The quality of the water coming into your home or apartment can make a huge difference in your skin and hair. I recently was reminded of this fact when I came home from school for spring break. The area where I go to school has very hard water, but the water at home is soft. My hair is like night and day even using the same products and the same techniques in terms of how it looks and feels.
What is the different between hard water and soft water?
Hard water contains more minerals than soft water. To be more technical, hard water has more cations in it, generally Mg2+ and Ca2+. The minerals get into the water by leaching in from the ground, so they aren't "unnatural" or anything. Hard water poses no health risks, but it can be hard on industrial components and pipes.
How can I tell what kind of water I have?
The general wisdom is that if you have hard water, when you use soap or shampoo, you don't get as much sudsing action. You will also get soap scum buildup. Generally, people who have lived with hard water for most of their lives find the feel of soft water to be "slimy" or "slippery" in comparison.
I think the easiest and most reliable way to test whether you have hard or soft water is to actually test it! Get your science on!
Here's one cheap tester available online. It's digital, so you just stick it in to your water and let it do its thing.
If you don't want to test the water, you can guesstimate by using a water hardness map. Your local water supply might provide this info (usually upon request) but the USGS provides a national map as well.
How does hard water affect my hair?
Hard water residue feels a lot like silicone build up, if you're familiar with that. Your hair feels limp and lank. Your curls don't bounce up and they look dull. You feel like there is also something on your hair, even when you go product free, that makes it feel gunky.
I've got hard water and I'm never happy with my hair. What are my options?
First, I would recommend trying a clarifying shampoo once a month that is made for hard water. The two best options for that are Malibu C Hard Water Shampoo, which is pricey but extremely well reviewed, and Ion Hard Water Shampoo, from Sally Beauty Supply, which is cheap and has good reviews. I have used the Ion Shampoo with success, but have not tried the Malibu C before.
Second, if you've tried those and had the aha! moment that hard water might be causing your issues, I would look into a more permanent solution, like a shower water filter. Most shower filters take out chlorine, which has nothing to do with water hardness, so you need to find one that specifically will soften water. Here's one that looks like it would do the trick but I have not personally tried it.
I've got soft water and I'm never happy with my hair. What are my options?
I'm going to guess your issues are poofy hair that is always fuzzy and undefined. Since soft water does not have as much of a stripping effect on hair as hard water, you are probably over conditioned or lacking protein. I would recommend a protein treatment to bring some definition and life back to your hair. There are tons of options for protein treatments. Here's a great at home treatment that is loved by many. As far as store bought treatments go, I have used and love Nexxus Emergencee (this is an intense protein treatment that is best if used monthly), Aphogee Two Minute (this is more of a weekly treatment), and the Spiral Solutions Repairing Protein Treatment (lies somewhere in between; I would use this biweekly).