Psst! Your shower could be sabotaging your hair and skin
Have you ever showered in a new place—maybe at a friend’s house or at a hotel while traveling—and noticed that your hair and skin looked and felt different? Maybe your hair was softer and shinier than normal, and maybe your skin was softer and smoother. On the flip side, maybe your hair was filmy and dull, and maybe your skin was rough and dry. I experience this constantly, and it’s because of the different types of water I shower in.
Yes, there really are different types of water—two kinds to be exact: hard water and soft water.
The former is what I shower in when I’m at home in Los Angeles. The latter is what I shower in when I’m visiting family in my home state of Michigan. When I’m in L.A., my hair is duller, drier, and more straw-like, and my skin is dull and sensitive. When I’m in Michigan, I’m shocked at the softness and smoothness of my hair. I’m equally surprised at how bright and calm my skin looks. It’s truly a night and day difference, and it’s mostly due to the water. That’s right: One type of water is beneficial for the health of our skin and hair, and one is not. Read on to find out which is which.
What are the two types of water?
So, what’s the deal with hard water vs. soft water? While many of us have heard these terms before, most of us don’t know the real difference between them or how they affect the skin. It all comes down to the mineral content and composition. Hard water contains high concentrations of dissolved minerals like calcium, magnesium, chalk, and lime, which are collected as water trickles through natural mineral deposits in the earth. Soft water, on the other hand, is water that contains low concentrations of dissolved minerals. This type of water can occur naturally, although many households obtain it through the use of a water softener, which removes all the dissolved minerals through a process called ion exchange.
Which is better for our skin and hair, hard water or soft water?
Soft water is ideal. Hard water isn’t. This is because the minerals that are present in hard water dry out the hair and skin, worsen existing sensitivity, and might even affect the ingredients in topical products. Take it from Rita Linkner, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City: “Hard water is known to be very damaging to the skin. The excess minerals are drying and stripping and can leave the skin vulnerable to eczema. It is believed that the calcium and chloride in hard water increase transepidermal water loss and affect the skin’s ability to heal wounds properly, leading to an increased propensity to eczema. This is exacerbated if intense surfactants are also added to this mix.”
Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., a dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare, agrees. “One published study tested people with normal skin on the effects of hard water and found that there was a greater residual of an irritating substance, SLS (often referred to simply as ‘sulfates’) in people who washed in hard water vs. soft water. Also, the amount of water loss from the skin, and subsequent drying, was greater when skin was washed in hard water.” What’s worse is that, according to Dr. Ciraldo, people who have underlying skin sensitivity, such as eczema, can see a worsening of skin rashes and itches when in contact with hard water.
Hard water is just as bad for your hair as it is for your skin. According to Colin Ford, education director at SACHAJUAN, “while not dangerous, hard water can leave your hair dull and brittle, making it more prone to breakage. It can also discolor lighter tones, especially blondes and reds, and cause excessive fading of color-treated hair. Soft water, on the other hand, balances your hair’s pH level, so you’re left with silky smooth hair after every wash.”
How can you tell if your shower uses hard or soft water?
There are a few tell-tale signs that you’re living in an area of hard water. The first of which is that aforementioned dull, itchy skin and dry, brittle hair. If you’re unsure about the state of your hair and skin, there are other clues, like soap scum, which is the stubborn, chalky white spots left behind by hard water on bathtubs, sinks, and faucets. You can also look for cloudy mineral deposits left on glassware and dinginess of clothing after washing.
What can you do if your home uses hard water?
“Because hard water makes our skin essentially more sensitive, it may have an impact on products with potentially irritating ingredients,” Dr. Ciraldo explains. She recommends avoiding sulfate-based cleansers if you live in an area of hard water (keep an eye out for any product that contains sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate). She also recommends being cautious with products that include potent acids, like glycolic and salicylic acid, since those are reactive ingredients that can irritate already-sensitive skin. You might also want to consider doing away with (or at least minimizing your contact with) drying ingredients like ethyl alcohol.
As for the products you should use, reach for sulfate-free cleansers. “There are cleansers that work without water for the face,” Dr. Ciraldo says. “These creamy cleansers are a good idea if you feel that your hard water may be giving your skin a dull or irritated appearance or if you are experiencing any facial itch. For hair, I suggest using a leave-in conditioner if you live in an area of hard water.” A shower filter can help, too. These filters minimize the amount of minerals in the water, which can reduce the drying and sensitizing effects of hard water.
When it comes to your beauty routine, the hard water vs. soft water analysis is helpful. It doesn’t mean, however, that showering in hard water is dooming your hair and skin. With some conscious product use and a shower filter, it’s easy to mend and even prevent the negative effects.