Is Tap Water Bad for Your Hair and Skin?
Updated Jan 31st, 2023
When you experience a hair or skin dilemma, it’s easy to blame your diet, hormones, stress, or a beauty product you started using recently. But when you can’t pinpoint the culprit, it might be time to examine what you use to wash and rinse your hair and skin. No, we’re not talking about hair cleansers and shower gels (although essential to almost every self-care routine); we’re talking about tap water.
Water can be a blessing and a curse to hair and skin quality. It can be the secret to shinier, healthier-looking strands and smoother, more youthful skin, or it could be brimming with toxins, chemicals, and contaminants that can cause problems for your hair and skin.
You might feel betrayed knowing something so crucial to your health could be the reason for some or all of your beauty woes. But look on the bright side: there are simple steps you can take to prevent any resulting water-related hair and skin problems from exposure to unwanted elements in tap water.
Keep scrolling to discover the different contents in unfiltered tap water that are a possible danger to your skin and hair and how to reduce their concentrations or eliminate them.
What’s Actually in Our Tap Water?
Although the U.S. is home to some of the world’s most regulated drinking water systems, a broad range of trace contaminants can crop up in our water supplies and devastate our hair and skin. In certain areas, tap water can contain high levels of dissolved chemicals, such as chlorine, chloramine, and pesticides. It may also be contaminated with heavy metals like lead, arsenic, iron, chromium-6, and “hardness” minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, which may contribute to various hair and skin issues. You’d be surprised at how prevalent many of these elements are in our water supplies:
- Chlorine: Over 98% of water treatment facilities in the U.S. treat their water supplies with chlorine and chlorine-based chemicals.
- Pesticides: A 2000 study by the USDA found that up to 50 million Americans could be drinking from groundwater potentially contaminated with pesticides. But with the rapid increase in pesticide use since then, this number has likely increased significantly. Scientists also estimate that a percentage of the one billion pounds of pesticides used yearly in the U.S. leaches as runoff in groundwater, streams, rivers, and lakes, which supply water to water wells and public water facilities.
- Arsenic: An estimated 2.1 million people in the U.S. still get their drinking water from private wells with high levels of arsenic, with some public water systems still exceeding EPA standards.
- Selenium: According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Tap Water Database, selenium has been detected in drinking water supplied by 5,930 water utilities to 56 million people across 49 states from 2017 to 2019. The database also shows that 34,231 people have been served tap water with selenium concentrations above health guidelines, and 3,048 people have been supplied with selenium-contaminated water above the legal limit.
- Chromium-6: A 2016 analysis from the EWG, an independent advocacy group that examines evidence from water systems throughout the nation, concludes that the tap water of 218 million Americans contains levels of chromium-6 that the group considers dangerous.
- Hardness minerals: In the United States, an overwhelming 85 percent of the water is hard water, which means it contains high levels of calcium and magnesium.
As widespread as these water pollutants are, there are effective ways to keep them out of our water supply and save your hair and skin from their damaging effects.
How Does Tap Water Affect the Hair and Skin?
Water is essential for good internal health but could be detrimental in our quest for a flawless outward appearance. Even with the best beauty and hair care products, certain unwanted elements in tap water could hinder your best efforts.
Most municipalities add chlorine to drinking water to kill bacteria and other nasty contaminants before the water reaches our homes. By destroying these dangerous microbes, the chemical helps reduce the risk of contracting various waterborne diseases. But there’s one caveat: chlorine can wreak havoc on your hair and skin.
Showering or bathing with chlorinated water or staying in a chlorinated pool for too long can cause dryness and chalkiness, blisters and painful burns, inflammation, and sometimes red, itchy rashes.
Chlorine is a natural irritant, so when it comes in contact with the skin, it opens up the pores and strips away the surface layer of oil that usually locks the moisture into your skin. The thinnest areas of the skin are usually the most susceptible to chlorine damage (elbows, chest, shoulders, backs of your hands, and under the eyes).
Continuous exposure to chlorine over several years can result in premature aging and further affect the skin’s health tremendously. And if you already have hypersensitive skin from a pre-existing condition such as psoriasis, eczema, or dermatitis, chlorine exposure will likely worsen it.
When it comes to the hair, chlorine can slowly eat away at the protective cuticles, which makes the hair tangled and exposes the delicate cortex layer. It can also break down the amino acids in our hair, depleting its natural strength and drying it out. It also removes the natural melanin from strands, which is why it lightens and turns that green ‘pool hair’ color.
Furthermore, when hair shafts absorb chlorine, the hair loses sebum, its natural lubricant. By interfering with the scalp’s natural moisturizing process, our protective cuticles will start to crack, leading to brittle hair. Fragile hair can, in turn, lead to many other issues, such as dandruff and hair loss. As the scalp dries out slowly, you may experience more flaking. Excessive exposure to chlorine can also affect hair growth as it reduces the living tissue in hair follicles.
We already know pesticides are linked to health problems, including childhood developmental problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), asthma, blood cancers, and obesity. But how might they affect the hair and skin?
Look on almost any pesticide label, and you’ll see a warning about skin irritation and burning. That’s because, like chlorine, some pesticides produce acute toxic effects because of their corrosive or irritant properties. Exposure to these chemicals can lead to severe skin conditions such as pain, fungi, blistering, skin burning, hyperpigmentation of the affected area and allergic contact, photosensitization, and primary irritant dermatitis.
But perhaps the most studied effect of pesticides on the skin is the risk of skin cancer. Early research from Swedish researchers indicates that pesticides may have increased incidences of skin cancer in vine growers. A scientific study in 2010 found that workers who apply certain pesticides to farm fields are almost twice as likely to develop melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. The researchers concluded that the study results showed that sun exposure isn’t the only possible cause of skin cancer and that pesticides may also increase the risk.
