Hard Water vs. Soft Water Explained – Do Those Minerals Matter?

Have you ever thought about the hardness of your water? If you have particularly hard water - and amazingly, most of the USA does, according to USGS! - then I would bet you have thought about it.

In fact, even if you didn’t know the issues you were experiencing were down to hard water you will have noticed things like:

  • Clothes and dishes not getting clean
  • Your hair feeling limp and coated in something after a shower
  • Soap not properly foaming
  • Water being cloudy or white
  • Scaly buildup on faucets in your home

Likewise, I bet you’ve visited somewhere new and thought, "this water is delicious!" or "why is this water making my hair look so good?!"

The answer?

The water is probably softer than your water at home!

And if the hardness of water can have such a profound effect on your hair, what’s it doing to the rest of you?

Well, let’s find out. But first, what exactly makes some water hard, and some soft?

The Difference Between Hard and Soft Water

Hard water is water that has a high dissolved mineral content. Usually, that means a lot of calcium and magnesium, and sometimes other metallic elements. 

According to the Water Quality Association, the term "hard water" came about because this type of water was hard to wash in. That’s because soap doesn’t lather well in mineral-heavy water - you might notice if you have hard water that, in addition to finding it hard to get a lather going in the shower - your dishes never quite seem clean, and your clothes are a little stiff and soapy even after rinsing. 

Water hardness is measured by ml/L (milligrams per liter) of calcium carbonate. According to the USGS, American standards for water hardness are as follows:

  • 0 to 60 mg/L (milligrams per liter) = soft 
  • 61 to 120 mg/L = moderately hard 
  • 121 to 180 mg/L = hard 
  • More than 180 mg/L = very hard.

Hardness and PH

Hardness in water is also related to alkalinity. They are correlated, but one doesn’t cause the other. According to Utah State University, highly alkaline water is usually also hard water. This is because calcium or magnesium causes hardness, and carbonate causes alkalinity. These are usually found together within rocks like limestone, which groundwater often runs through. 

The USGS considers any water between the 5.5 and 9 PH safe for household use. But anything above around 8 or 8.5 is hard water, and as such can cause problems while not being a large danger to health. 

Is Your Water Hard or Soft?

Well, firstly, where are you? 

Look out the window and check if you have to…

If you’re in the US, chances are your water is hard unless you’re on the East Coast (they’re not lying about that New York water!). In fact, of you’re anywhere in the middle of the states, then your water is pretty much guaranteed to be either hard or very hard. 

This is all from data collected by the USGS’s National Water Quality Network back in the 1980s, but as water hardness is based mostly on geology it doesn’t change much in 40 years!

Map of Water Hardness in the United States

If you aren’t in the US, or you aren’t sure exactly where you fall on the water hardness map, then there are a few ways to work out whether your water is hard or soft. The following are telltale signs of hard water:

  • Mineral buildup on faucets and within appliances: this is a white or yellowish crust, and it’s hard to scrub away. Mineral build up can also lead to mineral flakes in your coffee, or washing machines breaking down or not working well.
  • A filmy on hands and dishes: this might sound wishy-washy, but if you’ve felt it you’ll know! Hard water leaves a scum of soap on your hands after washing them, and the same on your dishes.
  • Waning water pressure: this comes from mineral build ups within your pipes. You may have seen them outside your plumbing, but they can happen inside too!

There’s only one way to tell for sure whether you have hard or soft water in your home - that’s test strips. They’re cheap and easy to find online, so if in doubt grab some. 

If you have soft water, you will find:

  • A healthy lather: this goes for washing yourself in the shower, and washing clothes and dishes.
  • Soft clothes: they will be washed much better in soft water.
  • Softer skin and hair: that’s because less of the products you apply while washing are left on!
  • Slightly salty water: sometimes soft water can taste ever so slightly of sodium. This isn’t usually a problem, and it shouldn’t be a violently salty flavor.
  • Silky water: soft water has a better ‘mouth feel’ - it feels almost silky as you drink it.

Is Hard Water Bad for You?

There is no evidence that hard water is bad for human health, though there have long been theories on this topic, with the idea of minimum and maximum mineral contents being floating by some studies. Ultimately, these were not taken forward as there is not enough evidence by which to set them.

Some people might worry about getting too much magnesium from hard water, as magnesium in high quantities can be a laxative, but according to McGill University that’s very unlikely. If you drank two liters of hard water a day you would, on average, be ingesting about 52mg of magnesium, and the rda is over 400mg, so while it’s a nice mineral boost it’s unlikely to cause you any issues.

Harmful for Your Skin and Hair

There are a couple of reasons hard water can cause skin dryness and irritation. Firstly, the minerals in the water can themselves irritate the skin if they build up there, and secondly, hard water doesn’t wash away soap and other products as well as soft water and thus leaves a residue that can irritate the skin. 

