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Hard water is created when ions such as magnesium, calcium, and iron are picked up by the water as it travels through the ground. These molecules occur naturally in soil and are more concentrated in states located in the Midwest than those on the Coasts. As water passes by municipal collection facilities, it is gathered up and pumped to residential neighborhoods where the hardness causing ions begin to wreak havoc for homeowners. After the particles are exposed to heat, oxygen, and chemicals such as soaps or detergents, they begin precipitating out of solution. This process results in decreased lathering, deposits on metallic surfaces, dry or itchy skin, dysfunctional appliances, rough and tangled hair, congested pipes, and much more. The affect that hard water has on hair is particularly concerning since it is something of daily importance that influences our appearance and self-confidence. Individuals who are experiencing this type of problem can help alleviate the issue by developing a better understanding of how it occurs.

Human hair grows from within a structure known as a follicle that is embedded in the skin. Each strand has a few different layers that are known as the cortex, medulla, and cuticle. The inner layers are meant to provide structure, strength, and water regulation. The outer layer is constructed of many overlapping keratin cells that are arranged similar to how shingles are placed on a house. This outer protective layer is known as the cuticle and it is important for understanding how hard water affects hair. When the ions that cause hardness come into contact with soaps and detergents, they interact with natural surfactants to create salts. These salt particles are deposited underneath the keratin cells that make up the outer layer of the hair and cause them to stick outward. This creates a feeling of roughness and makes it more difficult to detangle the hair.

Because some degree of water hardness is present in most homes across the US, most commercial soap and hair care manufacturers have replaced natural surfactants with chemicals derived from petroleum such as sodium lauryl sulphate, ammonium laureth sulphate, and others. These chemicals are designed to interfere with the normal reactions that would occur when hardness causing ions are present so that they are not able to create problems with the hair. In addition, most shampoos and conditioners have a lathering agent that makes it easier to wash the product away after use. Natural soaps that do not have such chemicals in them are more susceptible to hard water issues. Since chemical additives tend to strip natural oils from the hair, it is highly recommended that a conditioner be used in order to restore some of these protective oils.

Over the past several years, many consumers have become more sensitive to the use of products that contain chemicals derived from petroleum and have sought out alternative strategies for removing the negative effects associated with hard water hair. Those who want to continue using natural products are often able to completely remove hardness causing ions by purchasing and installing a salt-based water softener. These systems generally contain two tanks that work together to pull problematic ions out of the water before it enters the home's main plumbing network. They accomplish this using a resin bed that is contained in the primary tank. As water passes through the tank, the ions are bound to the resin bed and are subsequently washed off of the resin bed and into the wastewater system by a solution of highly concentrated salt. The salt is stored in the secondary tank until it is needed for regeneration.

Although salt-based softeners are highly effective at eliminating hard water, they can be costly and may be responsible for depositing harmful levels of salt into the environment. For those who are concerned about these issues, there are some salt-free alternatives that may provide satisfactory results in cases of low to moderate hardness. It is recommended that homeowners consult their local water professional before purchasing and type of softening product. Individuals who want to continue using natural soaps without installing a softener may want to purchase a shampoo that contains a chelating agent that can remove buildup on an occasional basis and that is used together with a conditioner.

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