minerals themselves drying out your skin, they can also clog pores that will interfere with your body’s natural oils.

The tell-tale signs of hard water will be all over your skin. You should expect to see flaking if you have hard water, and you will find that your skin is scaly to the touch. Dry skin can be a minor annoyance initially, but if it is left to get severe enough, it can lead to more noticeable problems like acne or skin blemishes. Dermatitis is also a possibility.

One of the underlying reasons that cause dryness is that hard water doesn’t break down soap as well as regular water. This means that even after you shower or bathe, your body is left with residue from your soap and your skin isn’t as clean as it should be. The cumulative effect of cleansing in hard water over months or years is skin that looks noticeably dry and unhealthy.

How to prevent hard water

If you have hard water in your home and you’ve been experiencing dry skin, your best option is probably installing a water softener. These devices come in a variety of sizes and types and will require a little research before installation. The most common water softener swaps out ions of sodium for the other more problematic minerals.

In the simplest terms, a water softener is a filter that removes excess minerals. The process is quite a bit more involved than that, but the important thing is that a water softener nips the problem in the bud.

Unfortunately, not everyone owns their own home and has the option of installing a water softener.

Apartment renters, in particular, may find it hard to convince their landlords to install such a device (it’s hard enough to get them to fix a broken window). If cutting off the problem at the source isn’t an option, then there are products that you can buy that will help your skin fight back.

A simple and much more affordable solution is to install a water softener shower head (click to see our top picks), these filter out the minerals and soften the water that comes out of the shower rather than trying to soften all of the water in your house.

They are typically not very expensive and they are easy to install, and overall offers the best protection from the nasty build-up.  

Just know that with many of these filters you will have to change or clean the filter to get rid of the build-up within the showerhead. This is a much more affordable option compared to installing (and maintaining) water softeners to have soft water coming out of all the faucets if you just need it for showers. 

Skin products for hard water

When looking for skin products, you want to keep an eye out for ingredients that don’t mix well with hard water. We’ve already discussed how soap interacts poorly with hard water, leading to residue on the skin and clogged pores. The best way to prevent this is to avoid traditional soap altogether

Another thing many people don’t realize is that bath products do not lather as well in hard water, so you could be using a lot more product to get the shampoo, soap, and body wash to foam up. Investing in bath products that are made to work well in hard water will save you money over time because you won’t have to use as much. 

A good moisturizing body wash will help you restore your dry skin without leaving behind a soapy residue.

best body wash for hard water
Hard water makes it harder to create a nice lather.

If you are switching from a normal bar of soap to a body wash, you will probably start to notice a difference in your skin immediately. Click to see our top picks for body wash for hard water areas.

After you step out of the shower, slather on some body oil to help lock in the moisture such as natural hydrating oil. 

If you are shopping for a good moisturizer or lotion for hard water we’ve reviewed a few top picks here. 

This body oil is designed specifically for dry skin and won’t leave you feeling greasy afterward. There is also no soap in it to leave behind that annoying residue. Some of the most beneficial body oils for dry, itchy skin are Coconut, Almond and Jojoba oils.

Hair products for hard water

Special shampoos for hard water lather without wasting product.

If you are struggling with dry skin, chances are you’ve also noticed your hair looking dry and lifeless as a result of hard water.

If that’s the case, look into a chelating shampoo, which is specially designed to remove excess minerals from your hair.

Check out some of our top picks for best hard water shampoo. A good shampoo that is formulated for hard water will not only add moisture to your hair, but will also remove excess minerals and soap deposits left behind by other hair products.  

Many readers that live with hard water have also had good results with shampoo bars, while it may take a bit of getting used to a bar vs liquid shampoo, there are several benefits to using a bar especially to avoid messy bottles when traveling. Click here to see our recommended shampoo bars for hard water.

According to multiple experts, there are currently no conclusive studies proving that hard water causes hair breakage, hair loss or hair thinning. However, hard water does have a tendency to dry your hair out.

The minerals in hard water can leave behind a scaly film on your hair. Many people with hard water also complain that their hair looks dull, lacks shine, and tangles more easily. The color of treated or dyed hair can also look off or have a strange tone due to hard water. Calcium buildup on your scalp is another possible problem caused by hard water.

Hair tips for hard water:

#1 – Use Shampoos Made Specifically for Hard Water

woman shampooing hair in shower

Did you know that there are shampoos that are made specifically for use in hard water regions?  These shampoos have ingredients that help to get rid of build-up in your hair, allowing your conditioners to be able to penetrate your hair.  

These shampoos are typically a little bit more expensive than regular shampoos, but the good effects that they have on your hair will far outweigh the cost of the shampoo. Click here to see our top picks for good quality clarifying shampoo for hard water. 

You may also want to try out one of these good shampoo bars for hard water.

#2 – Use Conditioner for Hard Water

One of the most popular conditions for hard water is made by Ion. They have a line of hair products made for hard water. They sell this Ion Hard Water Conditioner which is a popular option for people living in hard water areas or that have well water in their home. The condition is made to help prevent the build-up of minerals.

Another great option is this whole “kit” by Malibu C called the Hard Water Wellness Collection which includes a hard water shampoo, conditioner and “hair remedy” packets that are designed to be used once a week. The packs contain dry crystals that you wet in your palm by rubbing your hands together with some water to dissolve them. Then you scrunch the mixture in your hair, leave in hair for up to 5 minutes and then Rinse. Shampoo, rinse thoroughly.

The product gets rave reviews from a lot of customers and is a good option if you are dealing with hard water and want a full kit solution.

