Here's what dermatologists say you should wash your face with instead.

Kelsey Haywood Lucas
May 04, 2021 @ 4:22 pm
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tap water effects on skin hard water
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What is clean beauty? And—for that matter—green beauty, eco-friendly beauty, and natural beauty? In Clean, Green, And In Between, we explore the ins and outs of these buzzy terms, report on the products and ingredients to look out for, and answer all of your most pressing questions.

Before you read another word, let me just say that I know what you're already thinking: "Really? We need to worry about water now, too? It's like that?" Here's the thing: If you're reading this, you probably care about your skin. You might cleanse it once or twice a day. You've likely invested in some products—a good sunscreen, or a vitamin C serum, or a barrier repair cream—to keep it happy and healthy and glowy.

But what's the point of doing all that—spending the time, spending the money—if there's a sneaky skin saboteur lurking in your pipes and flowing through your faucet? Something that's undoing all your good work (at best) and possibly contributing to more serious skin conditions? Something that could be causing problems not only for you and your acid mantle and your wallet, but for the environment, too?

You may have heard the rumors that tap water is loaded with minerals that can cause breakouts, dryness, irritation, and more. (According to a widely circulated anecdote, this is why many French women avoid using hard tap water on their skin and instead opt for minimal cleansing routines featuring alternative forms of H2O, like micellar waters and spring water facial mists.) But is hard water a legitimate concern—or perhaps some mild fear-mongering mixed with marketing hype designed to sell us more products that we might not necessarily need? I mean, surely, if tap water was bad for our skin we'd probably hear more about it, right? 

Turns out, maybe not. 

"This is an important topic and often overlooked," says Sandy Skotnicki, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Toronto, and author of Beyond Soap. "Few people really consider what plain water can do to your skin or the effects of water hardness."

Wait, what? How could plain water be bad for your skin?

tap water skin effects
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Water is central to our very existence: It's vital to the life of every single cell in our bodies, and 64% of our skin is made from it. So why, exactly, would it be harmful? "When discussing skin health, it's all about pH and water hardness," says Dr. Skotnicki. 

If you're struggling to recall chem 101, here's the key takeaway: pH is a scale that measures the acid-alkaline ratio of a substance from one (most acidic) to 14 (most alkaline). A pH of seven is neutral, so anything lower is acidic, and anything higher is alkaline. 

"Our normal, healthy skin pH is acidic, in the 4 to 6 range, while most tap water is around 7 or 8 pH, making it alkaline," explains Dr. Skotnicki. "Alkaline water can damage the skin's barrier by raising the pH above healthy levels." (This is important and we'll get more into it soon.)

What is "hard" water?

So, what's in our tap water that raises its pH to alkaline levels? While it depends on where you live (and even what specific water treatment facility is responsible for your water), it's generally safe to assume that minerals—like calcium, magnesium, and sometimes iron—are added to your local H2O and give it that "hard water" status. 

It's the concentration of those minerals that matter most, as a higher concentration leads to harder water. Anything above 60 milligrams per liter of water is considered "hard," but extremely hard water can top 180 milligrams per liter. 

And then on the opposite side of the spectrum is soft water, which clocks in below 60 milligrams per liter and features little to no calcium or magnesium content. Water can be naturally soft (think: rainwater), or it can be chemically softened. 

Hard water has some drawbacks—especially when it comes to skin and hair health—that we're going to discuss in detail. But it's also important to note that it has its merits, too: The calcium and magnesium it contains provide health benefits, and it's generally considered to taste better than soft water.

What kind of skin damage can hard water cause?

tap water effects on skin hard water
Credit: Getty Images

The effects of hard water go way beyond soap scum on your shampoo bottle—although that's a thing, too, because when soap reacts with the calcium in hard water, it forms soap scum (and also makes lathering more difficult, which is why you might need so much shampoo). As Dr. Skotnicki pointed out earlier, alkaline water damages the skin barrier—which is not something you want to happen, as it can incite a whole host of issues that range from cosmetic to systemic.

