Is Your Shower Water The Real Cause Of Your Bad Hair Days?

Experts weigh in.

Originally Published: 
Hard water damage on hair
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You may have noticed that hair health is a hot topic within the beauty space as of late. Along with boosting softness and shine, brands are beginning to focus on scalp care and its role in maintaining healthy strands. By using products to ensure the skin is balanced, the hair follicles will be nice and hydrated, so you’ll end up with stronger, longer hair. However, despite these protective initiatives, there is one issue that’s frequently overlooked — the contents of the water in your shower. High in dissolved minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, hard water hair damage can wreak havoc from the scalp down to the tips of your strands.

According to Valerie George, cosmetic chemist and hair expert, moderate amounts of calcium and magnesium are common in water, but when levels increase, they can form water-insoluble soap coatings on the hair. With a film-like shield around the follicles, penetration of moisture and nourishing ingredients becomes more difficult and can even lead to long-term effects such as, breakage, and loss of elasticity.

But how exactly do you determine if your shower water is too hard? And if it is, what can you do about it? TZR tapped industry experts for answers so you can reverse the negative impacts hard water has on your hair, plus prep your shower and wash routine to prevent it in the first place.

What Is Hard Water?

George tells TZR that hard water is water that contains high levels of dissolved minerals, such as bicarbonates and sulfates, but primarily consists of calcium and magnesium. “Picture a cooking pot filled with tap water that is boiling until the water has been completely evaporated,” she says, “Once gone, you’d be left with a residue of magnesium and calcium at the bottom of the pot.”

Small amounts of these minerals are generally found in water and are even proven to have some health benefits. According to Dr. Sam Ellis, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Potozkin MD Skincare And Laser Center in Danville, Calif., “the hardness of water exists on a scale, where water sources containing 60 to 120 ppm (part per million) of calcium are considered ‘moderately hard,’ while levels between 121 to 180 ppm are deemed ‘hard,’ and anything higher determined as ‘very hard’ water.”

How Can You Tell If You Have Hard Water?

This scale, though useful in lab settings, is hard to reference at home unless you have test strips to evaluate your shower water. But Dr. Ellis says a detailed scan around your bathroom can be a good clue. “Soap scum and visible residue left in the shower after washing, and mineral deposits showing up as white and yellow crusts on the faucets or shower heads are a good place to start,” she says. Additionally, he suggests noting how well the water lathers when using shampoos and body washes in the shower. “Hard water reduces the ability of soap or shampoo to lather effectively, requiring you to use more product to achieve desired results,” he says.

The Effects Of Hard Water On The Hair & Scalp

It’s important to note that because calcium and magnesium are typically found in water, they readily penetrate the hair regardless of whether your shower water is hard. George notes that calcium, which is seven to nine times more prevalent in follicles than magnesium, can be found throughout the entire fiber, and most frequently around the cuticle layers of the hair. This coating actively prevents moisture from reaching the fibers and can leave strands feeling stiff and looking dull.

However, if your water contains other harsh minerals, like copper, in addition to increased amounts of calcium and magnesium, the immediate effects can worsen over time. “Copper has a high affinity for the hair and can accumulate in low levels within the fiber to damage the protein, ultimately making it prone to breakage and look less shiny,” says George.

Hair texture and porosity also come into play. “If your hair is more porous from coloring and harsh lightening services, the minerals are more likely to penetrate deeper into the hair making your hair feel even more dry and fragile,” says Cassondra Kaeding, celebrity hair colorist and co-owner of Crâne Salon in Los Angeles.

Naturally, dryness raises questions about the scalp and whether hard water can affect its moisture retention. Dr. Ellis tells TZR that mineral buildup can lead to common scalp issues such as dryness, itchiness, and dandruff, or exacerbate them if they already exist.

How To Reverse Hard Water Damage & Protect Hair

The first, not to mention easiest, step to reversing the damage of mineral buildup caused by hard water is using a chelating shampoo. “These types of shampoos contain chemical compounds, called chelating agents, that bind tightly to metal deposits found in the water in order to remove them from the hair,” says Dr. Ellis. When shopping for one, she suggests looking for formulas with ingredients like disodium EDTA, phytic acid, and salicylic acid that can aid in detoxifying your strands.

Likewise, Kaeding tells TZR that clarifying shampoos can also be added to your wash day lineup. Unlike chelating versions, clarifying products are meant to rid the scalp and hair from buildup caused by excessive dirt and grime alone. “Sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners are effective at removing build-up but they can also get your hair on track to a healthy PH level,” she says

To incorporate them into your routine, Min Kim, L’Oréal Professionnel global ambassador and colorist, suggests using the shampoo one to two times per week before applying a lightweight and moisturizing mask or deep conditioner to replenish lost hydration.

But aside from hair care products, showerhead filters are an alternative method of protecting your strands against hard water. But do these buzzy tools actually work? While filters can be good for purifying water from chemicals like chlorine, Dr. Ellis notes they’re not as effective for reducing the amounts of calcium and magnesium that make water hard. “If you’re looking to decrease your water hardness, then investing in a water softening system may be more worthwhile,” she says.

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