Hard water sounds like an oxymoron (or, actually, maybe a great name for a record label). All water is… liquid, so how could it be hard?
When we talk about hard or soft water, we’re not actually talking about its density or feel. The scale of hard to soft refers to the concentration of minerals in the water. The more calcium and magnesium (or iron, copper, lime, sodium, and so on) the water has, the “harder” it is. You can’t actually see these minerals, but it’s pretty likely that you have hard water at home. In fact, if you check out a hard water map, you’ll see that about 85% of the U.S. does.
First and foremost, don’t panic. This doesn’t affect the safety of your water. Drinking hard water can actually help you hit your daily recommended intake of essential minerals.
But perhaps a more important question: What is this mineral-rich water doing to your hair? Can hard water damage your hair? Is there some way to prevent the damage? We asked three experts for their help—keep reading to learn all about hard water damage to hair and how you can counteract it.
Meet the Expert
What Does Hard Water Do to Hair?
Think about how dry and crunchy your hair feels when you let it air-dry after swimming in the ocean—that’s just an exaggerated example of what hard water can do to your hair. That crispy feeling is the mineral residue clinging to your hair as the water evaporates (in this case, sodium—albeit a much higher concentration than in your average tap water).
Minerals in tap water act similarly. “While your hair is wet, the minerals from hard water can penetrate your strands and crystallize as your hair dries,” says hairstylist Devin Toth. “The crystallization creates a cast that prevents moisture from getting in or out of your hair.” That means drier, duller hair more prone to tangles and breakage.
No one with hard water is truly impervious to damage, but some hair types might feel it a bit more than others. “Hair textures that are highly porous are more susceptible to minerals penetrating deeper into the hair structure, making it more susceptible to hard water,” says trichologist Bridgette Hill. “Color treated and chemically treated hair fall into this category.” Toth adds that curly hair types will also feel the effects of hard water a bit more, since their hair is already prone to dryness and frizz.
Minerals build up over time and can cause a butterfly effect of other issues. It can cause colored hair to fade or change (that’s why truly color-safe products are sulfate-free). You may notice that your scalp is dry, flaky, or even greasier than normal. It can weigh down your hair and make styles look flat. It can even irritate skin prone to eczema.
How to Know If You Have Hard Water
If you're trying to figure out whether you have hard water, this is where you’ll need to do a little detective work, but the good news is there’s several ways to learn what kind of water you have.
When hard water evaporates, it leaves the minerals behind. If you’ve ever seen water droplet residue on a glass after you take it out of the dishwasher, you’re looking at a mineral deposit from your water. The same goes for your faucets and appliances, “Look for filmy, crystallized hard water deposits on your shower head,” says Toth. If you’re constantly battling a powdery white or greenish coating on and around your faucets—that’s a good sign that you have hard water.
Because the minerals in hard water tend to build up and coat pipes and faucets, you’ll also likely have low water pressure in the shower and in your sinks. If you’re not getting enough power when you crank a sink to 10, it could be a side effect of hard water.
Your hair could also be a telltale sign. “If your shampoo takes an extra long time to lather or properly distribute, then you may have hard water,” says Toth. “Or if your high-quality conditioner doesn't seem to work and after using it your hair feels dry and tangly—then there's a good chance your hair is being affected by hard water.”
In the end, the most surefire way to detect hard water is to purchase a small hard water testing kit. Trichologist David Adams recommends the Life2O Water Hardness Test Strips ($10 for 100), but there are tons of equally effective options. They’re generally affordable and easy to use—just dip a test strip in a cup of water, wait a minute, and then compare your results to a color chart.
How to Prevent Hard Water Damage
So you have hard water. Now what? Well, you can’t help where your water comes from. If you live in an area that sources water from subterranean aquifers, springs, or rivers, it will just naturally have more minerals (Check out that map again—states in the Midwest, where the Mississippi River is a major water source, have the highest concentration of hard water in the country). But there are a few steps to not only lessen hard water damage, but repair it.
Buy a Filter for Your Shower Head
If you want to mitigate as much damage as possible, start with your shower head. Homeowners can install an entire soft water system in their home, but it’s expensive and for those of us in apartments, a non-starter. As a small-scale option, Adams recommends attaching a water filter to your shower head, like the AquaBliss High Output Revitalizing Shower Filter. It’s kind of like a Brita for your shower, filtering out minerals like calcium and magnesium—two common culprits when it comes to dry and brittle hair—and should lessen some of the buildup and residue on your strands.
Try a Pre-Shampoo Treatment
“A pre-shampoo hair treatment can create a barrier to assist with minimizing the buildup of minerals that penetrate the hair fiber,” Hill says. This Kérastase scrub is formulated with charcoal, hyaluronic acid, and abyssine to help remove existing buildup and promote a balanced scalp before you cleanse with shampoo.
Use a Chelating or Clarifying Shampoo
If you’re working with hard water, Toth recommends looking for chelating shampoo. “[They] contain chelating agents that bind with metals and minerals in water to then be rinsed away,” he says. “It's stronger than a regular shampoo, which would only cleanse away dirt and residue.” When looking for a chelating shampoo, look for products that are labeled as clarifying or detoxifying and check for an ingredient called tetrasodium EDTA or EDTA complex—an effective chelating agent. We love this Ouai Detox shampoo because not only will it lift away impurities, but it contains hydrolyzed keratin to smooth hair cuticles. It’s important to note that chelating agents can be irritating, so something like this would be a great once-a-week product instead of your regular shampoo.
Rinse with Apple Cider Vinegar
“Acidic ingredients work well to reverse the pH imbalance [from hard water damage],” says Adams. Apple cider vinegar is a great example and a popular ingredient for DIY treatments, since most of us have it in our pantries. Toth recommends using an organic, unfiltered, and unpasteurized apple cider vinegar that looks a little cloudy. If you’re going the home-remedy route, mix five parts water to one part vinegar in a spray bottle, spray your scalp and work the formula into your ends, let it sit for five minutes, then rinse.
If this all sounds like a bit too much effort for your taste, you can buy a pre-made hair rinse like this color-safe dpHUE shampoo substitute, which is also infused with some extra goodies like aloe vera and lavender extract.