Hard Water vs. Soft Water: What Is The Difference?

For many Americans, water out of the tap is good enough for drinking, washing, cooking, and cleaning. Water is water, right? While this is technically true, there are different types of water: hard and soft. If you’ve never heard of hard or soft water, this might sound downright bizarre.

Key Points:

  • Hard water is water with high mineral content, while soft water has low or no minerals.
  • Water can be softened by employing a water softener system which removes the minerals with an ion exchange process.
  • Hard water is better for consumption, while soft water is best for hair and skin as it doesn’t leave behind minerals.

After all, how can water be “hard” or “soft?” It all comes down to the dissolved mineral content inside the water. While you rarely see a difference between the two, it’s there. This article explains the specifics of each and the key differences, so continue reading to learn more!

What Is Hard Water?

The term “hard water” can be somewhat misleading, seemingly indicating water’s firmness, which doesn’t make sense. However, the word doesn’t indicate that – instead, it refers to the mineral content in the water. Hard water is simply water that contains an abundance of dissolved minerals.

The vast majority of groundwater is considered hard water, as it contains numerous minerals, including magnesium, calcium, and lime. These minerals remain in the water as dissolved content, making the water “hard.”

These minerals give the water a somewhat corrosive nature, hence the name. Using hard water to shower, wash dishes, and wash your hands can present issues. For example, you might notice your skin and hair feel dryer than usual after showering in hard water. Or, you might see whitish, chalky buildup around your faucets, dishes, and other areas with standing water.

Millions of Americans utilize hard water daily without much of an issue. Although they might notice dryer skin or hair and mineral deposits on various surfaces, many folks don’t have a problem with hard water.

What Is Soft Water?

Soft water is the opposite of hard water. While hard water is brimming with dissolved minerals, soft water is primarily free of these minerals, making it less corrosive or “soft.” However, while it doesn’t contain the same amount of minerals as hard water, it usually has a small amount of sodium (salt).

Although most groundwater is considered hard water, the droplets cascading from looming clouds are naturally soft. As it makes its way into the ground, meandering through the soil until it ends up in various waterways, it picks up multiple minerals.

How Do You Soften Water?

To soften water, most homes employ a water softener system. Some homes utilize a whole-house water softener, while others use an under-sink system isolated to a single faucet. These systems remove the mineral content from the water, ensuring your faucets are safe from chalky deposits.

They function using three main parts: a control valve, a brine tank, and a mineral tank. Each piece works efficiently with the others to manage water flow through the system, guaranteeing minerals are siphoned out before sending the water through your home.

When hard water enters your home, it takes a pit stop at the water softener, usually flowing directly to the tank before reaching the rest of your home. The hard water passes over resin beads inside the water softener tank. These beads draw hard minerals out of the water and exchange them for sodium using an ion exchange process.

Once the harsh minerals are removed from the water, the system ships the softened water out of the tank to wherever it needs to go in your home. After its pit stop in the water softener, the water follows the path of the plumbing system, flowing to its destination.

Is Soft Water Better For You Than Hard Water?

Soft water and hard water have their places. While soft water is friendlier for your skin, hair, appliances, fixtures, and plumbing, hard water is better for your body. In essence, soft water is ideal for external applications, like showering or washing clothes, while hard water is better for drinking.

Hair And Skin Health

Soft water outmatches hard water in terms of benefits for your hair and skin. While hard water can be incredibly drying for your skin and hair, soft water is the complete opposite.

The minerals in hard water have corrosive effects, which can strip your skin of its natural oils. This can lead to dry, acne-prone skin, as the skin doesn’t have its natural barrier. On the flip side, soft water is much less likely to dry out your skin, leaving its natural oil production intact. This can translate to smoother, clearer skin that is less prone to breakouts.

In addition to its kindness on your skin, soft water is gentler on your hair. Softened water is much less likely to dry out or damage your luscious locks, leaving your hair softer, shinier, and able to retain its moisture.

On top of that, washing your hair with softened water often translates to less soap and a better lather, as it lathers faster without using excessive product.

Fixture Buildup

If you have hard water in your home, there’s a good chance your faucets occasionally sport chalky deposits. This scale formation often takes up residence in areas where water can pool, like around the base of the tap or on the tip of the spout.

In addition to causing buildup around the faucet, these deposits can begin to wreak havoc within the faucet itself. It can start to plague interior components, affecting the aerator by causing clogs or impacting the handle’s function by creating chalky bonds around the handle seat.

While the deposits are easy to clean up – all it takes is a bit of distilled white vinegar and patience – they’re a nuisance. So, if pesky deposits constantly overshadow the fixtures in your home, soft water might be a better choice.

