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Let’s start with the basics—what is hard water in the first place? It's a term used to refer to water that’s full of minerals, which doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing, right? Here’s the issue: These minerals build up and harden inside your hair, ultimately leaving it dry and brittle, not to mention causing color changes, too. (FYI, chlorine, calcium, magnesium, iron, and copper are some of the most common minerals found in hard water.)
Along with changes in your hair’s texture and tone, other tell-tale signs of hard water is a less-than-luscious lather with both shampoo and soap, flat and easily-tangled hair, and film-like layer on hair and skin. Whether or not you have hard water ultimately comes down to where you live, but the good news is that there are a few things you can do to remedy the situation without packing up and moving. There are filters you can install in your shower head to help remove some of the minerals, though the easiest fix is switching up your shampoo.
Chelating and clarifying shampoos are ideal, though it’s worth noting that the two aren’t exactly the same. Chelating formulas are stronger and work by actually attaching to the various minerals and metals found in hard water and whisking them away; clarifying shampoos break down residue whether from hard water or excess product on the outer surface of the hair. Either way, they’ll be helpful.
You should also look for vitamin C in the ingredients because it effectively removes minerals, along with apple cider vinegar and EDTA. That being said, pick a gentle formula that doesn't strip hair of its natural oils.
Here, the best shampoos to try if you have hard water.
Best Overall: Malibu C Hard Water Wellness Shampoo
Hair Type: Dry | Sulfate-Free: Yes | Scent: Orange Sorbet Blended with Malibu Fusion | Size: 33.8 fl oz
Mark DeBolt, celebrity colorist and co-founder of Mark Ryan Salon, counts this shampoo as the best product in the world for hair affected by hard water. By simultaneously removing the waterborne minerals that damage and discolor your hair and depositing strengthening proteins and essential moisture, this takes a two-pronged approach to getting your hair into tip-top shape. The gentle, sulfate-free formula also contains antioxidants to protect hair from environmental damage, think UV rays and pollutants. And while you can buy the sudser solo, there’s also a set that comes with an accompanying conditioner and more intense treatments, too.
Best Budget: Girl+Hair Clarifying Apple Cider Vinegar Rinse
Apple cider vinegar is fermented apple juice formed by when yeast mixes with the sugar of the juice. It contains acetic acid, which has antibacterial and keratolytic properties, and it also contains malic acid, a gentle chemical exfoliant.
Hair Type: Chemically treated hair, wavy textured hair, curly textured hair, coiled textured hair, textured hair, relaxed textured hair | Sulfate-Free: Yes | Scent: Apple | Size: 10.1 fl oz
When it comes to natural ingredients that can make a big impact on your hair, ACV (apple cider vinegar) reigns supreme. It’s a top pick for removing all kinds of build-up from your strands. Sure, you could go the DIY route and create your own vinegar rinse, but this wallet-friendly option is a much easier alternative. Use it in place of your regular shampoo a few times per week; organic apple cider vinegar gets rid of build-up from your hair and scalp, without leaving either feeling dry or stripped.
Best for Dry Hair: PACIFICA Coconut Power Strong and Long Moisturizing Shampoo
Hair Type: All | Sulfate-Free: Yes | Scent: Coconut | Size: 12 fl oz
Dealing with dry hair and hard water can pose a tricky conundrum since the last thing you want to do is leave your hair even drier by using a shampoo that’s too harsh. Enter this formula, which relies on extra hydrating coconut oil for a hefty dose of moisture, plus rice protein to keep strands strong, all while getting rid of all the gunk and grime causing tress stress. The tropical, coconut scent is just an added bonus.
Best for Colored Hair: Living Proof Perfect Hair Day Triple Detox Shampoo
Hair Type: Chemically Treated | Sulfate-Free: Yes | Size: 5.4 fl oz
Generally speaking, any chelating or clarifying shampoo has the potential to strip color, but this pick is not only color-safe, but it also removes build-up from product, pollution, and hard water to keep your hue extra vibrant and shiny. Also cool: It comes with a hard water test strip, so you can actually see if you do in fact have hard water. (Oh, and if you do, it’s best to leave this on for a minute or two before rinsing.)
Best for Itchy Scalps: Sachajuan Scalp Shampoo
Hair Type: Normal | Sulfate-Free: No | Scent: Rosemary | Size: 8.4 fl oz
Along with causing hair issues, hard water can lead to a stressed-out scalp. Counteract it with this clarifying shampoo that deep cleans while also relieving dandruff and itchiness by balancing the pH of your scalp, and using rosemary oil, ginger, and menthol to soothe irritation.
Best for Damaged Hair: Aquis Rebalancing Hair Wash
Hair Type: All | Size: 8 fl oz
Hard or not, even plain old water can take a toll on your hair. Wet hair is 56% weaker and more prone to damage, which is why this brand focuses on preventing all kinds of water damage. Not only does it use plant-based cleansers to gently but effectively remove dirt and build-up, it also rebalances hair’s pH and moisture levels, and strengthens hair at the root, thanks to an amino acid blend.
Best Luxury: ORIBE The Cleanse Clarifying Shampoo
Volcanic ash is a combination of sulfur and bentonite clay. Its particles are tiny and highly porous, which means they're incredibly absorbent. This works very well for cleaning up liquids; in the beauty market, this means they're specifically great for clearing off oil and sebum, as well as pollution and impurities that sit on your face during the day.
