How to reverse the effects of hard water on your hair and skin to prevent long-term damage

Experts explain how to fight the effects of hard water on hair and skin for softer locks and a clearer complexion

 Illustration of a woman in the bath with the shower running to display the effects of hard water on effects of hard water on hair
(Image credit: Future/Getty images)

Have you ever taken a moment to consider the effects of hard water on your hair and skin? I became curious about the effects of hard water after I noticed a marked difference in my hair and complexion after a week away in a soft water area. When I say a difference I mean a dramatic one.

If you've formed an excellent skincare routine and your shower is brim-full with the best hair care products money can buy, it's worth paying attention to the water you're dousing your face and hair in too. Despite years of wondering how to get rid of acne and using the best cleansers for acne I'd accepted that flare-ups were just a part of life. That alongside bone dry tresses, hair thinning, and all-around limp locks – issues I'd always credited with PCOS – until one week of soft water washing opened my eyes to other possibilities.

Goodbye adult acne and scarecrow hair. It was divine. Until I returned to normal life and these unwelcome guests revisited. A delve into old photos furnished me with a clear pattern to support my theory that the effects of hard water on hair and skin, or mine at least, were doing me a disservice. So, armed with the hypothesis that these common complaints were owing to plain old H2O, I spoke with the experts to find out what issues hard water really causes for hair and skin, and how to combat them.

What are the effects of hard water on hair and skin?

"Hard water can have a huge impact on the cuticle fibers causing dehydration and lack of elasticity," explains Harrods' in-house trichologist Ricardo Vila Nova (opens in new tab), AKA 'the hair whisperer'. In the case of those of us with finer hair, it can cause breakage. "Hard water can have a huge impact on the cuticle fibers," says Vila Nova, "causing dehydration and lack of elasticity. It can also cause scalp dehydration and irritability." So if you're wondering how to get rid of dandruff, it's worth considering that your water source could be the issue.

Your scalp is, of course, a part of your largest organ - your skin. "Hard water can disrupt the skin barrier, and over time, this can result in your skin and hair feeling dry and dull," says Dr. Derrick Phillips (opens in new tab), consultant dermatologist. "For individuals with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, hard water may cause their skin to flare." However, the effects of hard water on skin aren't only reserved for those with pre-existing skin conditions. In fact, it can affect any type of skin, adds Dr Phillips, "causing irritated, dry itchy skin and leading to breakage and damage of hair." 

It's vital to remember that sensitive skin doesn't only present as dry skin, a congested and blemish-prone complexion is just as common. So if you're constantly wondering how to get rid of blackheads and how to get rid of whiteheads, the answer may be coming out of your tap. Dr. Dennis Gross (opens in new tab), a leading dermatologist, explains, "One of many impurities found in hard water is calcium, which causes a chemical reaction with your skin’s natural oils leading to redness, inflammation, and/or breakouts."

Is hard water damage to hair reversible?

Vila Nova says, "The characteristics of hard water are hard to cancel but filters can help to soften and balance the minerals in the water." Water softening filters, designed specifically for your shower, are becoming increasingly popular and one particular offering from Hello Klean has proven a popular choice with consumers.

The device is described as suitable for 'most' showers, and the company recently launched a special adaptor to help those whose shower won't play ball (like mine.) Despite my best efforts, and the adaptor, the filter sadly wouldn't fit my shower. So, before investing, ensure you watch one of the brand's videos on how to install the device and measure your shower to see if the filter will fit. 

Our beauty team recommends...

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3 More Inches LifeSaver Ultra Intense Pre-wash Treatment | RRP: £34.50 (UK only)

Ideal for all hair types, this silicone-free, pre-wash treatment is brimming with cashmere proteins that help repair and condition the locks of anyone feeling the effects of hard water on hair. It's also hypoallergenic and has no added fragrance or color - meaning it's suitable for sensitive strands, too. 

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Hello Klean Shower Filter | RRP: £60 (UK only)

No tools are needed to install this handy gadget that reduces unwanted minerals and chlorine from your tap water, so your routine can begin with a clean slate. NSF Certified KDF 55 and Calcium Sulphite reduces +90% of chlorine as well as copper, iron, and lead. It has filters that you can replace every three months or so.

Is hard water damage to skin reversible?

It's your lucky day because Dr. Phillips agrees that you can reverse the effects of hard water on skin. "These issues can be reversed with appropriate skincare interventions. The most important and low-cost intervention is the use of moisturizers, particularly after baths and showers."

Stocking up on skincare for dry skin and the best moisturizers for sensitive skin is key, and there are certain ingredients to keep an eye out for. "Moisturizers rich in fatty molecules called ceramides, help to repair the skin barrier and lock in moisture, rehydrating the skin," says Dr Phillips. As an evening treat, after moisturizing, using a face oil is a great way to lock that moisture too.

One way to clean your face while protecting it from hard water is by going H2O-free and using the best micellar water cleansers you can find instead. If you can't live without a proper face wash, then it's a good idea to use products that have chelators in them. Chelators are fantastic ingredients to add to skincare to negate the effects of hard water, as Dr. Dennis explains that they, "bind to calcium to prevent any reaction or irritation. They are very important because impurities that are in the water stay on the skin.”

Our beauty team recommends...

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BIODERMA SENSIBIO H2O | RRP: $4.99/£3.18

This is our beauty experts' top pick because it cleans efficiently and effectively, without irritating or making your eyes water. It also manages to be refreshing minus any dry feeling and leaves skin feeling soft.

