Is hard or soft water better for skin?

is hard or soft water better

Here is a question that comes up every now and again.  Is soft water better for skin?  Suzanne has noticed that her skin condition is better when she uses soft water.  I’ll let her speak for herself.

Hi Colin, First let me say I’ve only recently found your blog but I think it’s great, very sensible advice, wish I’d known about it earlier. Perhaps you could answer this question for me? I live near London in a very hard water area. When I go to stay in other, more rural parts of the country, I am amazed at how good my skin looks and feels after just a few days. Is this because the water is cleaner, or contains less limescale, or is less chlorinated? My skin is sensitive but not dry, and I find that washing in water at home produces a ‘taut’ feeling, even if I use no soapor cleanser. I don’t get this feelingin soft water areas. To get rid of the ‘taut’ feeling, I apply moisturiser, very sparingly, but often find that I then get whiteheads, blackheads and milia, I’m often better off without moisturiser at all. How can I reproduce the wonderful results I get in soft water areas at home? Is it necessary to spend upwards of £500 on a home softener system – which may not do the job anyway as this is not ‘natural’ soft water? I have bought a ‘Rainshow’r’ chlorine remover, and was thinking of adding a little salt or some bicarbonate of soda to my bath water? Grateful for any suggestions! Suzanne

Okay, first the easy bit which in this case is the science.  Hard water is what you usually get in limestone regions.  It is rich in calcium ions.  In fact where I grew up the water was almost saturated.  This has lots of effects, including that you need to use more soap and dishwashing liquids.

Some people find it is also drying and irritating to their skin compared to soft water, as Suzanne says.  This could simply be because of the higher levels of detergent that come into contact with the skin.  It might also be an intrinsic effect of the water.  You might imagine that somebody somewhere would know for sure, but if they do I don’t know where that information has been published.  It is quite a believable notion.  Calcium is a highly charged metal and it would not be surprising to see evidence that it has an adverse effect on skin.

But while there is no data on normal skin, there are some indications that hard water has an adverse effect on eczema.  It seems to be something that at least some dermatologists recognise as a  factor and that sufferers anecdotally confirm.  Although this has got into the literature and pops up on websites, rather frustratingly a recent study in Nottingham failed to confirm it.  This was only a four week trial so maybe there is an effect but it takes longer to bed in.soft-water-better-for-skin

So should you buy a water softener?  The benefits may not be huge and £500 is a lot to spend.  Having said that you will get a saving in the amount of soap, shampoo and washing up liquid you need to use.  These are all quite cheap to buy of course, and the softener will have running costs associated with it.  I am afraid it is a tough call.  I don’t think that there will be any difference between ‘natural’ soft water and the soft water you get from your softener if that is any help.  The problem is the calcium in the hard water, and removing it should give you the same result however you do it.

I am afraid the chlorine remover will have no effect on the hardness of the water and is a complete red herring.  Adding a little salt or bicarbonate might mitigate the effect of the calcium a little.  It works by effectively diluting the calcium ions with less charged sodium ions.  I am not sure how much good this would do in practice, but I suppose there is no harm in experimenting.

Bath enthusiasts might appreciate my posts on Dead Sea Salts and whether you can get vitamins from a bath.


The study of softened water in eczema patients with negative results to which I referred.
Guide To Cosmetic Ingredients For The Perplexed Cover

13 thoughts on “Is hard or soft water better for skin?”

  1. I have had a water softener since 2004 and can confirm that whilst my skin does not necessarily need a moisturiser, my hair needs more frequent washing. You should have water softeners serviced and I have had to call out a repair man the times for various things, all had to be paid for. Electricity costis not too much but you have to fill with salt which comes in 25 kg bags, any smaller and it is not financially viable. I have to rely on my husband to carry bags and fill softener. They do now have softeners that just use a large block of salt but they work out very expensive to run because of the cost of the salt.
    When I had the softener fitted, I was having my boiler replaced and the fitter said I should have one to extend the life of the boiler. I have learnt that is not correct and I just needed a magnetic thingy on the pipe before it went into the boiler.
    So, I have a softener by default, but when it eventually goes completely I will not be replacing it and make more cream! The benefits for me do not outweigh the cost. I have dry, sensitive skin.

  2. I think hard tap water is the only reason why French women have been using thermal water sprays on their faces and never letting the tap water touch their skin. Hard water definitely dries out the skin and makes it look dull. I’ve even heard about some who rinse their hair with bottled water (Evian, even) after shower.

  3. Pampered Prince

    A complete side thought away from the actual water itself but could Suzanne be experiencing better skin in more rural areas also be part of having cleaner air, less pollution, exhaust fumes etc from cars in built-up London areas? This is more of a questions than a statement, as I don’t know it was just a thought. I’ve noticed my skin gets more grimey when I’m in London but I put it down to the pollution not the water?

  4. @Jean – thanks for taking the time to give us so much detail. That is really interesting and I think people will find it very useful.

    @Siren – rinsing hair in mineral water? Mineral waters from different sources have different compositions and on the face of it Evian water doesn’t sound like a great idea. It has a lot more calcium than London tap water would contain. But it also has a high pH which maybe makes a difference. I am not really sure. If anyone wants to try this out I suggest being cautious about it.

    @Andy – that is an interesting point, in fact so interesting I think it deserves its own blog post.

  5. Colin – there is some evidence that metal salts are beneficial for the skin
    there’s another study by the Pierre Fabre group confirming this, but I cannot find it quickly.
    However – counter to that is the observation (as stated by Siren) that interaction between cleansing products and hard water forms microprecipitate (a fine scum) on the surface of the skin making it look dull. So moving from hard to soft water area could result in skin looking better.
    Longer term – who can say?