#3 – Treat Your Hair with a Leave-In Conditioner

Leave-in conditioners are not only great when it comes to combating hard water, but it can be a great way to offer intense conditioning and hydration no matter what type of water you are dealing with. Just know that you cannot just leave any conditioner in your hair.  

Only conditioners that are designed to be left in your hair (like this one by Ion) should be left after you shower and rinse. Otherwise, you may find that your hair gets oily from the build-up of conditioner left behind.

#4 – Rinse Your Hair in Vinegar to Get Rid of Build-Up

bottle of vinegar

If you have been dealing with hard water for a while now, chances are you probably already have some build-up formed.  If you do, then there is something that you can do to try to strip away the gunk and film left behind on your hair. One way you can do this is by rinsing your hair with vinegar.  

Sure, vinegar doesn’t really smell the best, but it does a great job at removing build up because it is so acidic.  It also has other benefits, such as maintaining the pH balance of your hair and leaving it feeling soft and smooth.

 The best way to do it to cut down on smell is to use apple cider vinegar diluted with water. We like this organic vinegar one from Bragg. You can do this as often as once every week.

As you can see, there are definitely some ways that you can protect yourself from hard water.  Don’t just assume that just because you have hard water in your area that your hair is doomed. You can still have vibrant hair with a beautiful shine, you just have to take a few extra steps to ensure that you protect it and offer it the moisture it needs.

What Makes Hard Water “Hard”?

Hard water is basically just water in a region that has a high amount of minerals.  Soft water does not have as many of these minerals and therefore is more of a treat for your hair and skin.  

Generally, the minerals found in hard water are magnesium and calcium, but there are others as well. Here is a list of minerals found in hard water, and how they affect your hair:

  • Calcium – While dietary calcium is associated with strong bones, teeth, nails and healthy hair, excessive calcium in water has a negative effect.
  • Magnesium –  Is actually added back into the drinking water in many cities after the water has been softened due to the health benefits of this mineral.
  • Chlorine – Can damage the natural oils (sebum) that protect your hair. If you’ve ever been to a swimming pool you’re also familiar with the nasty smell it leaves.  
  • Sulfates – Takes away natural healthy oils from your hair and can leave you with a dry scalp.
  • Iron – Changes the texture of your hair, resulting in dry, brittle hair
  • Copper – Changes the pigmentation of your hair
  • Silica – Leaves a hard film behind on your hair and scalp
  • Lead – Prevents coloring treatments and other chemical processes from working. But lead is a major health concern with effects that go well beyond just your hair. Much has been done to eliminate lead from water in the US over the years but is still a concern, for example, the problems in Flint MI in recent news.

So is hard water bad for my hair?

The minerals mentioned above can build up in your hair, leaving a film behind.  The film that is left on your hair can prevent moisture from being able to penetrate your hair, and this can make the hair dull and dry, cause it to tangle excessively, and can even cause you to have changes in the color of your hair.  

Some people even notice that the build-up left behind by hard water causes them to seem like they have dandruff.  If you have hard water, you may notice a build-up of soap scum in your tub or shower. This is another symptom of the minerals mixing with the soap and clinging to bathroom surfaces.

Other Problems Associated with Hard Water

woman with tangled hair from hard water
Hard water makes it harder for shampoo to lather and often causes hair tangles.

Aside from it drying your hair out, there are some other problems that you may notice if you have hard water.  These include:

  • Lack of lathering for soap and shampoos 
  • The inability for a conditioner to absorb into your hair
  • Changes in the tone of your hair
  • Heaviness or flatness of the hair
  • Possible hair loss
  • Inability to brush your hair without intense tangles
  • Eczema

One of the top complaints we hear about hard water from readers is that they don’t get that fresh and clean feeling in their hair on their skin after getting out of the shower or bath. Another very noticeable problem is that it is harder to get a nice lather of soap foam in the shower….or a nice bubble bath.

Because of this, people in hard water areas often end up spending more on soap, shampoo and conditioner- simply because they use more and more to get the lather and bubbles that they would if they had soft water.

Regions that have hard water typically don’t just one day stop having hard water, so you have to figure out ways to condition and protect your hair.  The good news, however, is that there are some things that you can do to protect your hair from hard water so that it can still have a healthy shine.

We should mention that while researching the topic of hard water, according to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, this study found that hard water actually did NOT have an effect on tensile strength and elasticity of hair. Another study on hard water and health.

However, from our friends and readers, we’ve talked to, the main problem people worry about is NOT the tensile strength of their hair (most of us are not putting our hair into an Instron strength testing machine.)

Most hair complaints we hear are about the overall “unclean” feeling (nasty residue build-up), tangles and difficulty combing and lack of softness. So while the study may prove it doesn’t actually weaken the strength of your strands of hair, this is generally not the complaint people have with hard water.

If you are still curious and want a short video explanation, here’s a good explanation of hard vs. soft water and the effects:

Banish hard water from your home

If it’s at all an option, you should do everything in your power to rid hard water from your home. Like we discussed earlier, dry and blemished skin are just some of the problems related to the issue, and a few of those other problems can be costly if left unchecked.

Spend a little money now to save yourself a lot of money down the road. To start, the easiest and most affordable fix is to get a shower head filter to soften your hard water and pick out a decent soap, body wash, and shampoo. 

Until you can get a water softener, though, give yourself (and your skin) a little relief with some moisturizers and body oil. Oh, and throw out that old bar of soap that’s not really made with hard water in mind.

Hopefully, these small hacks will have you feeling cleaner without the soap scum and residue and will have you scratching and itching less. 

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