"The skin barrier helps protect the skin from toxins, bacteria, and contaminants from the external environment," Devika Icecreamwala, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with Icecreamwala Dermatology, previously told Hello Giggles. "It acts as a shield for our skin. If the skin barrier is damaged, moisture can easily escape, leaving the skin more prone to inflammation, irritation, and infections." (That translates to everything from breakouts and rosacea to hyperpigmentation and dehydration.) 

Also on the list? Accelerated aging. "Atmospheric pollution from water is linked to signs of skin aging or overexposure," says Luigi L. Polla, M.D., a Geneva-based dermatologist and founder of Forever Institut and Alchimie Forever. "Metals, and iron, in particular, have a pro-aging effect because they act as a catalyst for the formation of free radicals," he explains. 

Alkaline water is also linked to an increased risk of systemic issues like eczema. "Some studies have shown where the water is harder, the incidence of eczema is higher due to the skin barrier disruption," says Dr. Skotnicki. "Research conducted in the U.K., Spain, and Japan shows the prevalence of atopic dermatitis is significantly higher in areas with the hardest water quality compared to the lowest." 

Who is most at risk—and do we really need to worry about this?

Wondering if your water is alkaline? In the U.S, approximately 85% of homes are served with hard water—so unless you treat your H2O with a water softener or other type of filter, it's pretty likely. "Most tap water around the world will be more alkaline than our skin," says Dr. Skotnicki. (If you want to know more about the specifics of your water, check out your area's Consumer Confidence Report—an annual water quality report that the Environmental Protection Agency requires community water systems to provide every year by July 1st.)

Anyone, with any skin type, can be affected by hard water—but some are more likely to experience issues than others. If you have a genetic predisposition toward atopic eczema (meaning if you or someone in your family suffers from it), you'll likely see benefits from softer water. "I often recommend water softening filters for my patients with atopic eczema," says Dr. Skotnicki. 

However, even if you don't have AD, investing in a water softening filter may help keep your skin healthier—whether it's because you stay a little glowier now, or avoid more serious skin concerns in the future. "Everyone would benefit from softer water," Dr. Skotnicki explains. "Those who may have a mild genetic tendency to AD, but are not born with it, could be pushed into eczema through long-term exposure to water of a higher pH."

How does hard water affect the environment?

It's also worth considering how investing in a water softener, making a few product swaps, or (even better!) using less tap water altogether can affect your environmental footprint. Think about it: If your skin barrier and microbiome are healthier, it might eradicate your need for, say, that super rich moisturizer, acne treatment, or calming serum. A healthy barrier leads to better skin with less need for product interventions—and cutting down on your overall consumption is one of the easiest ways that conscious beauty consumers can make a positive impact. 

And even if soft water didn't directly benefit your skin (which it does!), hard water is just a lot harder on the environment overall. It leads to more energy waste (you'll use more water and take longer showers because lathering is more difficult), inefficient operation of appliances (it requires things like your dishwasher and washing machine to work harder), earlier failure of appliances, and a reduced lifespan of your plumbing system—all of which harm Mother Nature (and cost you more money).

Plus, as the new limited-edition "Spread the Word" sweatshirt collaboration from Versed and zero-waste brand For Days points out, running the faucet for just 60 seconds while you wash and rinse your face can use up to three gallons of water—which strengthens the case for limiting how much we use traditional tap water. (It's less exposure for your skin and less stress on the environment.)

Of course, limiting our personal footprints will only go so far; when it comes to healing our environmental issues, sweeping policy change is important. "In the bigger picture, lobbying for a less industrialized approach to agriculture would go a long way to make our tap water healthier," says Dr. Polla. (Queue up Kiss the Ground on Netflix if you want to dive into the benefits of regenerative agriculture—or if you just want to see what Ian Somerhalder has been up to since his Vampire Diaries days.)

OK—so what can we do to prevent or minimize damage from hard water?

