Hard Water Dermatitis

The effects of hard water on skin

Most people suffering from dry skin tell us they have tried nearly every cream, lotion, and moisturizer out there. Regardless of what they use or how often they use it, their dry skin will often persist. Many think dry skin is just something they have to live with. They may not have given much thought to a simple environmental factor like their water—the possibility that the water they bathe in, wash their dishes, clothes and linens in, and even drink may be contributing to the problem.

Hard water is a common culprit in the fight against dry skin, but many people don't really know what hard water is. Others may have heard of it, but even some who think they may have it may not take the time to have their water tested to see how hard it actually is, or to find out what they can do about it.

Water tests typically examine levels of:

      • Alkalinity
      • Chlorine
      • Hardness
      • pH
      • Peroxide
      • Iron & Copper
      • Nitrate & Nitrite
      • Heavy metals
      • Inorganic chemicals
      • Organic chemicals

Hard water is defined as highly alkaline (high pH) water that contains high levels of iron, magnesium and/or calcium ions. pH is a logarithmic scale starting at 0 and going to 14. Zero is as acid as you can get and 14 is as alkaline as you can get. Seven is the ideal pH of water, and what we consider to be neutral. Each integer represents 10 times the previous one (ie: a pH of 6 is ten times as acidic as a pH of 7). The natural pH of the human body at a cellular level is around 7.3.

Remember, water is the universal solvent. When these minerals enter your water supply, they "harden" the water and make it difficult for other substances like detergents, soaps, or any sort of solute (something that dissolves in a solvent) to enter into solution.

As a result, you may see an increase in clogged plumbing; deposits of soap, iron, and lime in your showers, sinks, and faucets; difficulty getting soaps to lather and rinse off and out; and persistent dry flaky skin. These signs are all indicative of hard water, but to be certain a water test can be performed. This will not only confirm if you have hard water but also whether the problem is mild, moderate, or severe.

Hard water and your skin

This build-up or "hardening" of minerals in hard water makes it very difficult for other substances to dissolve in that water, including soaps and detergents. The various undissolved substances can leave a surface residue on the washing machine, your clothing, your plumbing, tub, or shower—and your hair and skin. With that, bathing and washing our clothes in hard water can lead to increased skin irritation.

Whenever we bathe, we often lather ourselves up with soaps, shampoos, conditioners and other cosmetics and cleaning products. If your water is hard, you may notice these products aren't lathering up sufficiently. This could prompt you to use more of the product. Next we start the process of rinsing, which is where the combination of hard water and increased amounts of cleansing products can really work against us, and a more problematic residue of the hard water and cleaning products may be left on the skin.

The soap residue left behind on your skin clogs the pores and irritates the skin, making it itchy, flaky, and dry. The minerals in the hard water itself can also clog skin pores, which can be especially harmful to more sensitive areas like the face. Facial skin or other areas that are thin, reddened, or irritated from associated dry skin conditions may worsen, with flushing from damage to the blood vessels.

In addition to your skin carrying a residue of soap and hard water, our clothing, sheets, and linens are also susceptible. The water in our washing machines is typically no different from that in our showers; it too can leave detergent residue in our clothing and linens. Therefore, our skin can be in constant contact with this residue, causing chafing, rubbing and further skin irritation.

Hard water can be especially irritating to those who already suffer from a skin condition like dermatitis. Dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin, and outbreaks are more common when one suffers from persistently dry skin. While hard water itself doesn't cause dermatitis, it can irritate the condition or even initiate a flare-up. One of the most common effects of hard water is its ability to dry out the skin and leave it unable to absorb moisture. The combination of hard water with a co-existing dermatitis condition can lead to more frequent and severe outbreaks.

Remedies for hard water

The best remedy for hard water is to try and make it softer. Soft water is literally the opposite of hard water; it is water in its purest form—minus the mineral ions. Without the minerals, soft water rinses the soaps and detergents from our bodies and clothes much more efficiently. This leaves our pores unclogged, allowing moisture to be absorbed, and with softer, healthier skin.

If you are on a municipal water system, you can ask the water supplier to provide you with the hardness level of the water they deliver. If you have a private water supply, you can have the water tested for hardness. If you suspect or know that your household has hard water and you have well water, the remedy may be as simple as obtaining a water softener. However, if your water is from a public supply, a water softening unit would have to be installed, and this can be much more complicated and expensive.  We're big fans of the AquaBliss High Output Universal Shower Filter with a Replaceable Multi-State Filter Cartridge (a mid $30 range filter).  It is an Amazon best seller with several thousand insightful reviews.  It's also an Amazon's Choice product.  Before installing a more expensive whole-house system, you should try the AquaBliss Universal Shower Filter.  [Full Disclosure: This is not a DermaHarmony product and we have no affiliation with the maker of AquaBliss, nor does this endorsement produce benefit to DermaHarmony.]

If you are unable to address your hard water at the source, then there are some other things you can do to protect your skin from its harsh effects:

      • Use less soap products to decrease soapy residue.  You should also consider using Syndet cleansing bars if you have hard water. The word “syndet” is derived from “synthetic” combined with “detergent”. Technically it refers to the binding that occurs between different detergents, also called surfactants. Syndet bars are often marketed as “cleansing bars” or “dermatological bars”. Another alternative is to rinse with a diluted Apple Cider Vinegar.
      • Take shorter showers to reduce your skin's exposure to hardened minerals.
      • Use store-bought water or sink filtered water to wash your face only (the face is more sensitive to hard water).
      • Apply shielding lotions to help protect against certain substances.

These steps will allow your skin to absorb more moisture. The more you protect against dry skin, the less vulnerable you are to severe dermatitis outbreaks triggered or further irritated by associated dry skin conditions.