One of the first places many people notice that they have hair loss is in the shower. Whether it be in the drain, on the brush, or on the towel, there are several ways showering is able to uncover hair loss.
But one factor that does not get talked about enough is “hard water” and hair loss.
Don’t worry, hard water does not cause male/female androgenic alopecia (AGA: pattern hair loss), but, there is some evidence suggesting that it may cause damage to your hair and could potentially worsen already existing hair loss.
In this article we are going to discuss what hard water is, how it damages the hair and the evidence surrounding it, and what you can do to avoid hard water-related issues.
What is hard water?
Hard water is water that contains a high mineral content, more specifically largely calcium and magnesium. If you have ever washed your hands and felt a strange film on them or seen cloudy water coming from the faucet it is likely because it is hard water.
The hardness of your water depends on where you live and where your water is sourced from. This is because if the water in your city is extracted from a reservoir containing limestone, chalk, or gypsum, which are all primarily made up of calcium and magnesium, then your water will likely be harder as the minerals from these rocks will have soaked into it.
How does hard water affect the hair?
There are two ways that hard water may be detrimental to your hair's health.
The first is when hard water interacts with shampoo. Certain chemicals in shampoo have been shown to react with the minerals in hard water and form what is called “soap scum” (1).
Essentially, soap scum is just very concentrated calcium, and it is its cohesive properties that make it a potential problem.
Since it is extremely cohesive, soap scum tends to stick to, and build up in the hair and scalp. If left unmanaged, soap scum may begin to clog the hair follicles and stunt growth, which may lead to thinning hair. It has also been shown to worsen seborrheic dermatitis (2): a condition that is known to cause itching, flaking, and inflammation of the scalp. Also, the process of calcification may take place which is where the soap scum begins to harden. This can potentially worsen the already negative effects of soap scum on hair growth.
Hard water may also affect the hair directly regardless of the presence of soap or not.
Again, no research has shown that hard water directly affects AGA, but studies have found that the minerals in hard water may cause the hair to become weak and more prone to breakage and thinning.
One study (3) compared 15 hair samples that were either washed in hard or soft water for a period of 30 days. At the end of the study, the hair that was washed in hard water contained markedly higher amounts of calcium and was shown to be 7% thinner than the hair washed in soft water.
In another study (4), researchers collected 70 different hair samples from men and washed them with either soft, deionized, or hard water. The variable that was tested was tensile strength, or the resistance of the hair to breaking under pressure. At the end of the study it was found that the hard water group’s hair had significantly lower tensile strength, meaning it was much more prone to breakage and likely thinning.
What can you do to prevent hard water hair damage?
Although there is not a ton of research confirming that hard water damages hair, the implication is there and soap scum has been shown to be a serious problem as well. In other words, if you can, it is best to avoid hard water as you may run the risk of worsening hair loss or thinning including possible scalp conditions like seborrheic dermatitis.
There are several things that you can do to minimize the risk of hair damage from hard water.
The first is to use a water softening system. At the basic level what a water softening does is removes the minerals from the water. They range in price and function but there are some that can be purchased to be put right on your showed head for relatively cheap. This will soften the water as it comes out and protect your hair.
Another thing that you can do is use a natural clarifying shampoo.
Clarifying shampoos are designed to “deep clean” your hair and are effective at removing mineral and other buildups. Although make sure you use one with natural ingredients as many big name clarifying shampoos can be extremely harsh on your hair.
The third thing you can do is use a vinegar or lemon/lime rinse.
The acidic nature of all three ingredients can help remove buildup and can even balance the pH of your hair (which is great for texture and strength).
For the vinegar rinse: mix one tablespoon of vinegar with 2 cups of water. After shampooing, massage the mixture into your scalp and leave it in for a couple minutes to derive the benefits.
For the lemon/lime rinse: mix one teaspoon of either lemon or lime juice with 3 cups of water. Again, after shampooing mix this into your hair and leave it on for a couple of minutes and then rinse off.
Hard water is not going to cause you to have pattern hair loss. But, there is evidence suggesting that it can weaken hair and cause soap scum which can clog hair follicles and stunt growth.
It is best to avoid hard water when possible by using a water softener. If you do not have access to a water softener you can use natural clarifying shampoo and/or a vinegar or lemon rinse to mitigate the negative effects of hard water. If you are someone who is already experiencing male/female pattern hair loss you are going to want to pay close attention to hard water as it may worsen the condition of your hair.