    1. Hi Steve, that is an interesting paper. The role of metals in the skin is something I have been following the research on for quite a few years now. It is interesting that metal ions and chelating agents both seem to modify the way skin behaves. It is a bit complicated though. As to the long term effect of calcium on the skin, I think it is likely to be detrimental to the liquid crystals in the intercellular lipids of the stratum corneum which might reduce the efficiency of the barrier function and make skin drier. And I think you could test that idea by doing a really big national survey of TEWL and looking for a correlation with calcium concentration of local tap water.

  6. I think it really depends on what skin is used to and individual preferences. My skin looks and feels much better when I use hard water…

  7. I know very little about hard water vs ‘soft’ water. Are there ways to tell via soap scum formation or any simple physical test whether the water is deemed ‘hard’ or ‘soft’?

    However, the quality of water and its co-relation to skincare/haircare is purportedly at the heart of Japanese skincare. I believe it was Chizu Saeki who stated that Japanese women staying in Japan tend to use products which required additional washing off eg cleansing oils etc as opposed to cold creams as the water in Japan itself is good for the skin.

  8. I live in Southern California, which is essentially a desert. The water here is beyond hard. After bathing or showering, your skin is left extra dry, flaky, and ashy. The hard water deposits are actually visible on the skin. I have very sensitive skin, so most chemical filled commercial products lead to breakouts. I figured that a lot of other people may have the same problem. Long story short….. I created a line of inexpensive all natural bath and body products called Java Body. The products are ideal for using in areas with hard water. The products include all natural scented coffee scrubs, scented sugar scrubs, and scented body oils. There are even products in our line for men and our products are suitable for all skin types and tones. After using Java Body products, your skin will be left completely exfoliated, clean, hydrated, and soft to the touch. It has made my baths and showers much more enjoyable. Hard water is no match for Java Body.

    Thank you.

  9. Hello,

    I’ve just been looking on the web to see if you still require moisturizer if you have soft water and came across this web site and thought I’d add some thoughts.

    I live in London and I have had a water softner for over a year and have found the results to be really good. I had really dry skin and no amount of moisturizer helped. Plus I found it sticky etc when you put clothes on or sleep in bed after adding moisturizer. I had a 3 month free trial with a non electric softner where you just add block salt and the results were really good. My skin feels softer and no longer flaky. The itchyness has gone and I’ve also found that my washing machine, dishwasher work much better and lime scale deposits have disappeared from the shower head etc

    The salt isn’t cheap. I pay around £60 for 12 bags and one bag lasts about a month. So that’s about £5 a month. But I no longer buy limelite, clothes softner, use as much soap powder or body wash. So I figure that the savings there can be spent on the salt.

    Just to add. Appliances should also last longer as they don’t build up lime scale with soft water and I did isolate the softner during the free trial to see what happened and after a week I was itching again etc so I 100% believe that the softner is a really good investment and although initially expensive at £1500, I wouldn’t be without it now.

  10. I can tell you that adding common salt to the water won’t help, and may even hurt a little. The effect of water “hardness” is a matter of the available-to-react “hardness” minerals’ absolute, not relative concentration, so you’re not effectively diluting it by adding even more salts. Bicarbonate will slightly “soften” water that has excess alkalinity, at the expense of producing chalk, which may be a hindrance. (I use quotes around “hard” & “soft” in this context, because the only actually hard water is, of course, ice. The slang terms arose from the texture of beans soaked & cooked in various waters.)

    There are actual water “softening” salts you can add. Sodium carbonate, known as soda crystals where you are, work by turning calcium in the water into chalk, meanwhile making the water more alkaline, and although sodium carbonate and sesquicarbonate (which is halfway between carbonat & bicarbonate) have long been used in bath salts & cubes, I don’t recommend their overall effect. The commonest type of salts that’ve been used as bath salts that would produce a good water “softening effect” are complex sodium phosphates, such as the original Calgon formula, sodium hexametaphosphate; these don’t add much, if any, alkalinity, and don’t produce any insoluble powders. However, I don’t know how easy it would be for you to get those these days, and I don’t think the formula of Calgon you have now would be it. Sodium citrate would be next best that might be commonly available. Deselex + borax would be a little more obscure, as would NTA. Maybe sodium polyacrylates would be available. Your Calgon might actually contain one or more of these.

    Of course it’s possible that something else the lady was exposed to in rural areas that made the difference in how her skin felt, rather than the water.

  11. Hello Robert, I see what you are saying. I have the advantage of actually living near London myself – which incidentally isn’t really what you’d call a rural area – so I have a pretty good idea of the chemistry of the water that is giving rise to the problem. A lot of the water comes from chalk hills so is very rich in calcium. My suggestion of adding salt is to reduce the charge on the divalent calcium ion by increasing the ionic strength of the water with some sodium ions. I used the term diluting as a way of explaining the concept to a non chemist.

  12. Hi.

    I’ve stumbled across this page as I’ve googled ‘can softened water irritate the skin’. I have been suffering with severe skin irritation for the last 2 years. I’ve have various tests, lotions and potions to get to the root of the problem. One day it just dawned on me… Could it be the water softener we installed.. We turned it off and my skin was back to its usual self.. Last night the itching started and this morning I woke up with extremely sore sores under my arms… I asked my parter if he had turned the softer on again and Unbeknown to me at the time, about 4 weeks my water obsessed partner had turned it back on to ‘flush out the system’.. We live in a hard water area just outside of London. I do believe if the hard water is causing you no harm, don’t try and fix it…. It’s not broken… You could end up like me with what I now believe to be an a severe reaction to the salt that is used in the softner.

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