Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, affects one in five children and one in twelve adults in the UK. The condition means the skin doesn’t produce or retain the same amount of fats and oils needed for the maintenance of healthy skin, causing it to become dehydrated. The lack of moisture means the skin is less effective as a protective barrier, leading to external irritants such as soap or certain clothing material amongst others to cause the skin to become red and inflamed.
People with eczema will typically try to alter certain lifestyle factors to alleviate their symptoms, although sometimes it can be hard to find the contributing factor/s. However, new evidence means new factors are being discovered more and more regularly, and now the latest definitive factor has emerged: water hardness.
For several years, it has been theorised that hard water negatively affects eczema – both in terms of causing and exacerbating the condition. This theory has recently been backed up by research from the University of Sheffield which has found a link between exposure to ‘hard’ water and this irritable (in more ways than one!) skin condition.
What are the Causes of Eczema?
There are several types of eczema, with the most common being atopic dermatitis, most commonly exhibited in children. ‘Atopic’ mean ‘sensitive to allergens’, which is reflected by the fact that eczema is often present in people who suffer from other allergies such as asthma and hay fever.
Eczema is a genetic condition that also has certain external triggers including soaps, detergents, stress and the weather. Genetic causes have been linked to a mutation in the filaggrin gene (FLG) which can be attributed to a loss of skin barrier resistance.
Up to recently, environmental factors have been primarily understood to be air pollution, high temperatures, food, laundry detergent and certain clothing materials but the link between eczema and water hardness has never been fully understood….until a 2017 study shed new light on this link.
The Link Between Water Hardness and Eczema
Water ‘hardness’ is essentially the number of minerals such as calcium and magnesium carbonate found in your municipal water supply. Hard water, most commonly found in the South East of the country, is not known to have a negative effect on health, although it can leave an unsightly chalky deposit on appliances and cause them to perform less efficiently.
Ever since a 1998 study in Nottinghamshire found a correlation between eczema and hard water in primary school children, there has been a suspicion, without hard evidence, of the link between the type of water people wash in and eczema. The 2017 study from Sheffield University expanded on this by looking at the effects of washing using hard water on both people with and without the condition and across a number of different age groups.
The controlled experiment required participants to wash using hard and soft water with the same type of soap each type, measuring the effects of each on their skin.
The study found a direct link between washing with hard water and eczema, primarily due to the fact that the hard water was less-effective in washing away the soap from the skin, thus dehydrating and irritating the skin. Interestingly, this result was not only seen in existing sufferers of the condition but also people who had no previous symptoms but did have the FLG gene mutation, meaning it could well be one of the first causes of the condition for people who are genetically predisposed to it.
How to Limit the Effects
As mentioned above eczema is a potentially lifelong condition that can cause years of suffering. People with the condition have to work hard to identify and avoid the triggers for flare-ups – and now, thanks to research from the University of Sheffield, a new trigger can be conclusively added to the list – washing in hard water.
If parents with a history of eczema who live in a hard water area want to limit the effects on their children, they may well consider installing a domestic water softener – a device that uses a process called ion exchange to reduce the amount of calcium and magnesium in the water. Similarly, extreme sufferers of the condition whose quality of life is affected by regular flare-ups, may also consider a softener for their homes.
In conclusion, thanks to the extensive research that built on earlier studies, a clear link has been found between hard water and eczema – both for existing and potential new sufferers.
Whilst most people grow out of the condition, extreme cases; or those in young children who may find the condition particularly hard to manage; may require the use of a domestic water softener to limit their eczema from flaring up.