When it comes to the health of your gray hair your water can be a major factor; there are key differences in hard water and soft water that you need to know.

If you’ve ever noticed your hair feeling dry and brittle after a shower, it could be due to the type of water you’re using. Hard water and soft water have different mineral compositions that can affect your hair in various ways. Understanding the difference between the two can help you care for your hair and prevent issues.

Hard water is water that contains high levels of minerals, such as calcium and magnesium. These minerals can build up on your hair, leaving it feeling dry, dull, and sometimes prone to breakage.

On curly hair, hard water can disrupt your curl pattern, cause frizz, and a decrease in definition. On silver and gray hair, it can cause frizz, dryness, and buildup that can discolor your hair.

On the other hand, soft water is treated to remove these minerals, making it gentler on your hair. By using soft water, you can help keep your hair healthy and hydrated. Soft water doesn’t come without some issues to be aware of though, and we’ll get into that later.

So, let’s get into what all this means for the health of your silver locks.


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Defining Water Hardness

Definition of Hard Water

Hard water is water that contains high levels of dissolved minerals such as calcium (lime), magnesium, copper, and iron. As water moves through rocks and soil, it gathers minerals, which buildup in the water. Hard water can leave mineral stains on your fixtures, create mineral buildup in your plumbing, and stain lighter colors of hair like silver and gray with a green, yellow, and even red or brown tint depending on the mineral content.

For perspective: A river would likely contain hard water since it picks up these minerals as it moves along the soil, rocks, and terrain.

Definition of Soft Water

Soft water, on the other hand, has been treated to remove these minerals. This is done through a variety of methods, such as using a water softener and/or filtering system. Soft water is free of the mineral deposits that can cause damage to your home and appliances, and is often preferred for its gentle, refreshing feel.

In a home water softener, salt is often used to soften the water, it works through the process of ion exchange. The mineral ions in hard water are exchanged for sodium ions, which creates softer water.

For perspective: Rain is usually softer water, since it has not yet picked up the minerals like a river has.

Mineral Content

The mineral content of your water can have a huge impact on the health of your hair.

Hard water can cause buildup on your scalp and hair, leading to dryness, brittleness, and even hair breakage over time. In addition to calcium and magnesium, hard water can also contain other contaminants such as lead, sodium, and potassium. These metals can be harmful to your hair and scalp and can cause your gray hair to stain.

Soft water can help to keep your hair healthy and moisturized, without the harsh minerals that cause damage. Soft water, on the other hand, is often treated to remove these contaminants, leaving you with clean, pure water that’s gentler on your hair.

Overall, the mineral content of water is an important factor when it comes to your hair’s health.

Shower head with running water

Effects of Hard Water on Hair

Because of this high content of minerals and even heavy metals hard water can cause a variety of issues for all hair types.

  • Dryness and Brittle Hair

Hard water can strip your hair of its natural oils and the minerals can block the conditioning action of conditioners, leaving it dry, brittle, and prone to breakage. The minerals in hard water can also cause your hair to become rough and difficult to manage.

  • Dull Hair

If your silver hair has lost its shine and looks dull and lifeless, hard water could be to blame.

  • Lack of Lather

A key indicator that your hair has hard water buildup is your shampoo not lathering up. This is because the minerals in hard water react with the surfactants in your shampoo, preventing them from creating a rich bubbly lather.

  • Buildup and Damage

Over time, the mineral buildup in hard water can cause damage to your hair. This buildup can make your hair more prone to tangling, frizz, staining, breakage, and split ends.

If your hair is already damaged from sun, heat, or chemical processing this buildup can be even more extreme because the minerals will fill in the gaps in the damaged cuticle.

  • Itchy and Flaky Scalp

If you’ve been experiencing an itchy or flaky scalp, hard water could be the culprit. The mineral deposits in hard water can irritate your scalp, leading to dandruff and other scalp issues.

  • Staining Gray Hair

If you have gray, silver, or white hair, hard water can cause your color to change due to buildup and staining. The minerals in hard water can turn your hair green, red, brown, or yellow depending on the minerals in your water.

Overall, if you’re experiencing any of these issues with your hair, it’s worth considering whether hard water could be to blame. If you live in an area with hard water, you may want to invest in a water softener or use a clarifying shampoo to help remove mineral buildup from your hair, I’ll get more into that below.

Effects of Soft Water on Hair

When it comes to hair health, soft water is generally considered to be more beneficial than hard water. Here are some of the effects of soft water on hair

  • Greasy Hair

Soft water can cause your hair to hang onto products that you use on your hair. This can lead to your hair feeling producty or greasy.

