Soft Water? Hard Water? You Can Still Have Good Hair And Skin!

Just in time for vacation season, here's how to stop hard or soft water from screwing up your prettiness.
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Just in time for vacation season, here's how to stop hard or soft water from screwing up your prettiness.

While I was away the other week, I ended up with a beauty situation that I did not expect.

Living in Chicago, I’m lucky to have pretty OK water. It’s not as good as New York’s--which has magical, skin-clearing properties for me--but it’s decent.

In the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin, though, the water was... different. It had a metallic taste. It left residue on my hair and skin. I felt like no matter what I did, I couldn’t get clean. My hair, usually my crowning glory, was lank and sad--a depressing combination of greasy and dry at the same time.

So I hid it under scarves for a full week.

So I hid it under scarves for a full week.

Naturally I tried to numb my confusion with beer and cheese curds, but the situation continued. I arrived back home with hair in dire need of a serious wash and skin that cried out for a decent scrub.

My problem was that I was vacationing in hard water territory, and NOTHING derails your otherwise impeccable beauty game like different water. As summer approaches and our schedules cry out for vacations, I have prepared an extensive guide to dealing with hard and soft water--what it is, why it might be tripping up your gorgeousness, and the products and techniques you can use to combat the issues.

Let’s get started!

Hard vs. Soft Water (and what that means)

Hard water contains dissolved minerals, which gives it a distinctive taste (and sometimes smell). Certain hard waters were greatly prized for their taste and alleged health benefits. You know how characters in old books are always traveling around to “take the waters”? This is what they’re talking about. People used to line up to drink these waters at places called Pump Rooms, so named because they had pumps that brought the water up to the surface. In Charles Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers, Sam Weller says that the water in Bath has “a very strong flavour o' warm flat irons,” which sounds pretty gross to me, but people went bonkers for it back in the day.

Illustration: Comforts of Bath - The Pump Room, by Thomas Rowlandson. You can see the lady on the right is serving up the waters.

Illustration: Comforts of Bath - The Pump Room, by Thomas Rowlandson. You can see the lady on the right is serving up the waters.

But lest we laugh at the credulousness of our ancestors, consider that we still do much of this today. Almost everyone--including myself--LOVES Epsom salts to relax sore muscles. But consider that Epsom salts are named after the spa town of Epsom in Surrey, England, and that Magnesium sulfate was originally made by boiling hard water from the town’s springs until only the white salt was left behind.

Thanks, Epsom!

Thanks, Epsom!

Soft water, on the other hand, is water that only has de-ionized sodium in it. This can be the result of treatment or it can be naturally occurring. Because of this, softened water usually tastes a bit salty, but people like it because it’s far better for plumbing, cooking, and cleaning than hard water is. It isn’t “better” than hard water is when it comes to how drinkable your H2O is, but it does make modern life easier.

So what does this mean for your beauty game? Well, if you have hard water, you’ll probably notice that your shampoo, body wash, cleanser, and soap don’t produce an awful lot of lather. This is because the minerals in the water are reacting with certain ingredients in those products, producing residue that doesn’t easily wash away. If you have soft water, you might feel like your hair is eternally flat and kind of greasy, and that you're left with a slippery feeling on your skin.

The question is, what can you do about it? Are you doomed to limp hair and sad skin until you can get back to the water you’re used to? Heck no! I have some solutions here for you!

Hard Water And Hair

As you may have figured out, harder-than-usual water was the problem that I was having with my hair while I was away. If I’d have known that Wisconsin has some pretty mineral-rich water, I would have prepared accordingly for my trip--if you’re going on vacation in the US this summer, this map is a pretty decent guide to water hardness in your area. Just know that individual softening systems in homes and hotels will affect the results, so use it as a ballpark rather than as legally binding arbitration.

Chelating shampoos are likely your best bet for hard water-affected hair. Sometimes billed as swimmer’s shampoos, shampoos which contain compounds like EDTA will bond to and remove excess minerals, like magnesium and calcium, from your lovely locks.

Don't mind me, just washing my hair while fully dressed and with a face full of makeup.

Don't mind me, just washing my hair while fully dressed and with a face full of makeup.

However, even the best chelating shampoos can be really drying and many aren’t recommended for every day use. Make sure you use an awesome conditioner afterwards to put the moisture back in your hair. My favorite is Organix Anti-Breakage Keratin Oil Conditioner, as it has a lovely scent, rinses clean without residue, and always leave my hair feeling and looking beautiful.

A few of my friends who live with VERY hard water swear by apple vinegar cider rinses. Again, this can be really drying to your hair, so make sure you don’t overdo it.

