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What is Hard Water? Hard vs Soft Water Explained

Most people have probably already heard of hard water and soft water. Their differences affect our lives in many ways including the taste of our drinking water, our skin’s health, and the effectiveness of our cleaning supplies.  But, how many people actually know what hard and soft water are and how they influence water quality?

Today, we’re breaking down the differences between hard and soft water and we’ll explain why it’s important to know them.  Once you understand the differences, you can make changes that’ll reduce water problems in your home. 

hard water deposits in a kettle

Hard water is often indicated by a formation of limescale in kettles and other appliances.

Measuring Water Hardness

Even though you may never see them, all water is filled with floating minerals.  Whether water is hard or soft comes down to the concentration of those minerals in the water.  Generally, the higher the concentration of minerals the harder the water is.  Soft water is either naturally low in minerals or goes through a process that removes minerals. The primary minerals in water include:

  • Sodium
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium

The minerals that have the greatest effect on water hardness are calcium and magnesium.  These minerals can have many potential health benefits.  Some of those benefits include:

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Improving digestive health
  • Bone support

You can even purchase bottled water that is naturally or artificially infused with minerals in order to try and get some of these benefits out of your drinking water. Measuring the hardness of water is done on a scale.  The US Geological Survey (USGS) classifies water hardness on this scale in terms of the milligrams of minerals per one liter of water (mg/L).  The scale goes as follows:

  • 0 to 60 mg/L as soft
  • 61 to 120 mg/L as moderately hard
  • 121 to 180 mg/L as hard
  • 181 and above as very hard

The US Water Quality Association ensures that each classification is safe. In the United States, depending on where you live, harvested water will have different concentrations of minerals.  However, about 85% of the country is classified as having at least moderately hard water.  So, no matter where in the US you live, you are very likely to have hard water being delivered to your pipes.

The hardest water found in the US is concentrated in one particular location: the southwest.  States like Texas, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado fall into this region and have some of the highest mineral concentrated water. These states are mostly classified by the USGS as having very hard water.

On the flip side, the southeast and upper northwest states have some of the softest water in the country. States like Oregon, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina have some of the lowest water mineral concentrations. The easiest way you can measure how hard water is without literally counting each mineral particle is by taste. 

If you were to taste the water from Utah and then from Mississippi, you would probably be able to tell that there is a stark difference in the taste.  This is because water that is harder tends to have more of a neutral or bitter taste whereas softer water tends to taste salty or acidic.  Therefore, you can taste the different waters and do some self-measurement of water hardness. 

water splashing

Causes of Hard and Soft Water

You now know what hard water is and that water hardness varies throughout the country.  But, how do the minerals that cause hardness get into the water and why do some locations have higher mineral concentrations than others?  This comes down to two important factors:

  1. Differences in the types of rocks around the country
  2. From how deep in the ground the water is harvested from

First off, minerals get into the water when rain falls to the earth and seeps into the ground.  As the water makes its way deeper into the earth, it passes around rocks.  Rocks are high in minerals and the rain soaks up some of those minerals as it makes its way downward.  Then, this groundwater is pumped to the surface of the earth, treated, and then sent to our faucets.

So, thanks to rocks in the ground, our water is full of minerals.  Typically, the more rocks the water goes through plus the types of rocks determine how concentrated the water becomes with minerals.  Moreover, the more mineral-rich rocks the water passes through the more minerals the water will have.

This explains why the southwest has generally harder water.  There are a lot of highly mineral rocks such as limestone found in the southwest.  Additionally, before water is harvested in the southwest, it has generally gone through more rock than water does in other areas of the country.  This is thanks to the Rocky Mountains.

The Key Differences Between Hard and Soft Water

There is more than just a difference in taste between hard and soft water.  The differences in mineral concentrations account for a handful of other distinctions between the two.  Some of these key distinctions include:

  • Feeling of the water on your skin
  • Effectiveness of the water for cleaning
  • Pressure of water coming through taps

For starters, depending on whether you have hard or soft water, there are differences when you wash your hands or take a shower.  When you wash your hands or body with hard water, it may feel as if there is a residue or film left over from the soap.  This is often called “soap scum” and it is caused by a reaction between calcium in the water and soap.  

