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A Guide to the Effects of Hard Water on Skin

Hard water can have a number of effects throughout your household. If you have hard water, you are probably very familiar with soap scum – the product of a reaction between the minerals in hard water and your soaps. It can also be unsightly and difficult to clean. You may be familiar with limescale as well, a hard collection of minerals that gathers on fixtures that come in hard water in your home.

What you may not be familiar with is the effects of hard water on skin, which may be common if you don’t have a water softener. Like the surfaces of your household fixtures, the minerals left behind by hard water can also have an impact on your body. These minerals can dry out your skin, clog your pores, irritate sensitive skin and cause flare-ups.

Hard water has long been linked to skin irritation, as it can affect your skin in multiple ways, both through the minerals themselves and their reaction with the soap that you use. This can produce dry, irritated skin that is common in areas with hard water. If you or someone you know struggles with these issues, it can be helpful to understand the difference between hard and soft water, how exactly it affects the surfaces it comes into contact with and what solutions exist, such as a whole home water softener

What is Hard and Soft Water?

Water that has a high mineral content is referred to as “hard” water, and water with a very low content of minerals as “soft” water. The two most common minerals found in hard water are calcium and magnesium, but it can also contain other minerals and metals including manganese and iron.

The formation of hard water occurs as it passes through soil that is rich in minerals, such as chalky soil or limestone. Since water is a solvent, it picks up mineral ions as it moves through these types of soils. The hardness of the water coming out of your tap is a result of the mineral content in the soil near your groundwater source. This is why some regions have hard water while others do not.

How Can You Tell if You Have Hard Water?

The most effective way to determine your water hardness is to test it. There are test kits available that can tell you exactly how hard your water is. These tests will express water hardness in terms of grains per gallon (GPG), a measurement of the quantity of minerals contained in the water. 

Water hardness is classified between soft water (water with less than 1 GPG of mineral content), all the way up to very hard water (which contains 10 or more GPG of mineral content). Any reading over 1 GPG is considered to be hard. It will range from moderately hard to very hard depending on the actual mineral content of your water:

  • Soft water: 0-1 GPG
  • Moderately hard water: 1-7 GPG
  • Hard water: 7-10 GPG
  • Very hard water: over 10 GPG.

Another way to find out if you have hard water is to check your local municipal water supply’s water quality report. This is typically a yearly report that contains in-depth information about your local water supply including a water hardness measurement and breakdown of the minerals that contribute to it.

The easiest way to tell if you have hard water is to simply observe the signs of hard water. One of those signs is how hard water affects the skin. Other things you can observe are soap scum and scaling, both of which are visually distinct, difficult to clean, and a persistent presence in areas with hard water.

Common Effects of Hard Water on Skin

If you live in an area with hard water, you may already be familiar with most of these skin issues, due to using a hard water vs soft water shower. Some of the most common effects of hard water on skin are:

  • Dry Skin
  • Irritation
  • Clogged pores / Acne
  • Irritated Scalp / Dandruff

Dry Skin

Disrupting the moisture levels of your skin is the biggest impact of bathing in hard water for most people. Showering in hard water makes moisturizers and lotions less effective while simultaneously drying out your skin. This may result in irritated and dry skin that is difficult to properly moisturize. 

After hard water makes direct contact with your skin, it dries and leaves behind deposits, which primarily consist of calcium bicarbonate. When this calcium is left on your skin, it upsets the natural oil levels, which are responsible for regulating your skin’s moisture. Once this delicate balance is upset, it results in dry, itchy skin. The minerals left behind can also clog your pores, resulting in further irritation and can cause acne.

Another way that hard water dries out your skin is by reacting with your soap. When soap comes in contact with the minerals in hard water, it causes a reaction, creating a precipitate of calcium and magnesium carboxylates known as soap scum. This reaction makes it difficult to clean the resulting soap residue off of your skin completely, which then can cause irritation and dryness long after you have left the shower.

Irritated Scalp

Hard water dries out the scalp by making it difficult to completely wash out all traces of shampoo. Showering in hard water also leaves a thin film of soap behind on your scalp, which can dry it out and lead to irritation. Conditions where the scalp is already dry, such as dandruff, will be made worse by the presence of hard water. 

