Did you know that 85 percent of the United States has hard water? Unless you’re in Maine or Mississippi, the water coming out of your faucet is loaded with minerals and heavy metals. On its own, that’s not a bad thing – but it’s not always the greatest for your hair. Hard water hair damage can result in stiff, dull hair depending on any treatments or coloring you’ve applied.
Wondering how the water in your faucet is affecting your hair’s health? Here’s what science says and what you can do about it.
What Is Hard Water?
Hard water has a high level of minerals in it. Typically, this includes calcium, magnesium carbonate, bicarbonate, and sulfates. These are naturally occurring chemicals which dissolve into groundwater as it moves through limestone. It’s also possible to find iron, aluminum, and manganese in the water in some areas.
Most of the United States has heard much of our continent is formed from limestone created from ancient seabeds. You’ll only find soft water – water lacking calcium and magnesium in particular – in areas with little or no limestone, such as Mississippi and Maine.
On its own, hard water isn’t bad for you. The World Health Organization indicates that no evidence exists towards hard water being harmful to the health of individuals. Rather, hard water can have modest health benefits associated with it, serving as a supplement for calcium and magnesium. Mammals need these minerals, and they aid in metabolic processes.
However, hard water poses challenges in other ways. It’s associated with limescale, also called scum, the buildup of calcification in pipes, faucets, and appliances. Over time, this buildup can result in clogged pipes and unsightly discoloration on surfaces which routinely get wet.
Likewise, the calcium and magnesium in hard water inhibit the formation of soap, making it more difficult to adequately clean dishes, laundry, or ourselves. That’s why so much soap – especially dish liquid – has “extra foaming” activity. It needs to make up for the way hard water will affect it.
These effects raise plenty of questions about what hard water does to our hair. Here’s what science says.
The Science Behind Hard Water and Your Hair
Plenty of researchers have set out to determine exactly how hard water affects human hair, and the results are mixed. Here’s a roundup of research since the 1980s about hard water and your hair.
1. Hard Water May Cause Dull Hair
A 1988 study on the effects of ingredients in shampoos and conditioners is often cited as one of the earliest pieces of research noting that hard water is bad for your hair. Specifically, the researchers from France claimed that the same calcification buildup which happens on your faucet also happens in your hair. Calcium salts in the water get stuck in the cuticles, leading to a dull appearance, brittle strands, and overall poor-quality hair.
2. Hard Water May Cause Dull Hair … So Does Poor Quality Shampoo
Following up on the idea that hard water may cause dull hair, a 2010 journal article notes that it very well might. Calcium and magnesium cause scum on the scalp and in the cuticles the same way it does in your faucet. The study noted that sequestering agents, which prevent the formation of scum, are enough to prevent this from happening under most circumstances. However, these chemicals are also often absent in cheap or “natural” shampoos.
3. Hard Water May Cause Stiffer Hair
In 2011, The Procter & Gamble Company commissioned research to understand exactly how elevated levels of calcium and magnesium in tap water affect hair. This study found that hair can capture significant amounts of calcium and magnesium from water in its cuticles. In bleached hair, this resulted in a poorer appearance. However, the increased stiffness actually helped virgin (never bleached) hair retain its styling better.
4. Hard Water Does Not Appear to Affect Tensile Strength or Elasticity
Tensile strength is the resistance of a material to breaking when placed it’s under tension. Elasticity refers to the ability of a material to return to its normal shape after stretching. A 2013 study tested the effects of hard water on both of these qualities in hair. It found that hard water interferes with neither the tensile strength nor the elasticity of hair. In other words, it doesn’t make it break easier or lose its shape.
5. Hard Water May Weaken Hair Significantly … At Least In Men
In 2016, further research revisited the idea that hard water could reduce the tensile strength of hair. Examining the effects specifically in men, researchers found that hard water does reduce the tensile strength of hair in comparison to de-ionized water. It’s worth noting that this study administered treatment for three months, whereas the study above administered treatment for 30 days.
Steps to Reduce Hard Water Hair Damage
The results of the research above are mixed, but we can glean a key takeaway from all of them: hard water does result in scum in your hair, specifically in the cuticles where it may result in dullness, stiffness or breakage depending on your hair.
As a result, you may want to consider steps to reduce your hair’s exposure to your natural hard water. Consider:
- Using a good quality shampoo. Most shampoo bars don’t have a sequestering agent, where many liquid shampoos do. Use a quality, liquid shampoo to ensure you get all of the soap buildup out of your hair.
- Installing a shower filter. A shower filter can help reduce the hardness of the water by removing the calcium and magnesium from the water itself. With this method, you’ll also enjoy less calcification in your shower as well.
- Using a naturally acidic rinse. If you don’t want to change your shampoo, consider adding an apple cider vinegar or lemon juice rinse to your beauty routine to decrease mineral buildup on your scalp. Mix one tablespoon of vinegar or citrus juice with three cups of filtered water and let it sit on your hair for five minutes before rinsing.
Tackle Hard Water Hair Damage at the Root
For those with particularly thick or sensitive hair, hard water hair damage can be a real hassle. All of those minerals and heavy metals which naturally occur in water are great for the rest of the body but can prove a challenge to maintaining luscious locks. Fortunately, managing hard water hair damage can be as simple as choosing the right shampoo or applying a shower filter.
So, if you’re struggling with dull, stiff hair, consider switching to softer water. It might just be the trick to helping your hair’s natural beauty shine.
At Turbie Twist, we’re passionate about helping you achieve the perfect hair day every day. Check out our other Twisty Hair Tips for simple, natural, science-based advice and techniques for managing your beautiful hair.