Hard Water & Hair: The Effects + 3 Easy Hair Care Tips To Help
Have you ever gone to a new area, taken a rinse, and thought, Huh, my hair just feels different? Perhaps it's a good thing: It's softer, bouncier, hydrated, and full of life; or all of a sudden your strands are flat, dry, and even feel a little—what is that?—gritty? What you're feeling is the difference between hard and soft water, and with time it can absolutely make a difference for your strands and style.
This query came up given our current and unique set of circumstances: Even if we're all limiting our travel in general, quite a few of us have relocated (temporarily, permanently, or undecided) to new areas to be closer to family, be closer to nature, simply for a change of pace, or out of necessity. And with a new environment came changes to hair texture.
Now, it's not the most pressing thing to be concerned about right now, but if you find that your hair is responding differently to your new location, it's not just in your head. So here's what to know, and what to do about it.
How hard and soft water changes hair.
Hard water simply means it contains a higher concentration of minerals like calcium and magnesium. (Soft water is the opposite of this—it contains a low concentration of minerals.) With time, hard water can cause buildup on your strands and scalp as these minerals cling to your hair, creating a film of sorts. Over time, this film can hinder penetration of moisture, nutrients, and so forth—resulting in dry, brittle, breakage-prone strands. (If you are going from hard water to soft water, again, the opposite is true—your hair will likely feel softer and more hydrated as the buildup rinses off.)
This isn't just anecdotal either: Research shows that hard water affects hair health and appearance. A 2016 study found that women who washed their hair in hard water for 30 days had decreased thickness and manageability1 compared to those who didn't.
It also can cause issues with the scalp (a concerning thing as we know that you can't really have healthy hair without a healthy scalp). "Hard water tends to make skin drier and more sensitive, and it can leave your skin reddened," board-certified dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., FAAD, previously told us about hard water's effects on the skin. And a dry, sensitive scalp (along with buildup at the scalp) can even lead to hair loss.
How to tell if you have hard water.
You might be able to ID the fact that you are rinsing with hard water from your hair alone, but if you need to double-check your inclinations, you can test your water. Here's a tip from Circado on how to tell if you are washing in hard water:
- Fill a bottle about ⅓ full with your tap water.
- Add a few drops of liquid soap and shake vigorously.
- If the water looks cloudy with not much foaming, you likely have hard water.
How to help your hair deal with hard water.
Just because you have hard water doesn't mean you're doomed to bad hair—and honestly, some people may not even notice a difference switching between various concentrations of minerals—but it does mean that you may need to take a few extra hair care steps.
- Find a filter: If you notice that your hard water really messes with your hair (perhaps your area has a particularly high concentration of minerals or you tend to have dry hair to begin with), then a water softener may be in your cards. There are plenty of good options available, and many are easy to install, like these options from VitaClean.
- Use a clarifying shampoo. Clarifying shampoos are options that offer a more thorough cleanse—and they do so by opening up the hair shaft to help remove mineral buildup that's trapped. You can DIY options or find natural, clean versions—just be mindful of how much you are using, as they are very strong and can end up overdrying your hair, the opposite of what we're going for here. Stick to once a week, max.
- Add in a bit more hydration. Once you've removed the buildup, ideally your hair will be able to drink in water and nutrients its brittle self is missing. You can do this with the ample use of hydrating natural conditioners and the occasional mask (we love these DIY versions).
You're not imagining it: Changing locations can affect your hair health, texture, and appearance. This is due to the mineral content in different water supplies—essentially hard water, or where the mineral content is quite high, can be tough on the hair and scalp. If this is affecting you, don't worry: There are plenty of hair care tips to help your strands.
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Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.