13 Hard Water Hair Treatments to Cleanse, Clarify, and Condition: Malibu C, Oribe, Olaplex
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If you’ve ever left the beach with crunchy, clumpy, or filmy hair, you have an idea of how hard water buildup feels. Luckily, a hard water hair treatment, like a clarifying shampoo, serum, or rinse, can address that feeling and deeply cleanse and restore your hair in as little as a few uses.
Whether you’ve never considered the water hardness of your household tap or you’re keenly aware of it, hard water hair damage can show up as an immediate annoyance or possibly pose longer-term problems for your strands. Here’s what you need to know about hard water—and whether you should add a treatment to address its effects to your own hair care routine.
What is hard water—and how can it affect your hair?
Hard water is water that’s characterized by its higher mineral content, specifically calcium, magnesium, and salt, Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Cornell-New York Presbyterian Medical Center, tells SELF. When you wash your hair with hard water, those dissolved minerals can end up accumulating on your hair and scalp, which can prevent your hair from absorbing moisture. This can make it feel “dry, dull, frizzy and unmanageable,” Rebecca Marcus, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Maei MD, tells SELF. Again, think of that crispy, ocean-swept feeling—it may be difficult to comb or brush your hair, and it might not feel as soft as it usually does. Meanwhile, your scalp might feel dry and itchy, Dr. Marcus says.
And in the long-term, “the buildup can take a toll on the hair, leading to breakage,” Azadeh Shirazi, MD, board-certified dermatologist and owner of La Jolla Laser Derm in La Jolla, California, tells SELF. Every expert we spoke to brought up the increased risk of breakage and brittleness that comes with regularly washing your hair with hard water. Mineral buildup can also make it harder for shampoos and other hair care products to perform well. And when you can’t get your shampoo to lather, dissolve, and rinse out thoroughly, it isn’t effectively removing dirt, oil, and hard water residue from your scalp and hair, Dr. Shirazi says. (Talk about a vicious cycle.)
You can also see the effects of hard water on your hair color if you regularly dye it, Lauren Penzi, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Medical Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in New York, tells SELF. Color-treated hair, especially hair that’s been dyed blonde, will look brassy and fade more quickly when regularly washed with hard water, she explains.
What types of hair treatments can address the effects of hard water?
You can start with a clarifying shampoo that contains surfactants (a.k.a. cleaning agents). Some products will use sulfates—most commonly sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate—as their surfactants because they generate a satisfyingly sudsy lather while attracting and rinsing away residue, as SELF has previously reported. That said, some hair care brands avoid sulfates in their formulations because they’re known to be drying for some people (and may even contribute to buildup down the line, depending on your hair type, Dr. Penzi says).
You can also look for a clarifying shampoo that contains chelating ingredients, which work by binding to minerals and metals and removing them from hair, Dr. Penzi says. Some common ones include ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (or EDTA), charcoal, and vitamin C. Dr. Marcus notes that apple cider vinegar can have chelating effects too. These ingredients can also contribute to dryness, so don’t use a clarifying shampoo every time you wash—as little as twice a month might be enough, depending on your hair type, Dr. Shirazi says. (If you’re concerned about whether a certain shampoo is suitable for your hair, ask your hairstylist or dermatologist, if you have one you see regularly, for guidance.)
Once you start using a clarifying shampoo, you may see improvements in your hair health in just a few washes, Dr. Garshick says. Depending on how often you shampoo, that could take a couple weeks or a month or two.
Many of the experts we spoke with also emphasized the importance of restoring moisture to your hair if you suspect it’s been damaged by hard water. That means using a nourishing conditioner as part of your regular routine, Penny James, the founder of Penny James Salon in New York City, tells SELF. As a bonus treatment, Dr. Shirazi recommends treating yourself to a weekly hair mask, too, in order to repair the hair’s cuticle and lock in moisture.
Though hard water’s effects can be a nuisance, there are plenty of products on the market that can help keep your hair healthy. Check out the best hard water hair treatments below, from clarifying shampoos to deep conditioners, according to experts.
Both Oribe’s The Cleanse Clarifying Shampoo and the Malibu C Hard Water Wellness Shampoo garnered multiple recommendations from the experts we consulted. The former impressed both James and Dr. Garshick for how well it cleanses the hair and scalp, enhancing shine without stripping away important natural oils—and it’s compatible with all hair types, Dr. Garshick says. She, along with Dr. Marcus, like Malibu C’s sulfate-free shampoo because it clarifies and hydrates at the same time. Another top pick from Dr. Marcus is Ouai’s Detox Shampoo, thanks to its range of refreshing ingredients: “Apple cider vinegar removes residue, while hydrolyzed keratin enhances shine and tames frizz,” she explains. Dr. Penzi recommends shampoos from Living Proof and Olaplex, which contain chelating and clarifying ingredients that remove hard water minerals.
Oribe The Cleanse Clarifying Shampoo
Malibu C Hard Water Wellness Shampoo
Living proof Perfect Hair Day Triple Detox Shampoo
Olaplex No. 4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo
Bumble and Bumble. Sunday Shampoo
OUAI Detox Shampoo
Serums and rinses
Dr. Garshick suggests trying Vegamour’s GRO Scalp Detoxifying Serum as a weekly scalp treatment against hard water: “This uses a silk protein that helps to eliminate scalp buildup and helps to soothe scalp damage,” she says. “It also contains zinc PCA to absorb excess oils and reduces scalp irritation.”
You can also make an at-home apple cider vinegar rinse as a DIY solution to mineral buildup, thanks to its chelating properties (find a hair mask recipe to try here). Just note that this can be rather harsh if you use it frequently—so don’t overdo it. You should also check in with a doctor if you have a chronic skin condition that affects your scalp before you try a new scalp serum or DIY treatment.
BRAGG Organic Raw Apple Cider Vinegar
Vegamour Gro Scalp Detoxifying Serum
Conditioners and masks
A nourishing hair mask or leave-in conditioner is a great solution to hard water damage, tangles, and breakage. Dr. Penzi recommends the No. 8 Bond Intense Moisture Mask from Olaplex: “It is lightweight, smells great, and instantly quenches the hair.” We’ve also featured several other editor-approved conditioners and hair masks, including Moroccanoil’s argan oil-boosted Hydrating Conditioner and Briogeo’s Don’t Despair, Repair Deep Conditioning Mask.
Moroccanoil Hydrating Conditioner
Briogeo Don’t Despair, Repair Deep Conditioning Mask
L’Oreal Elvive Total Repair 5 Damage-Erasing Balm
Olaplex No. 8 Bond Intense Moisture Mask
If you want to stop hard water damage before it has a chance to start, try installing a filter in your shower head. Although not a hard water hair treatment, most of the experts we spoke to suggested this as a preventative method, as it can remove a majority of mineral deposits from your shower water. Dr. Marcus and Dr. Penzi both recommended the AquaBliss High Output Revitalizing Shower Filter. It promises 75% water filtration for approximately six months of use and has more than 30,000 five-star ratings on Amazon. Reviewers noted that it was very easy to install and quickly helped restore smoothness, softness, and manageability back to their hair.
AquaBliss High Output Revitalizing Shower Filter