What can hard water do to skin and how can you protect it?
Does your skin feel smooth and refreshed after a shower or is it itchy and dry? Hard water may be to blame. We take a closer look at this type of water and what you can do to protect your skin
Varying by location, hard water is a type of water made up of dissolved minerals and metals(1). Their accumulation occurs naturally when water passes through limestone, soil and sand, picking up minerals as it seeps into the groundwater supply. But what does this all mean for your skin? While safe to drink and wash with, it can build up on your skin, making it vulnerable to skin conditions, like eczema. Here's a complete guide on how to protect your complexion from hard water.
What does hard water do to skin?
This type of water has numerous adverse effects on skin and can contribute to dryness and skin conditions. It can also cause skin barrier impairment, meaning that skin is less protected from harmful pollutants(2) and, as a result, becomes more vulnerable to problems like:
Hard water causes skin irritation because it doesn’t dissolve soaps, detergents and other cleansing products properly. This means that a soap residue is left on skin, hair, dishes and clothing(3). Consequently, your skin can feel dry, itchy and irritated due to moisture being lost and sebum production disrupted (which lubricates skin). “Hard water can even penetrate the epidermis (the top layer of the skin) and damage the lipid layer, leading to dry skin”, Dr. Roos says.
As it’s more difficult to get a good lather with hard water, it can lead to two problems: it often requires more soap to get clean, which can further contribute to dryness, and it’s more difficult to form a solution with soap, which leaves behind a residue.
Soap that doesn’t wash away efficiently leaves residue on the skin, as well as dead skin and dirt. This can cause a build up on your skin, and the residue can clog your pores the same way it does your shower’s pipes. “This occurs when the natural oils that are produced by the skin get trapped, leading to pimples forming, and can lead to breakouts and worsen skin conditions like acne”, explains Dr Roos.
Living in an area of hard water is also associated with an increased risk of atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema(2). Studies have shown that the residue left from hard water on skin contributes to increased transepidermal water loss (referring to the moisture content on the surface of the skin) and irritation such as itchiness. This barrier impairment can contribute to the development of eczema(2), an inflammatory, chronically relapsing skin disorder that is largely shaped by the surrounding environment(1).
How do you know if you have hard water?
Some of the common symptoms of hard water include:
- Your soap doesn’t lather properly
- Clothing feels stiff or rough
- There’s buildup on faucets, walls and shower doors
- Your skin feels dry and irritated
- Hair is flat or feels rough
- Water pressure is low
- In contrast to the adverse effects of hard water on skin, as a source of drinking water, the high content of calcium and magnesium in hard water can be beneficial for the body(1).
How can you counteract the effects of hard water on skin?
There are three things you can do to better protect your skin from hard water and its effects.
Install a water softener
Installation of a water softener may be able to prevent the development of skin dryness and eczema(2). As this type of water is cleaning, this applies to your clothing, dishes and especially your skin. Soft water makes it easier to form a lather, meaning that soap works effectively and washes away easily without leaving a residue. “Softening your water is a helpful step towards avoiding irritation and improving the quality of your skin”, explains Dr. Roos.
Water temperature and duration also play a role in achieving healthy skin. “Hard water and soap aggravate skin especially if washing with very hot water”, says Dr. Roos. So avoid long, hot showers which can further contribute to problems like dry hair and skin. Additionally, don’t exfoliate too frequently (not more than once a week- especially if you have very dry or sensitive skin), as this can further exacerbate the effects of hard water.
Use the right skincare products
Choose a gentle cleanser to clean you skin: soap can bind the natural oils of skin and strip it of its natural layer. “Instead, use a foaming cleanser for dry skin, especially one that traps hard water particles”, says Dr. Roos. After showering, dab your skin to dry it rather than rubbing.
Don’t forget to hydrate skin after showering to counteract any effects caused by hard water. “A generous slather of moisturizer can help repair the skin barrier function, sealing in moisture and helping it to retain hydration better”, describes Dr Roos. “In addition, vitamin C can rejuvenate skin that looks dull, while vitamin A or retinol can treat fine lines and wrinkles that become noticeable when skin is dehydrated”, she concludes. In any case, it’s a good idea to consult a dermatologist if you experience any changes in your skin’s condition, in order to address any concerns and keep your complexion bright and healthy.
1. Sengupta, P. 'Potential Health Impacts of Hard Water' in International Journal of Preventive Medicine 4.8 (2013) pp. 866-875 [Accessible at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3775162/]
2. Danby, S.G. et al, 'The Effect of Water Hardness on Surfactant Deposition after Washing and Subsequent Skin Irritation in Atopic Dermatitis Patients and Healthy Control Subjects.' in Journal of Investigative Dermatology 138.1 (2018) pp 68-77 [Accessible at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28927888]
3. Thomas, K.S. et al, 'A Randomised Controlled Trial of Ion-Exchange Water Softeners for the Treatment of Eczema in Children' in PLOS Medicine 8.2 (2011) [Accessible at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3039684/PLoS Med. 2011 Feb; 8(2): e1000395