How To Get Better Hair When You’re Dealing With Hard Water

Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images.
The other day at the hair salon, my stylist asked how I like to do my hair. I rolled my eyes as I explained how I mostly wear it up and back in that looped bun that Kim Kardashian likes because the hard water in my apartment makes it a nightmare to style.
I know it's the water's fault because I recently left the city for a week around Thanksgiving, and while I was showering and shampooing at my childhood home in Maine, I found that my hair was drying so much nicer than it does in Manhattan. My routine was the same, but there was a perceptible difference in the softness. Where I'm used to weighty heaviness, my hair felt airy and light enough to be worn down comfortably. A dream.
After a taste of what life could be like with better water (at least as far as my hair is concerned), I decided to research how exactly to make hard water a nonissue. It's a relatable frustration and hairstylist and colorist Jonathan Colombini says he sees all the time. "Typically a hard water situation is pretty visible as far as hair looking lackluster and feeling dry and brittle," Colombini explains. That said, each case looks a little different depending on your hair type and porosity. Some people comment that their hair feels heavy and the color is off. Others complain of sticky strands thanks to buildup and some note a dry scalp, while those with natural hair find that hard water damages their curls to the point of becoming brittle.
Here's the root of why hard water is a problem. Luke Carthy, founder of Black hair brand, Afrodrops, recently told R29: "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." Carthy added, "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 [strands] is where the problems start, and it’s the source of the dreaded symptoms associated with hard-water hair damage."
When our hair is generally and chronically uncooperative, the impulse is to wash it more, but that could exacerbate the issue, according to Colombini. What you want to do instead is follow this guidance.

Figure out what's making your water hard

You don't need to have a connect at the Water Supply Bureau to figure out exactly how the water coming out of your faucet has been treated. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a tap-water database that allows you to enter your zip code and it will pull up the exact composition of the water in your home or apartment, plus where it's coming from. While the database is designed to help you better understand your drinking water, it can be helpful in knowing the hardness or softness of your water (but you probably already have a hunch if you're reading this).

Then, replace your showerhead

You probably saw this one coming and it was a resounding recommendation from every single hairstylist willing to speak on the topic of hard water and hair. Real talk, how worth it is a filtered shower head? The response was clear via DM, in person, and on email: "100% worth it!"
So where to start? In shopping around for shower head filters, I was floored to find that they're not as expensive as I thought they'd be. "You can get one at Home Depot or Amazon for around $30," offers Ryan Suhr, a stylist at NYC's Cutler Salon. Personally, I really like the T3 filter because it's easy to screw in without having to order a TaskRabbit.

Get good at hair cycling

When it comes to how you're washing your hair, Colombini and Suhr recommend 'hair cycling'. Similar to the logic behind 'skin cycling', the hair version involves having two shampoos and rotating them to give your hair a good clarifying wash — without overdoing it. Bonus: when you have a good two-part hair cycling system, Colombini says, you don't have to shampoo as often.
So what are the two shampoos to go back and forth on? This will depend on your hair type and texture. Here, the general guidance is to get one 'clarifying' shampoo and another that's more basic and in line with your hair needs, be it smoothing, thickening, color-safe, curl cream, etc. For the clarifying formula specifically, Suhr loves the Redken Cleansing Cream (he used this on my hair, and it broke up any hard water buildup in one rinse, plus my blowout was perfect). If you're getting your shampoo at Target or the drugstore, he says the Neutrogena Anti-Residue Clarifying Shampoo is just as good.

Keep a bottle of Malibu C handy

If you're worried any old clarifying shampoo won't cut it, grab a bottle of Malibu C Hard-Water Wellness Shampoo. "Most hairdressers are quick to recommend Malibu C because the iconic blue bottle is known as a great clarifying solution," Suhr explains. It was actually created for competitive swimmers to cleanse the chlorine out of their hair. If you're not in and out of a pool, though, you don't want to use something this stripping all the time. Once in a while, it's a good treatment, but you want to make sure that you're following up with an effective conditioner or a hair mask. Colombini recommends the L’Oréal Paris EverPure Signature Mask.

When in doubt, rinse with filtered water

If you travel and you're concerned about the state of the water somewhere else, Suhr offers a failsafe tip: try and rinse out your shampoo and conditioner with filtered water where you can. "You don't have to shower with bottled water or anything," he explains, and obviously buying bottle after bottle would not be the most eco-friendly guidance. But if you have access to a filtered water tap and you need your hair to cooperate, it works.
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