Before moving to France, I never paid attention when I’d hear people talking about hard water. We didn’t have hard water in my house growing up in NJ and I had zero personal experience with it. Even after moving to France, when I’d hear people talk about how hard the water was in Paris, I still didn’t focus on it because my water out where I lived was fine, or so I thought. Well, last month I investigated my own household water situation out of curiosity after reading about it and noticing a few effects of hard water on my hair. Turns out, our water is quite hard, and since I discovered that, Tom has been helping me wash my hair in the bathtub with rainwater ever since.
Hard water in France
Let me tell you how this all started.
I haven’t colored my hair in several years but decided that after lockdown I wanted a change. I was online researching some haircare products for color-treated hair, so I’d be all set once I was able to get into the salon, when I came across an article about how hard water wreaks havoc on color-treated hair. It not only causes the color to become dull, change, and fade quickly, but damages it as well. Think blonde highlights turning brassy within a couple of weeks and that sort of thing.
The minerals in the water coat your hair and block it from absorbing much-needed moisture. The hair gets weighed down and can also become prone to tangles and breakage, so all in all, it’s bad news. Washing your hair with hard water after you spend money on a color treatment is like throwing money down the drain, so I stepped up my research game and down the hard water rabbit hole I went.
First, if you’re unfamiliar with the term hard water, it’s water that has a high mineral content, namely calcium and magnesium. In nature, groundwater often pushes through limestone where it comes into contact with calcium and magnesium deposits and that is passed onto us as we use that water in our homes. The opposite of hard water is soft water, and many homes have water that falls somewhere in the middle.
In France, and evidently NOT just in Paris, water is hard. It’s generally safe to drink but can cause some issues for your hair and skin and with your plumbing that range from an annoyance to something more serious.
It’s kind of strange to me that French people don’t make a big stink about the hard water in France because it’s a problem all over the place. It’s especially weird because French women go to the hair salon a LOT (way more hair salons around than nail salons), so do they not know that hard water is an issue or do they not care about it?
Here are some indications that you may have hard water in your home:
- Brown or reddish stains in your toilet bowl that are hard to remove. Stains from the hard water, not using the toilet, I mean. 😉
- Abundance of white soap scum on faucets and tiles even a day after you last cleaned it off.
- White spots or a cloudy film on your glassware after running the dishwasher.
- Plumbing issues such as clogged pipes that come about from the scale deposits that build up over time.
- Appliances wearing out and becoming less efficient (higher bills!) due to sediment buildup on the inside of the fixtures like the water heater, dishwasher, etc.
- Clothes don’t clean very well and can appear dingy or worn out.
These are signs of hard water you may notice with your hair and skin:
- Shampoo doesn’t lather well and soap on the skin takes more effort to wash off.
- Dry skin and eczema
- Hair loss
- Dull, dry/frizzy, limp hair that tangles easily and is prone to breakage.
- Color-treated hair that fades quickly or the color changes shortly after the color treatment.
A lot of the above signs resonated with me, so I bought these hard water test strips. Sure enough, our water tested all the way to the right, as you can see in the photo. The little square of my test strip shown in the top right part of my photo below was bright red which indicates very hard water.
Keep in mind not everyone’s hair and skin (or household pipes) will react the same way to hard water and the way you treat it is personal. The effects depend on the amount of minerals, how often and how long you’re exposed to the water, your body, etc.
Over the years in France, I’d noticed my hair was overall less pouffy and more limp but attributed it to the fact that the climate is different here, general changes to one’s hair that come with age, and my lack of hair styling skills. I’m pretty low maintenance when it comes to hair and overall styling and wash my hair only twice per week. I never realized that hard water could be to blame and how much worse it would be if I washed my hair every other day.
Right after the positive hard water test result, I did a vinegar rinse to rid my hair and scalp of the built-up minerals and have been washing my hair with rainwater I’ve collected in my backyard or filtered water ever since.
No one is laughing about that harder than I am. I said I’m low maintenance when it comes to hair and this takes a bit of effort and planning.
After the vinegar rinse and just one wash without hard water, I noticed a difference in my hair’s softness immediately. Until we figure out a more permanent solution, there’s no way I’m washing my hair normally in the shower ever again with hard water. It is way too damaging, and in my case with color-treated hair, there’s no way I’m going to sabotage that.
How can you fix hard water?
In the whole scheme of things, is hard water and damage to your hair the end of the world? No, of course not, but if I’m able to take relatively easy steps that help me to keep my hair (and household appliances) in good shape, I’m going to do it.
