9 Best Products That Fixed My Damaged Curls

Before moving to Philadelphia two years ago, I had no idea that “tap water” was on the list of things that could be damaging my hair. Heat-styling? Sure. Furiously dragging a comb through knots instead of gently detangling? Absolutely. But once I moved to Philly, the haircare rules I’d always lived by suddenly shifted—because here, tap water is The Enemy. Here, the water is hard, way harder than the New York City water I grew up using, and it slowly turned my curly hair into a dry, damaged shell of its former glorious self.

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But perhaps most annoying was that I didn’t even realize what was happening at first. Hard water isn’t necessarily an overnight evil—it can take weeks or months of quietly messing with your hair before you’re one day left with more breakage than a month’s worth of blow-drying without heat protectant. So to save you from the same potential hair hell I went through, I chatted with an expert and broke down exactly what hard water does to your hair, how to identify it, and, most importantly, how the hell to fix it fast. Let’s discuss.

What even is hard water?

Hard water is a life-ruiner. It ruins lives. It’s also water that’s naturally higher in minerals, which can bind to your hair and weigh it down, dry it out, and leave it damaged. “Magnesium and calcium are two of the most common and abundant metals found in tap water across the world,” says celebrity hairstylist and Ouidad brand ambassador Irinel de Leon (she also does Chrissy Teigen’s hair, so we must trust her). “When water sources contain high volumes of those two metals, it’s often called hard water,” she says.

If you tend to get white buildup around your faucets or shower heads, or if you have especially difficult soap scum in your bathroom, you likely have hard water (though, if you’re unsure, you can easily confirm with some hard water test strips). Hard water can be damaging to all hair types, but it’s especially disastrous to folks that have fine hair (which is already prone to buildup) and/or curly hair (which is already naturally dry).

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What does hard water do to hair?

Uh, very mean things. Though the effects can depend on your hair type, hard water buildup usually leads to hair that’s flat, lifeless, greasy, and dry, along with a host of scalp issues. Oh-so-many scalp issues. “Hard water can coat curly hair with a film of mineral buildup that leaves the hair feeling filmy, straw-like, and also stretches curls, causing them to go limp,” says de Leon. “And the same buildup can happen to your scalp—the follicles can become blocked, which affects hair growth and the integrity of your curl pattern.” And, let me tell you, her assessment is spot on for what happened to my curls.

I’m kind of known for my hair—in social circles, not like, on the internet—and the shift in the health of my hair due to hard water buildup was a shock to my system. It took less than six months for my once shiny, healthy curls to crisp up into bone-dry Barbie hair, no matter how much conditioner I slathered onto my scalp. I used to be a ride-or-die diffuser girl; I blow-dried my hair religiously whenever I got out of the shower. But even coated in heat protectant, my hair began snapping and breaking as soon as I plopped it into my diffuser. Air-dried, my curls were also awful: undefined, crispy at the ends, and flat on top, all thanks to mineral buildup.

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How do I stop the madness?

Thankfully, there are ways to fight the scourge that is hard water. Installing a water softener is one option, but it’s pricey and, according to my research AKA moving into my parents’ house where they already have a water softener…it’s not always effective on its own. Instead, try installing a water-filtering shower head, like the T3 Source Mineral Water Filter or the Pure Action Water Softener Shower Head, which can help filter out some of the harsh minerals as you cleanse.

On the opposite end of the cash-money spectrum is a simple DIY approach that comes highly recommended: apple cider vinegar (or ACV, if you’re ~cool~). “I always encourage apple cider vinegar rinses if you’re experiencing dryness and dullness,” says de Leon. Why? Because ACV is filled with natural acids that help to dissolve product buildup while also soothing irritated, itchy scalps. It’s the ultimate gentle clarifier, making it perfect for curly hair types (and, no, you won’t smell like a salad after you rinse it out).

Here’s her insanely easy recipe to try:

1. Mix one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar with two cups of water in a shower-safe cup (no glass, please!)
2. After shampooing
, tip your head back and pour it over your hair, massaging it into your scalp
3. Let it sit for 2-3 minutes
, then wash out and follow with conditioner. Repeat weekly or as needed.

      Um…what about products, tho?

      If you’re less DIY savvy and more into just purchasing stuff that works, I gotchu. If you’ve got curls, steer clear of straight-up, sulfate-filled clarifying shampoos, which can strip your hair of literally all its natural oily goodness. “You’ll want to stick with something that’s moisturizing,” cautions de Leon.

      Look for curl-friendly clarifying, chelating, or demineralizing shampoos (i.e., formulas with “EDTA” or “phytic acid” in the ingredients list that help remove mineral and/or chlorine buildup), along with products that help balance your scalp’s PH—usually a formula with apple cider vinegar as its hero ingredient. Some excellent options to start with:

      My hard-water ~journey~

      As a curly girl who sticks to a firm once-a-week washday routine, I’ve found a balance between scalp scrubs (obsessed with Love Beauty Planet’s Shampoo Scrub) that manually exfoliate mineral buildup on my scalp without stripping my hair, along with gentle clarifying treatments like DevaCurl’s Build Up Buster Cleansing Serum. For styling, I stick to lightweight creams (like Ouidad Advanced Climate Control Styling Cream) and oils (like Briogeo Don’t Despair Strengthening Oil) that won’t add inches of product build-up on top of the minerals and calcium that continue to live rent-free on my scalp.

      Though my curls still haven’t fully returned to NYC-water normal, they began to look shinier and healthier after just one wash day of using hard water-specific products (which also helped confirm that the minerals on my scalp were, in fact, ruining my curl situation). Nowadays, I wash my hair twice a week and don’t step foot into a bathtub or shower without being sure there is a hair mask within reach because, unfortunately, when you live with hard water, you have to constantly combat it. But that’s the price I guess I’ll have to pay to live in the city of brotherly love.

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