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Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare's Hyaluronic Marine Meltaway Cleanser | $30/£16

This chelator-filled cleanser has been making waves for its ability to lock moisture in while getting hard water deposits and the day's dirt and grime off in the process.

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Kate Somerville's Kateceuticals Total Repair Cream | $24/£40

Kate Somerville's Kateceuticals Total Repair Cream has powerful ingredients including ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and squalene to help provide barrier repair as well as deep moisturization.

How can I protect my hair from hard water?

Prevention is everything here. Trichologist Vila Nova says that certain products are beneficial in helping protect your scalp's skin barrier. "The way around it is to address hair care to shield and rescue the hair fiber as well as balance the scalp. Choosing a shampoo that contains Lactic Acid and Panthenol can help rebuild the hydration film around the hair and the scalp," he explains. 

If you want to try a more intensive treatment, look at the best hair masks that contain protein to rebuild and repair cuticle damage, which could include trying a DIY rice water for hair rinse. Adding a scalp tonic suited to your own scalp type can help rebalance scalp pH and build hydration. Applying heat protection for hair when styling will guarantee better elasticity and prevent exacerbating the damage and effects of hard water on hair.

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Dream Filter Pre-Shampoo Mineral Remover from Color Wow Hair |  $24/£20.80

This clever and easy-to-use product helpfully removes color-distorting minerals in minutes revealing brighter, shinier, silkier hair. You simply spray it onto dry hair before washing, leave for three minutes and wash all that mineral build-up straight down the drain.


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JOICO K-Pak Clarifying Shampoo | £14.95 (UK only)

Another fantastic option is the JOICO K-Pak Clarifying Shampoo, which is designed specifically for removing impurities from hard water, minerals, and chlorine.

How can I protect my skin from hard water?

It goes without saying that the positive effects of using a filter apply to your skin, echoing how they can protect your hair. Even with a filter, however, there's an elephant in the (bath)room we're going to have to address - temperature.

Hot, steamy showers and baths are one of life's great pleasures but sadly just because something feels good, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. According to Dr. Derrick, taking long, hot showers or baths can worsen the damaging effects of hard water as they, "strip essential oils from the outer layer of the skin."

He suggests instead that you have a warm shower and immediately afterward use moisturizers that are rich in ceramides. These gentle ingredients are adored by experts as they help repair the skin barrier and hydrate the skin. Needless to say, they often feature in the best body creams for dry skin.

How can you tell if you have hard water in your area?

If you spend a lot of time wondering how to get rid of limescale and have long since learned how to descale a kettle, it's likely you're au fait with hard water. Arguably, the extra challenge that mineral-heavy H2O adds to kitchen cleaning and bathroom cleaning is where it's discussed most. 

"Rainwater is soft but it undergoes a change once it falls to earth," explains Karen. "As it passes through rocks it picks up natural hardness from minerals, such as calcium and magnesium," explains Karen Gibbs, Senior Policy Manager at The Consumer Council for Water (CCW) (opens in new tab), The local geology in each region is what determines whether your water is hard or soft. For example, Karen explains that generally in the UK, "water supplies are hardest in the south and become softer as you move north." 

In the US, Water hardness is classified by the U.S. Department of Interior and the Water Quality Association (opens in new tab) as follows. 

(classification mg per ltr / grains per gallon)

  • Soft: 0–17.1 / 0-1
  • Slightly Hard: 17.1–60 / 1–3.5 
  • Moderately Hard: 60–120 / 3.5–7.0
  • Hard: 120–180 / 7.0–10.5 
  • Very Hard: 180 and over 10.5 and over

A cursory online search will inform you if the water in your local area is hard or not. If you want a definitive answer, you may want to ask your water company for information on the matter.

Is hard water dangerous?

Beauty concerns aside, the quick answer is no, hard water is not dangerous, but it can have an impact on different appliances in your home, explains Karen. "It causes scaling in hot water systems, kettles, electric irons, and domestic appliances. Scaling of heating elements shortens the life of the appliance." It can also leave marks on basins, sinks, baths, and toilets and sometimes a ‘scum’ on the surface of hot drinks like tea and coffee.

How do you soften hard water naturally?

One popular option is to install a water softener which can help improve the efficiency and increase the life of appliances if you live in a hard water area. Water softeners are a fairly pricey option, which you may not be able to install in rented accommodation.

Karen also warns that The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) stresses that it’s vital that water softeners are installed correctly. It's imperative, she adds, "that you do not soften the water to the tap in your kitchen, which is used for drinking and cooking. This is because most water softeners work by replacing the hardness with sodium" Overdoing it on sodium isn't suitable for those on low-sodium diets as well as being a serious problem for premature babies, as their kidneys aren't well equipped at filtering it out of the blood.

It's important that you do your research and due diligence when selecting a brand, unit, and qualified installer to ensure the softener is fit for purpose and to save you hassle down the line.

Aoife Hanna
Aoife Hanna

Aoife is Junior News Editor at woman&home.

She's an Irish journalist and writer with a background in creative writing, comedy, and TV production.

Formerly Aoife was a contributing writer at Bustle and her words can be found in the Metro, Huffpost, Delicious, Imperica, EVOKE and her poetry features in the Queer Life, Queer Love anthology.

Outside of work you might bump into her at a garden center, charity shop, hot yoga studio, lifting heavy weights, or (most likely) supping/eating some sort of delicious drink/meal.