How to Care for Your Hair With Hard Water Shampoo

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 04, 2022
5 min read

Dealing with damaged, dry, and dull hair can be incredibly frustrating. It’s especially frustrating if you’ve tried everything you can think of. You’ve taken the multivitamins for shiny hair, you’ve gotten a special microfiber hair towel and satin pillowcase, you never use heat on your hair, and you’ve bought all the conditioners and serums the store has to offer. 

If you’ve gone through all that and still are battling hair issues, it may be time to look at your water. Hard water can cause hair damage, and you may not even know you have it.

Hard water is water that contains dissolved minerals, especially calcium and magnesium. The harder the water is, the more minerals it has in it. 

Generally speaking, hard water is fine to drink. It can even provide needed nutrients, as calcium and magnesium are both things your body needs. Calcium helps build strong bones and teeth and also helps your heart, muscles, and nerves function. Magnesium has many roles in the body, such as helping with energy production, muscle function, and nerve function.

While hard water is fine for your body, it can be hard on your household items. For example, hard water may: 

  • Cause limescale buildup in pipes and appliances, leading to low water flow and pressure
  • Damage appliances that use water and reduce their lifespan and efficiency
  • Damage fabrics and clothing
  • Leave spots on dishes and faucets
  • Leave stains in bathtubs and sinks

Hard water can also be harsh on your skin. It can make your skin dry and disrupt your skin barrier, the outermost layer of skin that protects you from allergens, infections, and other irritants. Hard water can be especially hard on people with skin conditions like atopic dermatitis and other types of eczema.

Not only can hard water cause dryness and damage to your skin, but it can do the same to your hair. 

Each strand of hair is made up of layers and layers of overlapping cells, like scales. Smooth hair happens when these cells are lying flat. The minerals in hard water cause these cells to stick up, leaving hair feeling rough and making it more prone to tangles and breaking.

Soft water is water that doesn’t have all the calcium and magnesium that hard water has. When you use soft water on your hair, you don’t have problems caused by mineral exposure and buildup. Using soft water on your hair can rinse the hard water minerals and leave your hair feeling smoother and looking shinier.

Hard water may have effects on your hair like:

  • Altering the color
  • Creating hair and scalp buildup
  • Damaging hair follicles
  • Drying out hair
  • Increasing the risk of hair loss
  • Irritating the scalp
  • Making the hair texture rougher

There are a few steps you can take to help protect your hair from hard water damage.

Use a water softener. Water softeners are appliances that filter the minerals out of your water before that water goes to the rest of your home. Inside the water softener are resin beads that trap calcium and magnesium. Through an ion exchange, the beads switch the calcium and magnesium for sodium or potassium. Once the beads are full of minerals, a concentrated solution flushes the minerals from the beads, and the waste goes down the drain.

Get a new showerhead. If installing a water softener isn’t an option for you, you can also look into installing a water-softening showerhead. These showerheads use filters and can sometimes filter out multiple minerals like lead and iron in addition to magnesium and calcium.

Filtering showerheads can be more expensive than regular showerheads, and they require upkeep. If a filtering showerhead won’t work for you, just switching your old shower head for a new one can help. Old showerheads can sometimes be lined with limescale, adding even more mineral buildup to your shower.

Rinse your hair with filtered water. If you don’t have the authority to put in a new water softener or switch out the showerhead, you can also look into purchasing filtered bottled water to rinse out your hair. To avoid exposure to hard water, wear a shower cap when you shower except when you’re rinsing your hair out with the filtered water.

Do some hard water hair care. Because hard water can cause dryness and damage, one of the best hard water hair treatment options is a good conditioner. A leave-in conditioner or deep conditioner will only treat the symptoms rather than the cause, but it's still a good way to restore moisture and shine to your hair. Look for products that use natural oils like coconut oil or argan oil. 

Hard water conditioning treatments will help your hair feel better but can still lead to damage and buildup on the scalp. To combat this, look for a hard water shampoo.

Hard water shampoo is a type of clarifying shampoo. These shampoos contain a chelating agent. Chelating agents are ingredients that remove minerals and heavy metals.

The most common chelating ingredient in hard water shampoo is called EDTA, or ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid. EDTA and its salt variants were formulated specifically to counteract hard water in hair. You can also find EDTA in products like moisturizers, bath soap, and cleaning products.

For less severe cases, or in cases where you aren’t able to get your hands on a chelating shampoo, you can try a regular clarifying shampoo instead. Clarifying shampoos are meant to thoroughly clean the hair and are formulated to remove buildup from products like gel, hair spray, and mousse. 

Clarifying shampoos typically use sodium lauryl sulfate to get a deep clean. This is a popular choice because it works well in both hard and soft water and is easily rinsed out of the hair. Sodium lauryl sulfate is a good cleanser, but it can be harsh on hair and cause dyes to fade. Deep cleaning or clarifying shampoos should only be used about once a week or as needed to remove buildup.