A study of both eczema sufferers and healthy individuals carried out by the Journal of Investigative Dermatology found that both groups experienced skin irritation when regularly washing with hard water. The effects were more pronounced in eczema sufferers, however, who suffered flair ups of the skin disease.  

A 2016 study in the International Journal of Dermatology found that hard water may also damage the surface of your hair. This may well lead to weaker, thinner hair. In men, hard water has even been linked (according to a 2018 study) to faster hair thinning. (1, 2)

The effects of hard water on hair can be partially mitigated by using a clarifying shampoo, or rinsing with a weak acid like lemon juice. Ultimately, if you feel like your hard water is damaging your hair and skin, you might also want to consider a water softening showerhead (which I will explain more about later on).

Hard Water is Bad Plumbing and Appliances

The jury isn’t out on this one. Hard water is bad for your plumbing - it causes mineral buildup in pipes that can slow your water pressure right down, and it also builds up in appliances. If your coffee machine, for example, has a bunch of calcium built up inside it, it has to heat the calcium before it can heat the water. And your coffee might end up with flakes of mineral buildup floating in it!

The good news is, you can use vinegar and water solutions to clean smaller appliances, faucets, and showerheads, and there are specific limescale buildup cleaning tablets for washing machines and dishwashers.

It’s a little extra effort when you’re doing a big clean, sure, but it might mean the difference between all your appliances breaking after a couple of years and them lasting as long as they rightly should.

Benefits of Hard Water

Interestingly, there is some evidence that hard water (or the minerals in that water) may help prevent cardiovascular disease, with one study in Epidemiology finding that hard water may help prevent heart attacks in women. 

As previously mentioned, the calcium and magnesium in hard water are actually pretty good for you. Drinking hard water and eating food cooked with it tops up your mineral supplies, which help with things like keeping your bones strong, regulating your blood pressure, and allowing your nerves to communicate with one another.

Is Soft Water Bad For You?

There is no real evidence that soft water itself is bad for you, as long as you are otherwise consuming a mineral-rich diet.

Of course, in occasional cases the magnesium and calcium from hard water is going to be what is topping someone’s levels up, and without it they might find themselves deficient in one or both, but given most modern diets and the average levels of minerals we actually get from hard water that’s pretty unlikely.

If you have lead pipes, which is only likely if your home was built before 1930, according to the NASD then soft water is also more likely to leach that lead, meaning it would end up being consumed by you and your family. If you’re worried about this, yo can filter your water before drinking it. Just make sure the filter you go for removes lead. 

Benefits of Soft Water

Soft water is, undeniably, easier to clean with. This is true whether you’re cleaning yourself and your kids, your floors, or your clothes! Because it’s more efficient in this way, you may find your water bills are lower with soft water. Additionally, your appliances and even your plumbing will last longer.

Soft water also tastes better to many people. That being said, it doesn’t have the good-for-you minerals of hard water.

Can You Soften Water?

Yes, you can. 

Home water softening is becoming increasingly popular, and can be installed for the whole home, as showerheads, or as part of a reverse osmosis filter. 

The most common kind of at-home water softener is a whole-home salt based softener also known as an ion exchange water softener. These work by capturing the calcium and magnesium ions previously present in your water using a resin coated in positively charged sodium ions, and replacing them within your water with sodium. 

This kind of water softener needs regular upkeep - the sodium (salt) has to be topped up, and, less often, the resin needs to be changed. They are quite a big expense, but they do last for many years and provide your whole home with soft water that will keep your faucets flowing quickly and hopefully lead to all your appliances running smoothly. 

Another option, if you’re mostly concerned about hard water damaging your skin and hair, is a showerhead water softener. They’re much more affordable than whole-house softeners, and screw right onto your existing showerhead. They do use cartridge filters, which need to be replaced regularly, but they’re inexpensive too. 

Is It Safe to Soften Water?

The short answer? Yes, it’s pretty safe to soften water.

If you or a loved one is on a low or no sodium diet, then a sodium-based water softener may not be the best choice for you because the water you end up drinking will have a higher than average sodium content. If you’re healthy, however, this won’t be a problem. 

If you’re thinking about installing a whole home water softening system, then think about having your plumbing tested for lead and heavy metals first. As mentioned previously, if you have metal or copper pipes (sometimes found in homes built before 1930) then soft water will erode them, and the metals will end up in your drinking water.

Final Thoughts

In the end, whether your water is hard or soft it is unlikely to have a profound effect on your health or the health of your family. In fact, hard water is probably a net good health wise!

It can, however, be annoying to deal with limescale and other mineral build ups, and to never feel like your washing is actually getting clean! These are the reasons many families in the US opt for water softening systems. 

Personally, I know that hard water is really harsh on my skin. That’s why I have a showerhead water softener, which has done wonders in reducing redness and dryness for me personally. 

However, this is all personal preference! Hard water might look a bit gross sometimes, and apparently be worse for making bagels and pizza dough, but it’s something you can (and should) learn to live with if you don’t fancy getting into water softening. 

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