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Hard Water Vs. Soft Water: How Your Shower Really Affects Your Hair

woman under hard water

We’ve all heard the terms “hard” and “soft” water before, but if we’re completely honest—we had no idea what it meant until recently. How could a liquid like water feel hard? What makes water soft and how does that affect your hair? We don’t know about you but, hard water hair doesn’t sound like a beauty treatment we’d want to try.

We reached out to Nikki Lee, L’Oréal Professionnel brand ambassador and co-owner of 901 Salon in Hollywood, to get to the bottom of all of our questions. She explained what hard and soft water is, how it can affect your hair, and what you can do about it.

What is hard water?

Contrary to what it sounds like, the name hard water doesn’t have anything to do with the way the water feels. Water is hard when it has a higher than usual concentration of minerals, primarily calcium and magnesium carbonates. Water can become hard naturally as it picks up minerals from rocks as it flows through rivers, streams, and wells.

While hard water is generally thought of as safe to drink, cook with, and bathe in, many cities task their water treatment plants with filtering out as many minerals as possible. However, filtered water can sometimes pick up more minerals as it leaves the treatment plant and makes its way to your home through hundreds of miles of metal pipes. A 2011 study determined 80 to 85 percent of US Homes have water that is considered hard.

What is soft water?

Soft water is the exact opposite of hard water. It has a low concentration of minerals. Soft water occurs for several reasons: Either the water has not flowed through any rocks or wells (i.e., rainwater), the rocks the water did flow through had a very low concentration of soluble minerals, or the minerals have been filtered out.

While it is usually hard to tell if the water coming out of your shower is hard or soft just by looking at it, there are several ways to test your water to find out. All you have to do is take a shower! If you have hard water, it will be harder for your soap to create a rich, foamy lather. If your soap isn’t giving you a definitive answer, take a look at your faucets. Over time, hard water can leave behind mineral buildup like limescale or calcification. Lastly, take a sip from your faucet. You can sometimes taste the minerals in hard water, while soft water sometimes has a salty taste.

Which is better for your hair, hard or soft water?

The simple answer is neither. While both hard and soft water is safe to drink, cook with, and bathe in, they each come with their own set of hair woes.

“All the minerals and heavy metals in hard water can cause your hair to become dry, brittle, brassy and dull,” Lee explains. “Your scalp can also get flaky and itchy, too.”

While washing your strands with fresh rainwater sounds like it would be better for your hair, water that is very soft can do a number on your strands as well.

“Soft water can actually make your hair greasy and limp,” Lee says. “The soft water will make your hair hold on to your products which can also cause buildup.”

Lucky for you, dealing with hard and soft water is a lot easier than it sounds. If you don’t feel like switching up your hair care routine, Lee suggests investing in a shower filter. Most shower heads are easy to install and can filter several minerals and heavy metals out of your water. Boiling your shower water is another way to rid your tap water of minerals. You can also forgo tap water all together and wash your hair with bottled water.

If installing a shower filter, boiling water, or using bottled water is more work than you’re looking to do, swap out your regular shampoo for a clarifying formula like Redken’s Detox Hair Cleansing Cream Shampoo once a week. This cream shampoo purifies your hair, removing minerals like copper, iron, magnesium and calcium, all found in hard water, as well as excess oils, pollution residue and buildup of product.

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