Appliance Lifespan

Soft water is much more friendly with your appliances than its mineral-packed comrade. Appliances in homes with hard water may not last as long as those in homes with soft water, as the mineral deposits can be brutal on the function of water-using appliances.

This includes your water heater, dishwasher, washing machine, and refrigerator (if it provides ice or water). Mineral deposits can overrun the pipes and valves inside these appliances, leading to flow issues. On top of that, the deposits can lead to leaks throughout the system, potentially leading to expensive repairs.

With soft water, these factors aren’t major concerns. Softened water doesn’t contain a high mineral content, so it won’t leave behind chalky deposits that affect the function of your water-using appliances. Because of this, water-using appliances in homes with soft water can last longer than those in hard-water homes.

Is Hard Water Unhealthy To Drink?

Although using hard water to shower, do laundry, and wash dishes can lead to issues, it’s entirely safe to consume hard water. In actuality, hard water can be healthy for you to drink. A study done by the National Library of Medicine (NIH) indicated that hard water could offer an essential supplementary contribution to your total calcium and magnesium intake.

These minerals, which are commonly found in hard water, are essential for various aspects of health. Magnesium plays critical roles throughout the body, including supporting nerve and muscle function and energy production. Aside from supporting bone and teeth health, calcium plays crucial roles in blood clotting, muscle contraction, regulating heart rhythm, and maintaining nerve functions.

Numerous studies demonstrate the lack of these minerals in the diet of everyday Americans. According to the Mayo Clinic, many Americans don’t get the magnesium they need from their diets. In addition, the National Library of Medicine reports a lack of calcium in American diets, with the average consumption falling short of what they need to grow and maintain healthy bones.

So, while hard water might not be entirely pleasant for your skin, hair, clothing, appliances, or plumbing fixtures, it can be healthy and beneficial for your body. Compared to soft water, hard water is a better option than drinking water, as soft water doesn’t contain the same essential minerals or offer the same benefits.

Can You Tell The Difference Between Hard Water And Soft Water?

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Generally speaking, you can tell the difference between hard and soft water, especially if you switch from one to another. While soft water can feel silky or slippery on your skin, hard water can feel sticky or tacky. When you run your hand over your skin, your hand might not glide smoothly over if you have hard water, as the mineral content can dry out your skin and leave a soapy residue behind.

Aside from the difference in feel between hard and soft water, here are a few more key characteristics that give it away:

  • Mineral deposits: If you find chalky whitish deposits on water-using appliances and fixtures, you have hard water in your home. You might find these deposits in your bathtub around the showerhead and tub spout, in your kitchen on the faucets and sink, or on the drain plate of your refrigerator water dispenser.
  • Spots on clean dishes: Another telltale sign of hard water are spots on your freshly-cleaned dishes. You might notice small whitish spots on silverware and glasses as you unload the dishwasher. These are mineral deposits left behind after the water evaporates during the drying process.
  • Lower water pressure: Over time, hard water deposits can build up inside the pipes throughout your home, leading to poor water pressure. As the buildup narrows the interior diameter of the pipe, it effectively reduces water flow through your home’s plumbing network. While pressure issues can stem from various issues, hard water is one of the potential culprits.

Can You See A Difference Between Hard And Soft Water?

While the mineral content in hard and soft water is entirely different, you can rarely see this with the naked eye. A glass of hard water can be just as crystal clear as a glass of hard water, although there can be times when there’s a noticeable difference.

For example, you might notice the water is somewhat cloudy after boiling it. Limescale forms when you agitate hard water (like when you boil it in a kettle), so you might notice chalky white deposits in the water after boiling.

That said, cloudy water can result from various issues, with the most common culprit being aerated water (bubbles in the water).

How Do You Tell If You Have Hard Water In Your Home?

It’s pretty easy to determine if you have hard water in your home, as it usually leaves behind key signs. For example, you might notice a white film left behind on dishes and plumbing fixtures after pools of water dry. Or, it might take an excessive amount of soap to create a thick lather while showering.

However, it can be tricky to tell if you have hard water, especially if you don’t have anything to compare it to. So, you can always complete a water test to determine the hardness levels of your water. Alternatively, call your local water supplier (for those living in cities), as they may be able to tell you the hardness of your water supply.

If your home runs using a well, this isn’t an option for you. That said, most wells supply hard water, as they pull from groundwater, which is typically hard water. Unless you have a water softener to filter the water as it comes up from the well, you probably have hard water. Of course, you can always check by watching for key signs or utilizing a water hardness test. These tests provide key information, such as the hardness level of the water of calcium carbonate in ppm (parts per million).

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