  • Lack of Volume and Shine

Soft water can also lead to a lack of volume and shine. Hard water can actually help give hair more volume and shine by removing excess oils and buildup. Soft water, on the other hand, doesn’t have this effect and can leave hair looking flat and lifeless, especially wavy and curly hair.

  • Less Damage and Breakage

Soft water can be less damaging to hair than hard water. Hard water can strip hair of its natural oils, leaving it dry and brittle. Soft water, on the other hand, is gentler on hair and can help prevent breakage and damage.

  • Conditioning Benefits and Drawbacks

Soft water can be very conditioning for hair, leaving it feeling soft and silky.

The flip side is it can cause buildup of cleansing and conditioning products. Think about how much you must rinse just to get soap off your hands or skin if you have soft water. Your hair needs that same thorough rinsing to help keep the surfactants and conditioners from building up on your hair strands and your scalp.

While soft water may have some downsides like causing loss of volume and shine; overall, it is considered more beneficial for hair health than hard water.


pH of Hard Water vs Soft Water

Aside from the mineral content of hard water the pH value is generally above 7 making it alkaline. While softer water is usually less than 7 making it more acidic like the natural pH of hair in its natural state. Normal, undyed, undamaged hair has a pH of 4.5 to 5.5, so soft water helps balance the pH in the right direction for hair.

This is why apple cider vinegar can be so helpful for clarifying in hard water because it is acidic it rebalances the pH and as a chelating agent helps remove mineral buildup.

On the other hand, a product like Malibu C Undo Goo can help with soft water since the shampoo has a pH of 9.5+, it opens up the cuticle by raising the pH and helps release buildup from product ingredients that tend to buildup and fill in the cuticle.

Diagram of pH Scale for Haircare 2023

If you want to read more about pH and Hair I have this Ultimate Guide on pH and Hair.

How To Determine Your Water Hardness:

Visual Cues of Hard Water

  • People with skin sensitivities may notice breakouts and irritated skin.
  • If you have KP (Keratosis pilaris), you may have a difficult time controlling the bumps.
  • Your hair feels dry, your curls might be limp and frizzy, and your silvers could be an odd color for no other apparent reason.
  • Soaps and shampoos may not lather well.
  • If it is difficult to remove lime, calcium, and scale buildup around your appliances, water faucets, and shower heads.
  • If you notice a rusty red ring around the inside of the water tank on your toilet, this is a sure sign of a high iron content.


Hard Water Where You Live

In the US, it is estimated that somewhere between 75% and 85% of households have hard water.

US and Canada Map of water hardness

According to the US Geological Survey

“General guidelines for classification of waters are:

  • 0 to 60 mg/L (milligrams per liter) as calcium carbonate is classified as soft
  • 61 to 120 mg/L as moderately hard
  • 121 to 180 mg/L as hard
  • More than 180 mg/L as very hard.”

If you want to know your local water hardness, you can contact your local water authority, usually you can find this information on your water bill, or you can contact your city for more information. If you have a well, your city or county can test your well water for you.

Or you can buy your own at home test kits to test your water in your home.

Test Kit for Water Hardness

Solutions for Hard Water


If you have hard water, you don’t have to suffer from the damage it can cause to your gray hair. Here are some solutions you can try:

1. Whole Home Water Softeners & Filters

Cost: $$$$$

While this is the most expensive and least accessible solution for most, water softeners and whole home filtration devices remove minerals like calcium and magnesium from hard water. Water softeners work by exchanging these minerals with sodium ions, which makes the water softer. Whole home filters, filter all the water coming into your home, and depending on their rate of filtration, can filter out everything from minerals to bacteria. Both can be expensive, but they are a long-term healthy solution to hard water.

2. Shower Filters

Cost: $$$

Shower filters can also be used to remove minerals from hard water. There are different types of filters, such as activated carbon filters or reverse osmosis filters. These filters can easily be attached to your showerhead. They are generally less expensive than water softeners, but they may not be as effective.

Shower Filter

3. Hard Water Washday Product Suggestions

Cost: $

Make sure your shampoo isn’t too stripping and drying (consider a sulfate-free shampoo for your every washday). Pick moisturizing and conditioning conditioners and leave-ins to help keep your hair conditioned, protected, and healthy. You may even prefer conditioners with shampoo-soluble silicones in them for slip, detangling, and manageability.

Look for conditioners labeled as “moisturizing” or “hydrating.” These usually contain glycerin and panthenol to help hold moisture and prevent breakage.

4. Chelating Clarifying Shampoo Routinely

Cost: $

Chelating clarifying shampoo is designed to remove buildup from your hair, including minerals from hard water. These shampoos contain ingredients to break down and strip minerals that can cause hair to feel dull and weighed down. Clarifying shampoo can be used once a week or as needed depending on how often you wash your hair.