1. Cleanse with micellar water as a tap water alternative.

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PSA: You don't need traditional soap and water to effectively cleanse your skin—and skipping the harsh rinse might benefit your microbiome. "Micellar water is a water that contains micelles, which are tiny droplets called lipid molecules," says Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat. "The micelles work by trapping dirt, oil and debris, and breaking it down so it can easily be removed." He adds that because micellar waters use a very small amount of surfactants, they're more gentle than traditional forms of cleansing and can be perfect for those with sensitive skin.

Dr. Skotnicki recommends Bioderma Sensibio H2O, one of the first micellar waters to hit the market (and still one of the most beloved). "Bioderma has studies to show that their micellar water improves skin barrier function," says Dr. Skotnicki. It's formulated with a physiological pH of approximately 5.5, using highly purified and pharmaceutical-grade water—and all you have to do is apply it to a cotton pad, then wipe the grime away with no rinsing required. 

2. Use a pH-balanced facial mist to rinse or dampen skin.

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"To reduce irritation and protect the skin barrier, I always suggest using thermal spring water instead of tap water when possible," says Dr. Elsa Jungman, a skin chemist and founder of the microbiome-focused Dr. Elsa Jungman skincare line. For the occasions when you'd want to splash a bit of water on your face—perhaps in the morning if you skip a full A.M. cleanse, before you apply a moisturizer, or just whenever you want to feel refreshed—Dr. Jungman recommends Avène Thermal Spring Water, another iconic French staple that features a neutral pH, optimal mineral composition and postbiotic microflora. It's clinically proven to soothe, soften, and calm sensitive skin—and it feels a little bit boujee to spritz water that's been bottled directly at the source.

3. Take shorter, cooler showers—without skimping on spa vibes.

While taking a shorter shower is slightly trickier when you have hard water (it's more difficult to work up a lather, and fully rinsing shampoo takes longer), there's a strong case to be made for hustling as much as possible. "Washing in general damages our skin," says Dr. Jungman. "And the hotter the water, the more it will leach moisture and trigger problems." She recommends aiming for five to ten minutes max and keeping temperatures in the lukewarm range.

If you're mourning the idea of a long, steamy, therapeutic shower experience (*raises hand*), get creative with ways to extend the spa vibes before and after you're actually standing under the H2O. Instead of doing a body scrub in the shower, for example, try a gentle dry brushing session before you get in—it will lightly exfoliate and help boost blood flow and lymphatic drainage. (Try the Esker Dry Brush, which is made from grass tree wood, all-natural bristles, and finely wound hemp twine.) Then, once you've finished, sit down and massage yourself with a rich moisturizer to replace and lock in hydration.

4. Install a water softening system in your home.

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OK, so you want to go big? One of the most impactful and efficient ways to cut your skin's exposure to hard water is with a water softening filter, which is a large industrial device built into your plumbing system that combats calcium and limescale. "If you get very dry skin from showering or have a tendency toward eczema, then a water softener will help keep the pH of tap water lower and damage the skin less," says Dr. Skotnicki.

Installing a system for your entire home is a smart investment if you're looking for long-term value—just seek out a specialist in your area who can make custom recommendations and handle the installation. Or, if you're handy and want to tackle it solo, you can find water softeners online (this GE model is a popular, high-quality pick), but it's strongly recommended that you speak with an expert to determine the right type of unit based on your space's size and specs. Also keep in mind that water softeners require salt, which you'll need to replace regularly.

5. Upgrade your showerhead with a specialty water filter.

If you'd prefer to start on a smaller, more DIY-friendly scale, you can choose from hundreds of specialty shower filters that offer various levels of water improvement. The Hello Klean shower filter, which removes unwanted minerals and chlorine, is a favorite: It has a minimalist, sleek design that can attach to many types of showerheads (and even some bath taps, which is great news if you love a good soak), and you'll score a discount if you sign up for a subscription for the replaceable piece of the filter.