Hard Water vs. Soft Water

water corrosion on a showerhead

You've probably heard of products that clean hard water stains. Doesn't that sound weird? Why is water staining something? And if there's hard water, there's also soft water. What's the difference between hard and soft water? How do they each affect our bodies, our clothes, and our plumbing? And how do you know which one you have in your home?

What Are Hard and Soft Water?

The "hardness" of water is determined by the amount of calcium and magnesium it has in it. Soft water has less than 17 parts per million of these minerals. If water has between 17 to 60 parts per million, it's considered slightly hard. Moderately hard water has 60 to 120 parts per million. Hard water is 120 to 180 parts per million. Water considered "very hard" has more than 180 parts per million.

What is Water?

So basically, hard water has more minerals in it. But why does your water have minerals at all? Isn't it a well-known fact that water is H2O? That means it's one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen.

To understand why the water that comes out of the faucet has minerals in it, you have to know where your water is coming from.

The water that comes out of the faucet comes largely from groundwater, natural springs, and other freshwater sources—you know, places that have rocks. The minerals in the rocks and the soil seep into the water. This is why your water has minerals in it by the time it gets to you.

Water provided through municipal sources is treated at water treatment facilities. However, the minerals are not removed from the after even at these treatment facilities. Mainly, hard water has calcium and magnesium in it, two pretty common minerals.

Calcium is the same mineral you have in your bones. That's why you need to ingest calcium regularly to keep your bones and body healthy and strong. Calcium is well known for being in dairy products of all kinds but you can find it in hard water as well. Calcium keeps teeth healthy and strong, as well as bones, and it's something you definitely want to get plenty of in your body on a regular basis.

Magnesium is less famous than calcium, but this mineral is absolutely essential to the body's functions. It regulates blood pressure, keeps your heart rhythms steady, and even keeps your bones strong. In other words, your body definitely needs it. Having magnesium in your system certainly isn't a bad thing.

Fluoride is a mineral present in about 75 percent of municipal water supplies. Many communities add fluoride to their water supply to help prevent tooth decay and keep teeth healthier.

Arsenic is sometimes present in well water, though in very low amounts.

If you're worried about what might be in your water, there are many home test kits available. These tests are very easy to use. Many of them are simple strips that you insert into the water. Different colors determine the level of different chemicals.

Water Contamination

water faucet handles with corrosion damage

Water can, and most of the time does, have minerals in it that are perfectly safe for you to drink. However, water can also have stuff in it that's not at all safe for you to drink. Flint, Michigan made national news when its water supply was contaminated by lead.

Some minerals are perfectly healthy for you to drink and bathe in. Others, on the other hand, are extremely dangerous. Hard water is a type of water that has more minerals in it than water that is classified as soft water. However, that doesn't mean that any water that has minerals in it is safe for you.

Lead is not safe even in small amounts. There are several minerals that are not safe for human consumption at all. It's worth it to pay attention to news about water and take any water warnings in your community very seriously.

When you use water multiple times per day, you don't want to play around with invisible contaminants that might be ruining your water. Water that has minerals in it and contaminated water are not the same things at all.

Hard Water

hard water corrosion

The extra minerals in hard water do give it a few unique characteristics. The magnesium and calcium that are in hard water can leave a residue behind in pipes that builds up over time. However, this pretty much only happens in galvanized steel pipes.

Galvanized steel was once a common material used in plumbing but it hasn't been used much since the 1970s thanks to wider availability of materials in plumbing. You only have to worry about this problem if you have a home or property with older plumbing that predates 1980.

That same residue also creates hard water stains on sinks and tubs. Special cleaners can remove this gunk as needed.

The taste of hard water is also noticeably different from soft water. Hard water actually has some taste to it, more flavor that you can notice. This is why spring water actually tastes better than a lot of tap water. Many people use water softeners that strip the taste right out of water.

Hard water can dry out skin more than soft water. Skin with preexisting conditions, such as eczema, can be exaggerated by this water. Your skin might feel dry and itchy after you take a shower in hard water.

Soft water does not have this effect. It literally does have a more softening effect on skin, rather than drying it out the way that hard water can. You can also notice a difference in the way your hair feels after you wash it in hard water. Some people may notice a residue on their hair, especially if they are used to bathing in soft water.

Soft Water

water softener with salt crystals

Some people swear by soft water and use water softeners to strip minerals from their water in order to turn hard water into soft water. This is because hard water can leave a mineral residue behind, so some people believe that hard water doesn't get their bodies or their homes as clean as soft water.

Hard water can cause more wear and tear on clothing, faucets, and appliances that use water, such as the washing machine. The minerals can and do leave a buildup behind, which most of the time you won't see. Hard water stains happen when there is enough buildup for them to become visible.

Soft water doesn't leave behind soap scum or mineral stains, which is one big reason why people might prefer it and even intentionally soften their water in order to avoid using hard water. Also, some people don't like the taste of hard water, believing it has too much of a mineral taste.

For all these reasons, some people use water softeners to take the minerals out of hard water. They're easy to use and they do work to pull the minerals right out of the water, filtering it so that you're left with soft water in place of hard.

These water softeners use a sticky resin to pull the minerals out of hard water as it passed by. This resin is coated with positively charged sodium ions that "grab" the minerals before you ever even use the water. These minerals are removed even before the water comes out of the tap in your home.

The sodium ion compound makes the sodium content in softened water higher than in naturally soft and hard water. People with high blood pressure should not use water softeners that are based on using sodium ions for this reason. Some systems use potassium or other means of softening the water, so there are other options available.

Do You Have Hard Water?

If you don't know if you have hard water or so water, there are some ways to tell. If you feel a slight film on your skin water you rinse them and if you see spots on your glasses and plates when they come out of the dishwater clean, these are signs of hot water. Approximately 85 percent of the water supply used in the U.S. is hard water.

Is It Healthy to Drink Hard Water?

two glasses of cold water

If hard water can cause stains on your sink and bathtub, does that mean it's also bad for your body?

While hard water can dry out skin and may be a little rougher on your clothing and appliance than soft water, it isn’t bad for your body to drink hard water. The minerals in hard water are good for you. It can actually increase your daily dose of calcium and magnesium.

It won’t cause any sort of mineral buildup in your body the same way it will with your sink. In other words, hard water can’t hurt you.

In fact, natural spring water that you buy in bottles is hard water. It may be marketed as mineral water because it’s got natural minerals in it. The minerals make it a type of hard water. This is why bottled spring water often has such a nice taste to it. Many people drink more bottled water than tap water and you can rest easy that it is perfectly safe to do so.

The Building Block

Water is the building block of all life and it’s something you use a lot of, even when you aren’t fully aware of it. Knowing what kind of water you have and what’s in it (or not in it) really does matter. Now that you know exactly what the differences are between hard water and soft water, you can make better decisions about water all the time.