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Can softened water help eczema?

Is it something in the water? Hard water has long been suspected as a leading contributor to eczema and other sensitive skin conditions.

Now that link is proven

The following is an extract from the Sheffield University website:

Hard water damages our protective skin barrier and could contribute to the development of eczema, a new study has shown.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield and King’s College Hospital, London have discovered that exposing the skin to hard water damages the skin barrier – which is our defence against outside threats such as bacteria or sunburn – and increases the sensitivity of the skin to potential irritants found in everyday wash products such as soap or washing powder.

Hard water contains high levels of calcium and magnesium ions that bind to surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) – which act as detergents or wetting agents – making them insoluble, so they precipitate onto the skin.

Skin pH is normally acidic but hard water has high alkalinity which means it can raise the skin surface pH. A shift towards alkaline pH disturbs the skin’s natural function as a physical barrier and leaves it prone to colonization by potentially pathogenic bacteria which can cause infection.

Lead author of the study, Dr Simon Danby from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular Disease, said: “By damaging the skin barrier, washing with hard water may contribute to the development of eczema – a chronic skin condition characterised by an intensely itchy red rash.

“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. Up to half of all people with eczema carry a filaggrin gene.”

He said: “This new study reveals the mechanism by which calcium and magnesium ions in hard water, surfactants, and filaggrin interact to damage the skin barrier unlocking new information about how exposure to hard water could potentially contribute to the development of eczema.”

Symptoms of eczema (also called ‘atopic eczema’ or ‘atopic dermatitis’) include inflamed, dry skin and often secondary skin infections, which can affect any part of the body and every aspect of a person’s life – both physically and emotionally.

Harvey Water Softeners eczema study

The new study, which was funded by Harvey Water Softeners, is published in the Journal of Investigate Dermatology. The team of researchers examined whether removing the calcium and magnesium ions using an ion-exchange water softener could mitigate the negative effects of hard water on the skin. They found that using a water softener reduces the harmful effects of surfactants, potentially decreasing the risk of developing eczema.

Co-senior author of the study, Dr Carsten Flohr from the St John’s Institute of Dermatology at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London, said: “One in five children and one in 12 adults in the UK suffer from eczema, costing the NHS well over £500 million annually.

“It is during the first few days and months of life that our skin is most susceptible to damage and most at risk of developing eczema.

“For that reason, we are now embarking on a pilot trial to investigate whether the installation of a domestic water softener around the time of birth can prevent skin barrier breakdown and eczema in those living in hard water areas.”

The Softened Water for Eczema Prevention (SOFTER) trial was undertaken by Dr Flohr and his team from King’s College London and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in collaboration with the University of Sheffield team and colleagues from the University of Dundee, the Centre of Evidence-Based Dermatology at Nottingham University, Imperial College London, the National Institute for Health (Bethesda, USA), and Amsterdam Medical Centre.

Additional information

The paper, "The Effect of Water Hardness on Surfactant Deposition Following Washing and Subsequent Skin Irritation in Atopic Dermatitis Patients and Healthy Controls" is published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. You can read that paper here:  DOI: 10.10.16/j.jid2017.08.037

A survey of 305 people with severe eczema performed by Allergy UK revealed that more than 70 per cent reported feeling depressed, 73 per cent reported difficulties with self-esteem, and 58 per cent said that it impacts their personal relationships. In addition, 73 per cent of respondents stated that their severe eczema impacted negatively on their social life, with six in 10 stating that it made them want to stay indoors.

The average number of sick days taken per person in the UK is 6.5 a year. Results from the Allergy UK survey suggested that 24 per cent of people with severe eczema miss more than six days a year due to their condition alone and 15 per cent reported taking more than 16 days off a year.

The University of Sheffield

With almost 27,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2017 and was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education in 2014. In the last decade, it has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

Download the full clinical study


Read the University of Sheffield's press release

Important notes

Eczema is a complicated condition with signs and symptoms that are different for everyone. A water softener may unfortunately not be the answer in some cases.

Customer Reviews relating to Eczema

For many years, customer feedback has told us that the installation of a water softener has been transformational, in most cases.  

It is, however, important to note that a water softener cannot be guaranteed to work in every case, but here are two clients of ours who have recently fed back their experiences to us via a review site:


Customer Experience No. 1:

Gary Luxumburg-Chalon, 11 August 2018 - Trustpilot Review

Simply amazing product which has changed my life!

After many years of suffering with eczema we decided to invest in a water softener after this was recommended to us by a friend who said this could improve my skin condition.

We called Hydroworks and Laurence came to our home and did a comprehensive demonstration and showed us the difference between hard and soft water. We were really happy with his personalised approach and therefore we decided to go with Hydroworks to complete the installation.

The installation was completed professionally and without any disruption. It took a few weeks for me to notice a difference in the feel of the water but I guess this was due to the limescale flushing through and out of the system.

After about three weeks the difference was clearly noticeable and having a bath made the water feel silky and smooth.

After about six weeks I started to notice an improvement in my skin and my eczema started to clear up. Due to the difference in now having soft water I am not able to manage my eczema through only having to use moisturisers which means I am no longer reliant of potent steroid creams and I never thought this could be possible!

Whenever we stay away at hotels I immediately feel the difference in the water quality and the adverse effect this has on my skin. I would defiantly recommend a water softener to other people with skin complaints and I cannot recommend Hydroworks enough due to the personal service which we received from Laurence and his team.

Thank you for making such a difference to me and for helping to improve my skin condition!


Date of experience: August 11, 2018




Customer Experience No. 2:
Nicole Sandford, 19 August 2022 - Trustpilot Review

Water Softener Installation

A God send and no exaggeration!

After being with a big company (X) for over 4 years, I was very much disappointed and let down by their poor workmanship, terrible customer service and exorbitant prices.

I came across Hydroworks when trying to have a water softener installed in my current property. Something that a big company like Harveys should have been able to have managed, but whom seemed incapable or unwilling to do - and so after 6 months of wasting my time I took my business elsewhere and this was how I came across Hydroworks.

Laurence from Hydroworks came out and did a property survey and gave me a quote straightaway. I was so excited and relieved that the company were willing to try and provide me with a solution to my less than straightforward installation. Laurence was very patient and showed a genuine appreciation for my previous experiences and ongoing needs. He took time out to work out a viable solution and went through explaining all aspects in detail to me. I was very reassured and confident that he could make it work. I was provided with a reasonable quote and on the day, Jay came out and undertook the installation in a very timely and professional manner. Jay's knowledge and experience in the field, meant that he was able to turn what was initially going to be a tricky and prolonged installation, into a much simpler and less convoluted process.

A water softener is essential for my family's needs, as we suffer with eczema and have found that without the softener, the flares are very bad and in truth unbearable to live with. I cannot give credence to just how important a water softener is to me and my family and just how much better our lives are now that the softener has been installed. The customer service, from Bradley at Reception, to Laurence and Jay has been the greatest! I would recommend this company to anyone seeking to have a water softener system installed. They are miles apart from the likes of Harveys and have a genuine care for their customers. They are also very economical (so important in the current crisis). I only wish I could have found them sooner, could have saved me a lot of unnecessary costs and headache.

Date of experience: August 19, 2022