Soft water, either naturally or artificially, contains low levels of calcium and magnesium ions and elevated levels of sodium and bicarbonate ions. Soft water is popular with many people because it does not leave as much residue and “soap scum.” The low concentration of calcium in soft water can also prevent a buildup of calcium deposits that have the ability to occlude water pipes.
How Does Soft and Hard Water Affect Our Skin?
Early anecdotal evidence suggested that hard water may increase the incidence of eczema in children, which has been supported by a study showing hard water associated with an increased risk of eczema in infancy. Another study demonstrated that water hardness was associated with an increasing prevalence of eczema. The same study found that there was also an association between hard water and reactivity to allergens in the air (defined in the article as atopic status).
Several studies have evaluated the use of soft water as a way to reduce the severity of eczema, but none have yet found a significant benefit for symptom reduction. A later study from Environmental Research failed to find an association between eczema and hard water during the first four years of life. This finding is in alignment with the results of a 2011 study that found using soft water for bathing and washing clothing, while continuing to use hard water for drinking and cooking, conferred no additional benefit.
Further Research Needed
Many of the research studies evaluated hard or soft water as a factor external to the body and its ability to make eczema better or worse. Few studies evaluated if consuming hard or soft water could affect eczema as a factor from within the body. There are reports of children with eczema reacting poorly to calcium supplementation, making a theoretical argument possible that there could be a link between the levels of minerals in the water and eczema.
In summary, there is some evidence that suggests hard water may exacerbate or make the likelihood of developing eczema more common due to many possible reasons, including high calcium ion concentrations. Current evidence has not definitively supported this point, but further research seems warranted to determine if soft water can help alleviate the symptoms of eczema.
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McNally NJ, Williams HC, Phillips DR, et al. Atopic eczema and domestic water hardness. Lancet.1998;352(9127):527-531; PMID: 9716057 Link to research.
Perkin MR, Craven J, Logan K, et al. Association between domestic water hardness, chlorine, and atopic dermatitis risk in early life: A population-based cross-sectional study. J Allergy Clin Immunol.2016;10.1016/j.jaci.2016.03.031PMID: 27241890 Link to research.
Chaumont A, Voisin C, Sardella A, et al. Interactions between domestic water hardness, infant swimming and atopy in the development of childhood eczema. Environ Res.2012;116:52-57; PMID: 22591883 Link to research.
Font-Ribera L, Gracia-Lavedan E, Esplugues A, et al. Water hardness and eczema at 1 and 4 y of age in the INMA birth cohort. Environ Res.2015;142:579-585; PMID: 26298601 Link to research.
Thomas KS, Koller K, Dean T, et al. A multicentre randomised controlled trial and economic evaluation of ion-exchange water softeners for the treatment of eczema in children: the Softened Water Eczema Trial (SWET). Health Technol Assess.2011;15(8):v-vi, 1-156; PMID: 21324289 Link to research.
Devlin J, David TJ. Intolerance to oral and intravenous calcium supplements in atopic eczema. J R Soc Med.1990;83(8):497-498; PMID: 2231577 Link to research.