Chelating ingredients attach to minerals and metals on the hair strand and carry them away.  Look for chelating products marketed for hard water.

Chelating Ingredients:

  1. Calcium Disodium EDTA
  2. Citric Acid
  3. Disodium EDTA
  4. Disodium EDTA-Copper
  5. EDTA
  6. Pentasodium Pentetate
  7. Phytic Acid
  8. Potassium Citrate
  9. Sodium Gluconate
  10. Sodium Phytate
  11. Sodium Polyphosphate
  12. Tetrasodium EDTA
  13. Tetrasodium Glutamate Diacetate
  14. Trisodium Ethylenediamine Disuccinate

Please note, chelating ingredients are used in formulas for more than adding chelation to the hair. Some of the ingredients are added for formulation purposes in the product and will not affect your hair. While there are exceptions to this rule, like Loma’s essential shampoo which contains sodium phytate (a powerful chelator) or SEEN’s shampoo which contains two chelating agents and is great for combating mineral buildup before it starts you want to aim for products that are marketed clearly for clarifying like Chelating Shampoo, Clarifying Shampoo, Hard Water Shampoo, and so forth to make sure the product is meant to clarify.

Image of Seen Fragrance Free Shampoo
image of Loma Essentials-Shampoo

5. A Simple Vinegar Rinse

Cost: $

A vinegar rinse is a natural solution for treating hard water damage to your hair.

  1. Mix a quart of filtered water and 1/3 a cup of vinegar.
  2. Apply it to your hair before shampooing. You mix it in a bowl and just soak your hair for a few minutes in the bowl then run the mixture through your hair before. Or pour it on your hair and let it soak for a few minutes.
  3. Follow your rinse with shampoo and conditioner to rebalance the pH of your hair.

The vinegar will help remove buildup from your hair and leave it feeling soft and shiny.

Hair tips: If you have low porosity hair vinegar may cause your hair to become extra dry, so follow with a deep conditioner after your shampoo.


6. Bottled Water

Cost: $

If you don’t want to invest in a water softener or filter, you can use filtered or distilled bottled water to rinse your hair. Bottled water is free of the minerals that can cause hard water damage to your hair.

It’s not the most cost-effective solution, but it’s an easy alternative.

NOTE: This should be a given, but make sure you are not using bottled mineral water. Kind of defeats the purpose.

Solutions for Soft Water

If you have soft water, you may be wondering what products you should be using to keep your hair healthy and strong. Here are a few solutions that can help you maintain your hair’s health and beauty.

1. Rinsing Out Products

Make sure you are thoroughly rinsing out your shampoos and conditioners to make sure they don’t buildup.


2. Soft Water Washday Product Suggestions

You may want to consider using volumizing products. Soft water can leave hair feeling flat and lifeless, products that add volume can help achieve your desired look.

Make sure your shampoo doesn’t contain silicones, these can be harder to rinse out. Pick lightweight and volumizing conditioners and leave-ins to help keep your hair conditioned but not weighed down. You may even prefer silicone-free conditioners to avoid buildup.

For added volume, look for styling products labeled as “volumizing” or “thickening.” These contain ingredients, which can help hair not get weighed down and be more voluminous.

3. Clarifying Routinely

Cost: $

You still want to clarify your hair, but mostly you are aiming to remove product buildup. So a product like Malibu C Undo Goo will work well as it contains Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate which is an excellent surfactant for removing oils, silicones, poly-quats, and other conditioning agents left on your hair.

Depending on how often you wash your hair, I’d say start with every fourth or fifth wash to clarify.

Malibu C Undo Goo

To wrap it all up, the hardness of water can have an impact on your hair’s health and appearance.

  • Hard water’s high levels of minerals such as calcium and magnesium, can leave a residue on your hair and scalp, causing dryness, tangles, discolorations, and dullness.
  • Soft water is free of these minerals and helps hair hold moisture, look shinier, and feel softer.
  • The pH balance of soft water is generally better for your hair, as it helps maintain a healthy pH level, which supports overall healthier hair.

To keep your silver hair looking and feeling its best, it’s essential to pay attention to the type of water you’re using. Using soft water or improving the quality of your water, can keep your hair healthy, shiny, and free from discolorations. Adding Clarifying to your routine will help maintain your shine and beautiful silver color.

If you want to check out my full list of products mentioned in this post head over to my list on Amazon.

Image of Joli Campbell author photoI hope you found this post educational and helpful.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share.

As always it is about so much more than the hair.

signature: Shine On, Joli Campbell





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