Hair Type: Oily | Scent: Cote d'Azur | Size: 7.1 fl oz
Some clarifying shampoos can have a bit of a clinical or medicinal feel to them, but that’s certainly not the case here. With a whipped, mousse-like texture and a sophisticated scent, this feels more like a fancy spa shampoo than a heavy-hitting detoxifier. Still, it does just that, using volcanic ash to blast away excess dirt, oil, and build-up.
Best for Curly Hair: Pattern Beauty Clarifying Shampoo
Green tea is a botanical derived from the leaves and buds of the tea plant Camellia sinensis. The active components of green tea are polyphenols (also called catechins) that are believed to benefit the skin due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Hair Type: Low porosity | Size: 7.8 fl oz
As any curly girl will tell you, curly hair calls for a totally different product protocol than straight hair, and that is the case when it comes to removing build-up, too. This formula uses matcha green tea, aloe vera, and panthenol to get rid of residue without stripping curls of their essential nutrients and moisture, leaving your spirals soft, smooth, and silky.
Best Pre-Shampoo: Color Wow Dream Filter Pre-Shampoo Mineral Remover
Hair Type: All/Color Treated | Sulfate-Free: No | Scent: Fragrance-Free | Size: 6.7 fl oz
While this technically may not be a shampoo, it most definitely earns a spot on this list thanks to its efficacy and how easy it is to use. Just spray it on all over your hair and leave on for a minute or two before washing as normal; four different filters go to town removing even the slightest trace of damaging minerals. Still, it’s so gentle that you can even use it daily if needed, and while it works on all hair types and colors, it’s especially choice for lighter blonde or gray shades which are more prone to mineral discoloration.
Best Scent: R+Co Oblivion Clarifying Shampoo
Sulfate-Free: Yes | Scent: Earthy | Size: 6 fl oz
If you’re anything like us, a shampoo can be utterly amazing but, if it doesn’t smell good, you’re not going to use it. This smells clean, crisp, and fresh—basically, exactly how we want our hair to smell. But it gets the cleansing job done, too, using rosemary leaf extract, tea tree oil, and witch hazel to break down gunk left behind from hard water, styling products, or both.
Best Micellar: Kristin Ess Scalp Purifying Micellar Shampoo
Hair Type: All | Sulfate-Free: Yes | Size: 10 fl oz
Micellar waters are all the range in skincare; micelles are small molecules that act like magnets, attaching to and whisking away dirt, oil, and other grime. Here, they do just that, gently washing away impurities and keeping your scalp healthy and hydrated (because FYI, healthy hair starts with a healthy scalp). The pointed tip makes it easy to deposit the shampoo directly onto your scalp, and we also love how nicely it lathers.
When it comes to the best shampoos for combatting the effects of hard water on the hair, we’re giving top honors to the Malibu C Hard Water Wellness Shampoo. It takes a two-pronged approach to bringing hair back to life: first, it removes the waterborne minerals that build up on the hair and second, it deposits strengthening proteins and essential moisture. Plus, it protects against environmental stressors like UV rays and pollution. Hard water can also wreak havoc on the scalp, and the Sachajuan Scalp Shampoo does a stellar job at clarifying the hair while addressing issues like dandruff and itchiness. And while it’s not *technically* a shampoo, we’re big fans of the Color Wow Dream Filter Pre-Shampoo Mineral Remover for treating our hair and gently removing trace minerals before we shampoo.
What to Look For in a Shampoo for Hard Water
Chelating vs. Clarifying Products
As you peruse through hard water shampoos, the first thing DeBolt suggests is distinguishing whether a chelating shampoo or a clarifying shampoo would be best for your specific hair needs. As we mentioned above, both are effective in treating the effects of hard water, but they work in different ways.
“Chelating products are designed specifically to remove minerals,” he says. These work by actually attaching to the mineral buildup in the hair and washing it away. On the other hand, he says that clarifying shampoos often contain stronger detergents which make them great for breaking down all residue, including excess oil and product buildup in addition to mineral residue. However, clarifying shampoos can also be quite stripping and potentially fade color-treated hair.
Regardless of the type of shampoo you choose, DeBolt says that it must claim to target mineral build-up, specifically copper, iron, and calcium. He considers vitamin C to be the most effective mineral-removing ingredient, but other great ingredients to keep an eye out for are EDTA and apple cider vinegar.
A Gentle Formula
DeBolt stresses that the formula you choose should be gentle. Even as you remove minerals and buildup from your hair and scalp, you don’t want to strip them of their natural oils entirely. This can lead to increased sebum production and result in an oily scalp.
How often should you use shampoo for hard water?
According to DeBolt, you should be using shampoos for hard water as often as you shampoo, or at least every other wash, for them to be effective. If clarifying and chelating shampoos are too stripping for your hair, be sure to follow up with a conditioner or other moisturizing treatment.
Meet the Expert
Mark DeBolt is a celebrity colorist and co-founder of Mark Ryan Salon. A protégé of celebrity colorist Marie Robinson, his areas of expertise include his signature blend of foil highlighting, balayage, and specialty color placement techniques. Currently, he’s an ambassador, educator, and hair color expert for Wella Professionals.
Why Trust Byrdie
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. She does in fact have hard water in her apartment, so she both installed a shower filter and tries to use one of these clarifying shampoo formulas once every two weeks or so.