Differences between hard and soft water additionally show up when cleaning your house.  Dishes, surfaces, and laundry are all affected.  Spots will typically show up on dishes in the dishwater due to calcium carbonate and sometimes clothes coming out of the laundry will have mineral stains.  

Water that’s very high in mineral deposits will sometimes clog pipes.  Over time, the minerals build up causing waterways to become clogged and water flow to slow down.  Ultimately, this results in lower water pressure.   While hard water often tastes better than softer water, hard water tends to cause more household troubles in general.  At the same time, soft water does not taste as good yet is more effective around the house.  

Water softener tablets and filter with a blue background.

A water softener is a unit that is used to soften water by removing the minerals that cause the water to be hard.

Why People Get Water Softeners

Water softening is common in homes where water is on the harder side.  Softeners help reduce water hardness levels in a home’s water supply. Water softeners work thanks to a process called ion exchange.  During the process, cation minerals are exchanged.  Typically, magnesium and calcium are removed and infused into sodium chloride curds while sodium is infused into the water.  This explains why soft water often tastes slightly salty and why clean ocean water feels so soft!

In general, homeowners may want a softener because they:

  • Prevent scale buildup in pipes
  • Eliminate mineral spots on dishes and clothes
  • Prevent soap scum buildup in bathrooms
  • Reduce water abrasiveness on the body

Though, there are some disadvantages to having softened water including:

  • Negative health consequences from increased sodium intake
  • Increased output of salt into the environment
  • Regular maintenance of the water softener

If your water is particularly hard and causing problems in your home, a water softener could help alleviate the issues.  Just be aware that water softeners come with some issues of their own. 

Benefits and Best Uses for Hard and Soft Water

hard vs soft water

The two water types vary in their effectiveness in different areas.  While hard water may be best for one situation, soft water may be best in another situation.  Therefore, if you want to get the most out of your water, check out the benefits and best uses for both hard and soft water.

Hard Water Benefits and Best Uses

Hard water is, unfortunately, very stigmatized.  Many people assume through what they hear that hard water is all bad.  Rather, hard water is actually the best kind of water you can use in certain situations and it provides multiple benefits from its usage. Here are some of the benefits of hard water:

  • Provides healthy minerals
  • Money-saving
  • Healthy for the environment

First off, we’ve already talked about how hard water is highly concentrated in natural minerals.  They are the same dietary minerals you would find in healthy food sources.  These minerals do good for your health.  Some studies link hard water to lower cardiovascular disease mortality rates.  If you’re trying to get more minerals in your diet, drinking harder water could help.

Additionally, as we’ve already mentioned, hard water typically places higher in taste tests.  Unless you live in an area like the southwest where water is extremely hard, drinking hard water should taste neutral and fresh. Second, if you want access to hard water, most of the time all you have to do is open your tap or faucet. 

Therefore, it costs you virtually nothing to get access to hard water.  You don’t need to install any water systems or purchase bottled water in order to drink hard water.  Good news for your wallet! Lastly, sticking to hard water is generally better for the planet.  Overall, the hard water you get from your taps doesn’t go through a softening process.  Therefore, it doesn’t release salt back into the environment and cause pollution.  

Also, using hard water in certain activities leads to a better flow of the water cycle.  If you use hard water, it will eventually run down the drain and make its way back into the soil.  Therefore, the good minerals will be returned back to the earth.  So, if you want to do your local environment well, stick to harder water that goes through less water treatment.

Here are some of the best uses for hard water:

  • Drinking
  • Watering plants or lawns

Because hard water provides so many good dietary minerals, it is the better of the two kinds of water to drink. As long as it’s not extremely hard, it should taste perfectly fine. Finally, using hard water to hydrate both indoor and outdoor plants will help fill them up with good minerals. The plants need minerals just as much as we do.  Also, using hard water on outdoor plants and lawns helps return minerals back to the soil. This promotes a healthy water cycle and an overall better environment.

Soft Water Benefits and Best Uses

Soft water is typically more popular and less stigmatized than hard water.  And, people are right when they say that there are some great benefits to using soft water. Some of the benefits of using soft water include:

  • Soft hair and skin
  • Fresh and bright clothes
  • Cleaner homes and dishes
  • Higher water pressure

To begin with, as we’ve already mentioned, soft water is good for your skin and hair.  Soft water tends to glide across your skin and hair leaving it feeling very clean and refreshed.  It also lathers well with soap.  Because of this, your body soap, hand soap, and shampoo will feel more effective.