Options for softening hard water range on the cheaper end from shower head attachments like this one that marginally improve the water softness (get the test strips to verify if it helped!) all the way up to costly professionally installed water softening systems that filter out the minerals from the water at the source. A water softener in France is no joke though in terms of cost.
And then there’s the option where I am right now until we figure out how we want to proceed — washing your hair with rain or filtered water. It doesn’t fix the hard water problem but it fixes your hair and that’s already a step in the right direction.
A Brita pitcher is a good option to purify your water a bit if you don’t have the ability to collect rainwater. I’ve been using both. Even just using it as a final rinse to make sure the minerals don’t stay on your hair once you’re out of the shower is a great way to fix the problem if you aren’t able to hand wash your hair with just filtered water.
Unfortunately, my current workaround only addresses hair issues caused by hard water in France and not any of the household issues of having hard water. It’s a bit tedious and not a permanent solution.
Until we decide what to do, I’ll be pampering my hair in the hopes that it will make up for the eight years I’ve ignorantly been torturing it with hard water.
If you’re in need of some excellent hair care products, my go-to source in France is Oh My Cream. They’re a Paris-based clean beauty store and I’ve ordered all kinds of things online from them over the years and have never been disappointed. I have no affiliation with them and am just a happy customer. I love the little cloth bag full of samples they send with all orders.
If you have color-treated/bleached hair and want to keep it healthy and moisturized (even if you don’t have hard water), I can’t recommend these 2 products enough: Christophe Robin color shield mask and John Masters Organics dry nourishment oil. I leave the mask on for longer than the recommended five minutes. It’s super rich and nourishing. The oil is fab as well and is quickly absorbed, not greasy.
Then hit your head with Malibu C hard water line of shampoo and conditioner. This is especially important if you don’t go the filtered water route. Your hair will thank you!
Is hard water ruining your clothes?
One last thing is about doing your laundry in France. If you notice your clothes aren’t really washing well and are even fading quicker than they should, buy these tablets from the supermarket. They’re in the laundry aisle and will counteract the effects of hard water on your clothes. They’ve been a lifesaver for us.
Do you have hard water in France or wherever you live? Have you noticed any undesirable side effects?
There were so many minerals and sediment in the water at our Paris apartment, you could see them in the bottom of the glass after the ice melted. It was a fairly recent building–’70s–but still. It was just awful, but we were only there for six months.
In our own little house in La Dordogne, the first thing we did was have a water softener installed. It has helped, but I need to have it turned up higher. They wouldn’t put it through to the kitchen sink because I guess you are not meant to have salt in your drinking and cooking water. But did install a filter there. The filter doesn’t take care of everything, so I use Brita water to make ice.
Hi Cyndy, thanks for sharing your experience. I really like the idea of a water softener. Did you have it installed because the real estate advised you about the problematic water in your area or did you just not want to take any chances with any of the side effects becoming an issue over time?
The Brita filter is fantastic. After the water passes through it, my test shows the water in the yellow zone so I bottle it up to save for my hair w/the rain water — but it hasn’t been raining much.
Overall, do you feel the water softener system was worth the investment?
Invest in a house-wide water softener! We had one installed at our place in Palm Springs (the desert has very hard water). It makes your hair better, your skin better, your dishes better and your laundry better.
Yup, looking into the options!!
We live in the foothills of the mountains in New Mexico, and have our own well. The first time we washed our clothes when we bought our house twenty years ago, all the white clothes came out pink, due to so much iron in the water – including my husband’s undergarments and t-shirts!
We’ve now invested a small fortune in water-purifying systems, but still get orange strips in the toilets. Our primary system uses potassium which is better for food preparation and drinking than salt-based products.
Liza Herz says
But it’s the hard water that gives hair that messy tousled ‘French girl’ vibe that women will go to great lengths to achieve with product. (Trying to find an upside for you 😉
Aussie Jo says
Some parts of Australia have bore water and that is something like hard water I guess
Thanks for this article. I know we have very hard water where we live in SW France, but I never thought of it being the reason why my hair seemed so limp and overall bad condition, and I have recently started having eczema on my face for the first time in my life! I will definitely need to look in to some of these suggestions!!
**On that note, does anyone have any suggestions for a good creamy facial cleanser in France (for dry/combination skin)? I cannot seem to figure out what women wash their face with here, and I know I must be missing something because skin care is so big here. But in the store I asked a woman and she gave me this watery spray for my face.
