Shower head spraying a man

Hard Water and Eczema Symptoms

The other day, as I was doggedly trying to work while simultaneously scratching my back as (in)effectively as one might expect with a fluffy, hypoallergenic pillow, I started daydreaming about a shower nozzle that dispensed coconut oil instead of water. You see, we recently moved into a new house, and while I absolutely love 99.99 percent of the things about it, I do not love our hard water. Hard water represents a special kind of torture for those of us with atopic dermatitis.

Atopic dermatitis and hard water

Several studies have associated hard water with an increased risk of eczema in children and infants1-2. Now, a 2017 study from the UK has found that hard water damages the skin’s natural barrier by increasing its surface pH and thus increasing its susceptibility to irritation. While the study was funded by a water softener company, the information released by the researchers from the University of Sheffield and King’s College London is still interesting. Of note “patients with eczema are much more sensitive to the effects of hard water than people with healthy skin. This increase in sensitivity is associated with a genetic predisposition to a skin barrier defect brought about by mutations in the gene encoding filaggrin. Filaggrin is a structural protein important for the formation of our skin’s barrier to the outside environment.3” Dr. Simon Danby, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular Disease and lead author of the study.

My eczema has been almost 100 percent controlled since I was 12 years old. Or at least, it had been until we moved. Now, I spend my Wednesdays (and Tuesdays, and Fridays, and pretty much all weekdays) trying to scratch my back with a pillow, because while I can apply creams and oils to almost every part of my skin I cannot apply them to my own back. Sadly, my husband works an hour away during the week and cannot help. (Hence the daydreams about oil-spouting showers.)

Finding a solution for symptoms

All dreaming aside, something has to give. We’re all itchy, and I can’t stand it anymore. We don’t have a bathtub so bathing in coconut oil or an oatmeal product is not a viable option. We already use all-natural, eczema-friendly laundry and bath products, and we see a dermatologist semi-regularly. Investing thousands of dollars into a water softener is something we may decide to do, but we haven’t made our minds up just yet.

However, this study did find that using a water softener might help mitigate the damage from hard water. And while I know the study was funded by a water softener company, and thus has the potential for bias, I’m still curious to see what they uncover in their upcoming The Softened Water for Eczema Prevention (SOFTER) trial. A previous trial found little to no statistical benefit for a water softener in regard to atopic dermatitis, but it may be worth noting that parents in the trial group did use less ointment.4 At this point, I’m open to nearly any suggestions. It has to beat scratching with a pillow.

Does hard water irritate your atopic dermatitis?

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