When my hair was very blonde and I’d go swimming a lot, I used Joico K-Pak Chelating Shampoo. It always removed any green tones from my hair and left it feeling amazing. Had I known that I was heading into hard water territory on this trip, I definitely would have packed it.

Soft Water And Hair

If you’re not used to washing your hair in soft water, you may feel like it’s taking FOREVER to rinse out your shampoo. It might also seem like your hair has less volume than usual, or that your waves and curls have less body.

An apartment I once lived in had what I still believe was the softest water in the known universe. I felt like I could never rinse my hair enough, and the back of my head was ALWAYS left feeling oily and gross. To combat this, I started parting my hair differently to wash it--from ear to ear, rather than blobbing shampoo on the top of my head.

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I lathered the shampoo along this part, which was right where the buildup was the worst. Once I figured out how not to get suds in my eyes, this really worked! My oily patch disappeared and never came back.

Shampoo-wise, Lush used to make a shampoo specially formulated for use in soft water. That has been reformulated into the Seanik Solid Shampoo Bar, which has lots of lovely salts and minerals in it to give back the best of what water softening strips out. I haven’t tested this out in extremely soft water yet--my water is pretty average right now--but regardless, once you’re used to the bar format, it’s a pleasure to use and leaves your hair looking amazing.

So soft! So shiny! So pretty!

So soft! So shiny! So pretty!

You can also combat the effects of soft water with a clarifying shampoo or an ACV rinse every once in a while to make sure that shampoo and other products aren’t building up in your hair. If you find that your hair is still a bit dreary, you may want to skip the conditioner for a while. Over-conditioning can be just as bad for your hair’s prettiness as not conditioning at all, especially if you’re bouncing between water types.

Soap and Body Wash

If you have hard water, one of the weird things you’ll notice is that your bar soaps don’t work properly. This is because the ingredients in soap react with the minerals in the water and produce insoluble soap scum, rather than bubbles.

One way around this is to banish your usual bar and buy some Castile soap. Castile soap is oil-based (usually olive, but really any oil can be used), contains no animal fats and promises to lather up even in the hardest water.

I tried a bunch of these soaps and found that a lot of them either had an unpleasant smell or left a weird feeling on my hands. My favorite one was Dr. Bronner's 18-in-1 Hemp Pure-Castile Soap in Organic Rose, even though the label was BEYOND WACKY. It lathered well, smelled nice and left my hands feeling clean. You can’t do any better than that, even if I'm not any more Godly than when I started.

BUBBLES!

BUBBLES!

Of course, the ultimate way around this is by using body wash instead of soap. Most body washes are made using detergents which aren’t affected by minerals in hard water, so they foam up and clean your skin every time. There are approximately one bajillion options when it comes to body washes in terms of smells, moisturizing quotients, exfoliation beads (which maybe you shouldn’t use) and textures, but all should get you clean in even the hardest of waters.

Hard Water And Face Wash

I know it seems like I’m unfairly picking on hard water, but I promise I am not! Hard water just comes with a wider variety of beauty issues, especially when it comes to taking care of your complexion.

If you’re going from soft water to hard water, you may notice that your skin gets red, itchy, or otherwise more irritated than normal. This is your delicate face reacting to the minerals in the water, and although it doesn’t happen to everyone, it can happen. One way around this is to minimize your face’s exposure to the hard tap water. Wash it in the sink and rinse with bottled water rather than cleansing it in the shower. I know, it sounds decadent--but if your skin is really sensitive, it’s far better to err on the side of caution rather than having to fix a massive problem later.

Foaming cleansers may not lather up in hard water, and gel-based face washes may not rinse away nicely. Instead, use a self-foaming face wash or a cleansing milk to keep your skin clean--many skincare lines now offer the same cleanser in a variety of formulas, so you won’t have to worry about your skin freaking out as it adjusts to a new product. Good thinking, companies!

Finally, the best thing that I did for my skin while I was away was bring along a light toner. The feeling of not being able to keep my skin clean would have driven me CRAZY, had I not had my handy dandy Coast 2 Coast Skin Illuminating Cleansing Water from their Outback line.

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This stuff was a lifesaver. A pump of this on a cotton round and wiped all over my face (and neck, and chest, and back) immediately eliminated the filmy, trapped-in-grime feeling I had when I got out of the shower. At the junction of a cleanser, toner, and makeup remover, it won’t replace your usual face washing routine, but it will sure as heck supplement it nicely.

And that’s it! I had a wonderful time away in the fresh air, but I’m glad to be back with you all. 

Now tell me: Have you ever had a problem with different water? Have you been to the baths at Bath? Does hard water jack up your hair as badly as it did mine? What are your favorite products to minimize any issues?