Though you can’t see, smell, or taste it, arsenic can find its way into tap water. It’s a naturally occurring chemical in soil, sediments, and groundwater, which all regularly sneak into our water sources. Long-term arsenic exposure poses a grave threat to the skin in many places where groundwater is a vital drinking water source. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “The first symptoms of long-term exposure to high levels of inorganic arsenic (for example, through drinking water and food) are usually observed in the skin and include pigmentation changes, skin lesions, and hard patches on the palms and soles of the feet (hyperkeratosis). These occur after a minimum exposure of approximately five years and may be a precursor to skin cancer.”
Selenium is an essential element in diets. It’s a natural component in fish, eggs, nuts, and beans. Like many other nutrients, selenium is good for you (in small doses), helping to boost your metabolism, thyroid function, and immune system. But tap water and selenium-infused bottled water can also contain selenium.
Whether by accident or by choice, sipping unsafe levels of the mineral for years on end can be dangerous. According to a research study cited by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), consuming too much selenium creates too many antioxidant enzymes. This surplus of antioxidant enzymes causes the body to attack its cells, including those in hair follicles, resulting in hair loss.
A group of studies analyzed by the NLM to evaluate the association between selenium levels and skin diseases confirmed that “selenium levels were associated with several skin diseases and the disease severity, and high selenium levels tended to be a protective factor in certain skin diseases.”
Best known for its feature in the 2000 Oscar-winning film Eric Brockovich, which documented the poisoning of drinking water in Hinkley, California, chromium-6 is a cancer-causing chemical and a menace to the skin. Prolonged skin contact can result in skin issues, including dermatitis, skin ulcers, and burns. People with sensitive skin may experience severe skin rash. For these and other reasons, chromium-6 is not something you want in the water you drink and use to bathe or shower.
If you’ve ever gotten out of the shower in a new place – perhaps on vacation in Las Vegas, Nevada, or Jacksonville, Florida – and everything felt different (in a bad way), it’s likely the effect of showering with hard water.
The influx of calcium and magnesium in hard water dehydrates the skin and can disrupt your skin’s microbiome. These “hardness” minerals make it difficult to rinse away soap from your skin, leaving it dry and potentially irritated. Beyond that, if you have sensitive skin, psoriasis, or eczema, hard water can worsen those conditions by drying out your skin even more. When hard water comes in contact with your skin, some of those minerals that cause the hard water get left behind, absorbing a lot of the natural moisture and oils from your skin. This lack of moisture and high levels of hard minerals can also affect your skin’s hydration and pH balance, potentially causing breakouts. No wonder outlets like Vogue consider hard water a “beauty nemesis.”
Like the skin, hard water can make it challenging to achieve a thorough rinse, causing a buildup in your hair, which can leave behind residue. It doesn’t matter if you wash your hair several times a day trying to fix the problem; nothing will change. That’s because the issue concerns what’s in your water, not your rinse, lather, or routine.
Several signs that your hair is under attack from hard water include hair loss, thinning and breakage, dryness, and an itchy scalp. Hard water can also make it harder for your hair to lather with shampoo, and soap scum may remain behind when it does lather. Some people’s hair may feel filmy, straw-like, dull, limp, and ultimately less pliable. If your hair is color-treated, hard water may cause fading, leading to more frequent color treatments and further damage.
How Can You Counter the Effects of Tap Water on Your Hair and Skin?
You don’t have to remain stuck with crunchy hair and dry skin from tap water. You can do things to counter its impact on your hair and skin. The first step is to determine what’s in the water. Since many elements that affect the hair and skin can’t be seen or smelled in water, it’s good to know what you’re up against. While you can request a water quality report from your water provider or check the EWG Tap Water Database for reports of water contamination in your zip code, we advise that you have the water tested by a state-certified laboratory.
Laboratory testing involves thoroughly evaluating your water source to detect a broad range of unwanted materials and determine various qualities. Generally, after you purchase the water test kit, the laboratory usually ships you everything you need to collect your sample. Afterward, you send your sample back to the lab for rigorous, certified, independent testing. And finally, after the lab analyzes your water sample, they’ll send you a full report on what’s in your water and recommendations for the next steps.
If the results show your tap water is the cause of your hair or skin dilemma, we recommend investing in a water filtration and softening system. Filtering the water removes toxins, chemicals, and contaminants that can affect your hair and skin, whereas softening removes calcium, magnesium, and other hardness minerals. By performing these functions, the system produces soft filtered water.
Whole House Filtration and Softening from Springwell
While you can purchase a whole house water filter and a water softener separately, you might prefer the convenience of a water filter softener dual system that combines the benefits of the two into a hybrid setup. For example, when water enters our Water Filter and Salt-Free Water Softener, it flows through a whole-house carbon filter that removes chlorine, pesticides, herbicides, and other unwanted chemicals, contaminants, and impurities. The water then goes through a salt-free water softener that eliminates hardness minerals, resulting in clean, filtered, softened water that’s perfect for the hair and skin.
Water quality plays a vital role in good hair and skin health. Water tainted with toxins, chemicals, and contaminants can cause your hair and skin to suffer, while filtered and softened water can work wonders for these outward beauty features. Our advice? Invest in a reliable water filter and water softener for your home. The right water filter and softener can immediately transform tap water from questionable to clean and, in turn, help keep your hair and skin healthy.
To learn more about the best home water treatment systems to filter and soften your shower water, please call us at 800-589-5592 or reach out to us via chat.