Who among us hasn't stressed over our broken hair strands after brushing or showering and frantically googled up reasons for why it is happening? You will find a variety of content online that lists different causes and concerns and provides various remedies and solutions, ranging from using hair masks and serums to medical interventions. One thing that often comes up when we talk about and research hair health is water quality.
"Among the various internal and external factors contributing to hair loss, the quality of water used for hair washing is important in determining the degree of hair loss," says an analysis of various factors responsible for hair loss and its awareness level in Delhi-NCR published in Current Science in 2020. The water quality depends on the number of minerals like calcium and magnesium present in it. The higher the amount of these minerals, the harder the water. Other studies have suggested that poor water quality can lead to a ruffled appearance and decreased thickness.
Bangalore-based consultant dermatologist Dr Akshay LM first explains what qualifies as hard water. According to Dr Akshay, this depends on the milligrams per litre concentration of calcium carbonate."Soft water is 0-60, moderate is 60-120, hard water is 120-180, and very hard is more than 180," says Dr Akshay.
While most of the domestic water that comes to our households is under the permissible limits, the hardness and salinity of the water are more severe in some coastal areas and areas witnessing water scarcity leading to dependence on deeper groundwater. For instance, a 2018 survey by a water filtration system provider in Bangalore found that 24 per cent of areas in the city received water with hardness levels exceeding the ideal limit.
Hard water does not produce a lot of lather, leading to extensive use of shampoos or cleansers. "If it is not lathering up, you tend to use more of the shampoo or the cleanser. That has an adverse effect on the hair and the scalp. Along with the water's mineral deposits, you have these shampoo debris that does not get cleaned thoroughly. So, that affects the tensile strength and the elasticity, which can lead to breakage and affect hair growth," explains Dr Akshay.
New Delhi-based dermatologist and founder of the Derma Miracle Skin and Hair Transplant Clinic, Dr Navnit Haror, concurs. He says he has seen hair damage in clients from areas with high total dissolved solutions or TDS like calcium carbonate in domestic water. As the cuticles and hair layers are soft, these harsh metals and impurities in the water can denature the hair protein, keratin, which weakens or thins out the hair, and you start losing more hair eventually.
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“Sometimes TDS can lead to Telogen effluvium,” he says, referring to a medical condition in which patients experience temporary hair loss due to the excessive shedding of hair. "You continue to use hard water regularly, then most of your hair is landing in the shedding phase," adds Dr Haror. The constant shedding then increases the roughness of the hair, split ends, and breakages, reducing its regrowth potential. While water quality can have an impact on hair health, it can turn into a bigger problem in conjunction with other issues.
For instance, Dr Haror shares how the nicotine in cigarette smoke causes vasoconstriction, which means that it reduces the diameter of the blood vessels. "If it has been reducing the diameter of the blood vessels, the same blood vessels that were supplying blood to ten hair, it will be supplying blood to say six hair and the rest four will be damaged," he explains.
Similarly, styling procedures like hair straightening that involve the application of heat to the scalp can exacerbate the effects of hard water on hair as it damages the hair cuticle and the outer sheath of the hair follicles. Similarly, Dr Akshay says that fungal infections and skin conditions like alopecia areta impact hair health. So do your stress or cortisol levels or poor diet as well as air quality and humidity. All combined with the hardness of water can accentuate the damage.
While there are many of these things that one cannot control, there are a few things you can. "Around 90 per cent of hair is nothing but a protein that is keratin. So, unless you get raw materials through your diet like protein, you cannot grow your hair," says Hyderabad-based nutritionist, food scientist, and director of the Sreya Nutrition Consultancy, Kavitha Reddy.
She adds that the quality of protein matters, like animal protein in fish, meat, and dairy is better for you. Vegetarians and vegans can get complete proteins in soybean, cereals, and pulses. Apart from protein, hair health also depends on micronutrients like zinc, iron, selenium, biotin, vitamins A, C, and E, and omega-3 fatty acids. "Most of these micronutrients are antioxidants. If there are free radicals in the body affecting the hair follicle, these antioxidants scavenge or clean up the free radicals and make the hair better," says Reddy.
While a balanced diet with a source of protein in every meal, fruits, green leafy vegetables, and curd can offset some issues related to hair health, if experiencing severe hair fall or frizziness, there are some other steps one can take. "First thing I recommend to my patients is that you must always wash your hair with normal RO water if it is available. Otherwise, take any other filtered or drinking water and use it for head washing," says Dr Haror. Another option is water softeners available in the market that filter out harsh and heavy metals from the water.
He also suggests cleaning your hair and scalp regularly. According to him, one should seek any marketed solutions like minoxidil lotions only after consulting a dermatologist, who would do a thorough hair examination and provide the best course of treatment.
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Similarly, Dr Akshay advocates cutting down on shampoo usage or switching to ones with lesser content of sodium laureth sulphate. As the hard water and shampoo strip away moisture, he advises using a hair cream, leave-in conditioner, or coconut oil on the hair (not the scalp) after hair wash. And yes, “If the individual is very keen about it, they can get the domestic water supply tested to check if it is safe for domestic use,” believes Dr Akshay.