Afro hair can be fragile. Those who know, know. And, when it comes to the causes of dreaded breakage, there are the usual suspects: over-manipulation when styling, a dry scalp, being reckless when applying heat and, for me personally, the times I decide to go completely off the haircare script (because my hair doesn’t run me, I run it!). Yet, where you live and specifically shower should also be taken into consideration when it comes to protecting your hair — natural, relaxed, or otherwise. Adding on to the long list of things that can cause breakage is hard water, and some experts say it’s worth questioning if the water you’re showering in could be causing your hair damage. Sigh.
On TikTok, the hashtag #hardwaterdamage has garnered 1.7 million views, with people questioning whether high mineral content in the water provided to their homes has caused their recent run of bad hair days. As one curly-haired creator shares, “so we’ve been doing the right techniques and using expensive curl products, but turns out the problem this whole time was the water.” Deeper sigh.
While Hard water can impact all hair types, causing dryness, breakage, split ends and even hair loss, the tightest of coils, which can be more prone to dryness, can see some very detrimental effects. London is known to have some of the hardest waters in the UK because of its high mineral content, which is inconvenient considering a large percentage of Britain's Black people live in the capital. Comparatively, I live and work in Greater Manchester, northwest England. By typing in my postcode into the Aqua Cure hard water generator, it tells me that I am in a “soft water area,” meaning the water to my apartment ‘contains low levels of hard water minerals.’ Amongst benefits such as softer laundry and more efficient energy bills compared to hard water areas, it also means that my natural hair may stand a chance against harmful residue build-up.
So how much should we be concerned about hard water and our hair? And, other than taking the drastic decision of leaving your home and area, how can we prevent hard water from messing with our coils?
What exactly is hard water and how does it impact afro and curly hair types?
“Over 60% of the UK lives in a hard water area so it's a common issue and most people notice it most when they go on holiday and their skin and hair transform,” says Karlee Ozener, founder of Hello Klean, a company that provides shower-care essentials for hard water. In Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland have the hardest water, followed closely by Western Australia.
“Hard water is rich in minerals such as calcium and magnesium. It also contains heavy metals iron, copper, lead, chromium, cadmium etc, and chlorine,” Ozener adds. “Hard water residue clogs the hair follicles, making it feel dull, limp and frail, and is often more difficult to style and can look discoloured.”
Ozener explains that chlorinated water “strips the hair of its natural oils produced by the sebaceous glands on your skin,” she says. “When the natural oils are stripped, the hair becomes less water-resistant and even more prone to damage and breakage.”
The stripping of natural oils can be particularly damaging for those with curly and afro-textured hair, according to Luke Carthy, founder of Black haircare company, Afrodrops. “The problem is that calcium and magnesium [in hard water] produce a film on your hair which makes it difficult for water and moisture to penetrate the hair shaft,” he explains. “This is worsened further for curly and afro hair as the hair is often thicker, requiring more water in order for the hair to be saturated. Not being able to get that water into your tresses is where the problems start and it’s the source of the dreaded symptoms associated with hard water hair damage.”
How can you tell if hard water has damaged your natural hair?
If your detangling efforts during wash days cause more pain than relief (been there), then hard water may not be helping the situation. Carthy explains that symptoms of hard water damage include increased breakage, thinning of your hair, a dry scalp, and “an increase in the number of knots whilst shampooing and conditioning hair.”
“Hard water can make the curls feel dry and crunchy, similar to the feeling of letting them air-dry after an ocean swim. That crispy feeling is the mineral residue clinging onto the hair after the water evaporates,” continues Ozener.
Both Ozener and Carthy stress that your hair’s porosity type (more on that here) can lead to different results from hard water. For high porosity hair, “hard water erodes the hair's elasticity, lifting the cuticle, and leading to buildup and limp hair. Carthy adds: “Equally, if you’ve low porosity hair, you’ll experience build-up symptoms including itchy scalp and overly oily feeling hair, compared to someone with thirstier high porosity hair.”
Could washing hair too much cause more dryness and breakage in curly and coily hair textures?
The discussion of how often we should wash afro hair textures continually shows up online, with everyone from hairstylists, experts, aunties, grandparents and cousins, often conflicted about how often curly and coiled hair should see water. How does the impact of hard water factor in?
“Washing hair too often — and not enough to be clear — can cause all sorts of problems for those with afro hair,” says Carthy. “However, everyone’s lifestyle and hair needs are different. For example, if you’re active and frequently working up a sweat, you’ll likely wash your hair more often than someone less active.”
“That being said and as a rough guide, it’s recommended that your hair is washed once a week and adapt your wash routine and timelines to suit your lifestyle and what your hair needs,” he adds. “However, washing your hair too often will strip your hair and scalp of natural oils causing your hair to be much more brittle, and a drier scalp and makes it more difficult for you to retain your length and grow it further.”
Do we really need to invest in a shower filter to protect our natural hair from hard water?
As many know, Black women are the biggest consumers of hair products in both the UK and US, so the thought of having to purchase a device pricier than my most expensive conditioner does make me want to tighten my purse strings, however, it could be worth it. There are a number of curly-headed creators that wax-lyrical about shower filters on social media. In a video shared with TikTok, creator Marla Warna said that in just one week of using a shower filter, her curls are “much nicer” as well as her skin. Another claimed that she “noticed an immediate difference after getting a shower filter” after experiencing hair loss and breakage.
“Most customers notice that their curls feel softer and bouncier and a decreased need to wash less often as a shower filter helps reduce soap scum caused by minerals that linger on the hair and scalp,” explains Ozener. “For bleached and coloured hair, many see an improvement in the prolonging effects of the treatment (i.e. the colour doesn't fade as fast)and less dryness on the scalp.”
Alongside purchasing a water filter to reduce unwanted minerals, the experts I spoke to recommended shampoos and clarifying treatments that won’t strip the scalp and hair of its natural moisture.
Josie Gould, a hair maintenance expert currently in-house at Foxy Locks, a designer hair extension brand, explained to Unbothered: “Using a good clarifying shampoo will remove any mineral build-ups, this is vital as you need the conditioner or hair treatments to be able to soak into the hair. Using a good quality hair mask/treatment will add in the moisture required to stop your hair from breaking and becoming brittle.”
The fear of breakage will always plague Black haircare and in the considered pursuit of hydrated hair, it may be worth taking haircare back to basics and finding solutions right at the source.