Soft water also reacts well with laundry soap.  It lathers up well which keeps your clothes cleaner and fresher.  High concentrations of salt in soft water also lead to less bleeding and fading of colors.  Overall, your clothes will maintain their quality while looking and feeling cleaner. 

Third, soft water generally leaves your house and dishes looking better.  With dishes, they’ll look cleaner as the soft water is more effective at scrubbing away dirt without leaving water marks behind.  Also, less soap scum builds up in your sinks and bathtubs when cleaned with soft water.  

Lastly, soft water generally does not cause blockages in water pipes.  Because many of its minerals are removed, the water is less likely to clog up pipes.  This leads to easier flowing water and higher pressure. Here are the best uses for soft water:

  • Showering
  • Cleaning clothes
  • Cleaning houses and dishes

Because soft water overall leads to a more seamless finish when washing your body, hair, home, clothes, and dishes, we suggest that you use it for cleaning of all sorts.  Whether it be your hands or your bathtub, soft water overall is going to strengthen the effects of the products that you use.  Soft water will make the most out of your cleaning efforts.

water splash

Risks and Concerns Over Hard and Soft Water

While there are benefits of using both hard and soft water, they also come with some risks and safety concerns.  

Risks and Concerns Over Hard Water

Despite all the minerals in hard water, there are some downsides to making this your primary water source. Some concerns over hard water include:

  • Scale buildup
  • Skin and hair damage
  • Soap scum buildup

High mineral concentrations in hard water often cause pipe damage.  Scale buildup leads to lower water pressure and, over time, could make it necessary that you revamp your plumbing system.  This can be costly.  Also, this buildup can occur in your appliances which use your home water system.  For example, your dishwasher or washing machine may become less efficient because of mineral buildup.

Second, hard water has been known to be not so friendly to the skin and hair.  Hard water has a higher pH than soft water which often removes natural oils and moisture.  Hard water has even been linked to eczema.  It also does not lather as well as soft water so you may not feel as clean after bathing in hard water. 

As a result, you’ll most likely lose moisture leading to frizzy hair and flakey skin. Third, soap scum buildup can happen in your bathrooms and kitchens when you have hard water.  The minerals will lead to calcium and lime stains.  As a result, your home, dishes, and clothes will overall be less clean than if you had used soft water.

Risks and Concerns Over Soft Water

Like hard water, soft water also comes with its fair share of problems. Some concerns over soft water include:

  • Health risks
  • Sodium buildup in the environment
  • Corrosion and lead contaminants 

If you have high blood pressure or are generally concerned about your salt intake, then soft water may pose a health concern.  Because soft water is depleted of calcium and magnesium ions while being exchanged with sodium, this additional salt could raise your blood pressure.  Plus, if your water is too saturated with salt, it will diminish the freshness of its taste.

 A big issue with soft water that is produced with water softeners is that this leads to chloride pollution.  Water softeners produce chloride which gets flushed into septic systems and eventually gets into the environment.  High levels of chloride pollution can lead to contamination of waterways and kill off marine life.  

Finally, soft water is more prone to lead contamination.  As soft water makes its way through your pipes, it is more likely to pick up lead which is highly toxic for humans to consume.  In order to avoid lead contamination, you’ll need to get your pipes inspected every so often to ensure safety.  

Conclusions About Hard and Soft Water

In conclusion, both hard and soft water have strengths and weaknesses. If you can, try to use both types in the areas where they provide the most benefits. Likewise, if you can, try to decrease both types in areas where they present to most issues. Overall, neither hard nor soft water is necessarily better than the other.

However, knowing the differences between the two can lead to overall higher quality of life. When you understand the variances between the types, you can up your mineral intake, save money, and have an overall cleaner life!

Bonus tip: Check out our top picks for home water softeners.

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Joshua Perkins

Joshua spent ten years as a water systems technician in California before settling down with his wife and two young children in Nashville in 2018. Through all of his experience, he learned the benefits and shortfalls of so many different types of water filtration systems, from pitchers to whole-house installations. He started Water Filter Authority in 2019 to empower other families to make the right decision for their long-term health and wellness.