Hi Laura! I have lived in SW France for about a year now and the hard water has effected my hair and really dried out my face as well! I love Skinceuticals gentle cleanser! It is a bit expensive, but lasts a long time. It has done wonders for my face. I have heard that La Roche-Posay has a gentle cleanser that works really well too and is a bit cheaper. I have been stepping up my game with thick overnight creams and making sure I moisturize day and night and my face has really improved. Hope this helps!
I noticed in one of my visits to Paris that my hair looked awful. No bounce, no fullness despite blow drying it, using certain products etc. I discovered after doing some research that France had hard water and that using bottled water as a final rinse would solve the problem. So that’s what I do now each time I’m in Paris. I buy cheap bottled water and use it as a final rinse. Works fine. Of course, you have the problem of having to wash clothes, take a shower etc all the time so the bottled water is only a partial solution.
Alyssa Ritchie says
I have lived in SW France for almost a year now and I definetely notice the hard water! I have really thick, blonde hair that I noticed a difference in it being more dry or feeling like I couldn’t get it washed all of the way. I noticed a difference in cleaning (hard water scum) and appliance/dishes residue as well. We can’t install a hard water softener here, but for now I have been using a hard water treatment shampoo about once a week that seems to really help! I also use a purple shampoo every so often, but that’s just to keep my blonde hair from looking brassy. I think I found the hard water shampoo on Amazon. P.S. I appreciate your posts! It’s nice to see topics that I can relate to or I am interesting in learning more about with being a foreigner living in France!
I live in the south of France and have done so for 4.5 years. Installing an ‘adoucisseur’ was a great decision we won’t regret. Immediately noticed a difference with the dishes in the dishwasher, and our skin wasn’t so irritated all the time. When the salt starts to run out in the water softener we notice it right away!
J Halliday says
Hi so is that a house wide solution, ie a filter softens the water at source ? can you advise which brand etc you had please and approx. costs to install etc.
I have always wondered why my hair looks so lackluster and dull, not to mention so many split ends, now I know. But I think the water did wonders for my face in the beginning. After 6 years it’s normalized.
My friend, an American Brit, has a water softener (and aircon) installed in her apartment in the Marais. The only thing I dislike about it is the clingy feel. It takes longer for soap to feel like it’s come off. Softened water also has a different taste. My aunt had a water softener growing up so I’m used to difference in taste. Maybe it’s not noticeable as you get older but I swear there is a difference.
Anyhow if you can get a water softener into a 45sqm apartment in the Marais, I’m sure the French can find one for a house. The only annoyance is the salt that you have to buy. There’s a Leroy Merlin near the Pompidou so her housekeeper will usually take a flat cart and bring the bags home down rue Renard clanging on the cobbles the entire way. I’m sure it’s much easier to do it with a car outside of Paris.
John Buchanan says
I would like to inform you of a new generation of softener that will be launched this year. It precipitates the “hardness” ions into stable and growing clusters, of which is then captured by a new generation of self-cleaning filter. There are no disposables ,salt, resin beads, etc. Its highly efficient with a lifespan of 20 years. If installed at the POE it will make an ideal pre-filter for downstream UV and RO membranes. The extra benefit is that corrosion and bio-slime are neutralised. throughout the whole water system.
Soon to be manufactured in France.
Isabella Presley says
Girl same! I live in Montreal Canada, and we have a lot of the same things as France. We have hard water here too, my shower is attached to the wall so I don’t think my landlord will let me change it. However, I do have a Brita filter for my water, and I notice I have to go to the salon a bit more than usual. And yes, we have an abundance of hair salons than anywhere else in Canada! I heard rinsing your hair with 8 oz of water and 1 tbsp of vinegar helps, but I haven’t done that yet. I really don’t want to smell like vinegar xD I have eczema too so it’s been not ideal but c’est la vie 😉
Yup you feel my pain. I’ve been using brita filtered water to wash and rinse my hair since I wrote this post! A bit tedious but better than the alternative!
Beverly Eagan says
I live in Paris and hate the hard water. I color my hair now but I was a natural redhead with the skin that goes with that. My hair was a mess and my skin also was irritated all of the time. My husband found a water softener that only softens the shower water. We are renting so we can’t put in a full apartment softener. It has made a huge difference in my hair and body. I still have a problem with facial skin because I wash it in the sink between showers. I saw a dermatologist and learned I now have rosacea. I’m using a facial prescription cream but am still red and rashy. I think I will have to fill a container with shower water to use on my face.