Poor Lather

Soap needs water that isn’t laden down with minerals in order to create a good lather. The minerals contained in hard water react with soap, creating soap scum rather than a rich lather. People who have hard water also tend to use more soap to compensate for a weak lather. This in turn puts more soap on your skin, making it more difficult to wash off.

Is Soft Water Better for Your Skin?

Once most people learn how hard water has been affecting their skin, they often wonder, “Does soft water help dry skin?” The answer is yes. Soft water eliminates nearly all of the problems associated with hard water, by solving for the negative effects at the source. 

If your skin is feeling dried out because of your hard water, then switching to soft water will have a beneficial effect. The two mechanisms through which hard water dries out your skin are both directly related to its high mineral content. When you shower with hard water, tiny amounts of minerals are left behind on your skin. On the flip side, with soft water, those mineral deposits never occur. This ensures that your skin’s natural oil levels are left unaffected, allowing your skin to achieve a level of equilibrium more easily. 

At the same time, soap doesn’t react the same way with the low mineral content of soft water. By using soft water, you’ll no longer have a thin film of soap leftover on your skin from your showers. In result, moisturizers and lotions you use will more effectively penetrate and hydrate your skin. 

Solving Your Hard Water Problem

If you suffer from dry, irritated skin from hard water, there are various solutions available. There are many products on the market to help deal with the consequences of hard water topically, such as moisturizers and soaps. Unfortunately, these solutions are temporary and only address the effects of hard water and not the cause.

The most effective way to address your hard water issues for good is to eliminate hard water entirely. This is accomplished by transitioning to a whole-house water softening system. These systems are installed at the main municipal water line coming into your house. As water flows, mineral ions are replaced with sodium ions through a gentle, natural process of ion exchange. Periodically, the mineral ions captured in the system are flushed, returning the system to peak functionality.

Unlike most of the workarounds and temporary solutions to hard water, acquiring a whole house system solves all of the problems that hard water causes.

In addition to causing skin issues, hard water problems can also include:

  • Limescale
  • Soap scum
  • Reduced longevity of seals and gaskets
  • Reduced efficiency of appliances that heat water (coffee maker, dishwasher, water heater)
  • Faster fading of clothes
  • Shorter lifespan for clothing
  • Dry, brittle hair
  • Hair that is heavy and dull in appearance
  • Mineral deposits on faucets and showerheads

The minerals deposited by the passage of hard water coat the fixtures, appliances, and surfaces they come in contact with (including hard water buildup on hair!). The only way to address all of the impacts of hard water in a residential environment is to transition to a water softening system for your whole house.

Closing Thoughts

The most common negative effects of hard water on skin are dryness and irritation. The minerals left behind by hard water can upset the natural oil balance in your skin and even block pores, thereby causing irritation. 

In addition to these negative impacts, your soap itself may be a source of irritation. When soap comes in contact with the minerals in hard water, it produces a weak lather, causing us to use more of it to achieve an acceptable level of lather. At the same time, soap reacts with minerals to leave a film that often persists after your shower. This thin film of soap dries out the skin and disrupts the ability of moisturizers and lotions to penetrate your skin and hydrate it.

If you already have a skin condition, hard water can serve as an irritant that makes flare-ups worse. Hard water often dries out and irritates the skin in sensitive areas, such as the scalp. For individuals that suffer from dandruff, this drying action can cause their dandruff to get worse. Other skin conditions like eczema and dermatitis can similarly be aggravated by the minerals contained in hard water.

In contrast to hard water, soft water does not contain the minerals that are responsible for drying out your skin. With soft water, you won’t experience mineral deposits on your skin and your soap will produce a richer lather, making it easier to fully clean off all traces of soap from your skin. These advantages make soft water much better for individuals whose skin is irritated by washing in hard water.

The most effective way to eliminate hard water is to transition to a water softening system. To learn what water softening systems are available, please contact Rayne today.

Sources:

  1. https://water.usgs.gov/owq/hardness-alkalinity.html#hardness
  2. http://www.asu.edu/courses/chm233/notes/derivatives/derivativesRL2/soap.html
  3. https://www.dermaharmony.com/pages/hard-water-dermatitis
  4. http://www.chemistry.wustl.edu/~edudev/LabTutorials/Water/FreshWater/hardness.html
  5. https://chem.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Inorganic_Chemistry/Supplemental_Modules_(Inorganic_Chemistry)/Descriptive_Chemistry/Main_Group_Reactions/Case_Study%3A_Hard_Water