Water softeners are a popular option for dealing with hard water in homes. By removing minerals like calcium and magnesium, water softeners can help prevent buildup and residue on fixtures and make water feel silkier.
But along with these benefits, some people worry whether using a water softener is actually safe and healthy. Since softeners add sodium and remove other minerals, is it possible they could negatively impact your health in some way?
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the key health considerations around water softeners and help you make an informed decision about using one in your home.
How Do Water Softeners Work?
To understand the potential health impacts, it helps to first know what water softeners do.
Water softeners use a process called ion exchange to remove the minerals that make water “hard.” As water passes through a tank containing small resin beads, the calcium and magnesium ions in the water swap places with sodium ions on the beads. This leaves you with soft water containing sodium instead of the hard water minerals.
Once the resin beads become saturated with calcium and magnesium, the softener goes through a regeneration cycle. Salty water flushes through the tank, replacing the calcium and magnesium with sodium. The hard water minerals wash down the drain.
So in summary:
- Water softeners remove calcium and magnesium ions through ion exchange
- Sodium ions take their place, resulting in soft water
- The system regenerates with salt to flush out the hard water minerals
Now that we understand what water softeners do, let’s look at how this could impact your health.
Health Concerns Around Water Softeners
There are three main health areas that use of a water softener could potentially influence:
1. Increased Sodium Intake
One of the main concerns around water softeners is their effect on sodium levels in your water. As described above, softeners work by swapping sodium for the calcium and magnesium.
The more sodium your softener adds, the greater your sodium intake will be from drinking and cooking with softened water. This may raise concerns for those advised to follow a low-sodium diet.
The degree of sodium increase depends on:
- Your tap water’s hardness – The harder your water, the more sodium is needed for softening. Harder water requires more frequent regeneration cycles.
- Your softener settings – Newer models allow adjusting the hardness level. Higher settings remove more hardness minerals but add more sodium.
According to the Water Quality Association, a typical water softener may increase sodium levels by 25-50 mg per liter. For context, that would represent 1-3% of the daily value for sodium per 8 oz glass.
However, newer demand-initiated regeneration softeners only regenerate when needed, minimizing excess sodium addition. And many systems now have user-adjustable settings to optimize sodium levels.
2. Potential Mineral Deficiency
Since water softeners strip out calcium and magnesium, some argue that softened water could cause deficiencies in these important minerals.
Calcium and magnesium both play vital roles in the body. Calcium supports bone health, muscle and nerve function, and your heartbeat. Magnesium aids over 300 enzyme reactions and influences muscle, nerve and heart function.
However, studies suggest water softeners are unlikely to cause deficiencies on their own. Even when drinking softened water, you still get minerals from your diet. Unless you have an already low-calcium or magnesium intake, water softener use is unlikely to cause issues.
To be cautious, pay attention to your overall dietary mineral intake if using a softener. Eat plenty of mineral-rich fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Your doctor can check your blood levels if concerned.
3. Potential Lead Contamination
There are also concerns around water softeners potentially leaching lead from old pipes and plumbing fittings.
This typically occurs when softened water causes corrosion to pipes, joints, and fixtures containing lead. The lead contaminates the water flowing through them.
However, modern water softeners are much less likely to cause these issues.
Current systems use less aggressive salt regeneration and add corrosion inhibitors to prevent lead leaching. As long as your softener meets certification standards, the risk of lead exposure is low.
Having your water independently tested for lead is also recommended whenever installing any new treatment system. This will reveal if you have any risks specific to your plumbing system.
Potential Health Benefits of Using a Water Softener
While the health concerns around water softeners are often highlighted, there are also some ways that they could benefit your health.
1. Soft Water for Skin and Hair
Softer water containing less calcium and magnesium creates a silkier feeling during showers and baths. This softened water can moisturize both skin and hair.
The minerals in hard water interact with soap and shampoo, preventing them from lathering properly and rinsing away fully. They leave behind a sticky residue.
Softened water allows soap to rinse cleanly. This helps keep skin and hair feeling smoother and less dry. Those prone to dry skin may notice particular improvements after installing a water softener.
2. Fewer Scaling and Plumbing Issues
Water softeners prevent the buildup of mineral scale on fixtures, pipes and appliances. Scale buildup can harbor bacteria, block plumbing, and reduce efficiency.
Without soft water, scale slowly accumulates. Over time, this can lead to major home plumbing issues and costly repairs.
By preventing scale, water softeners help avoid these problems. They may also extend the life of water-using appliances like dishwashers. The prevention of scale and corrosion is a smart preventative health measure.
3. Improved Cleaning Power of Soaps and Detergents
Soft water allows soaps, detergents and cleaning agents to form more suds and lather better. This improves their cleaning performance.
In hard water, minerals react with surfactants, limiting sudsing. More soap or detergent is required to get things clean.
With softened water, normal amounts of soaps, detergents and cleaners will be more effective. This makes cleaning easier and improves sanitation and hygiene in bathrooms and kitchens.
4. Potential Protection for Infants
Some doctors recommend using softened water to prepare powdered baby formula. The minerals in hard tap water can combine with compounds in formula to form insoluble particles.
These tiny particles are difficult for infants to digest and may irritate the gut lining. In some cases, they could potentially even block nutrient absorption.
Using softened water prevents these hard water mineral interactions when mixing formula. This ensures babies get the full nutrients and makes the formula gentler on sensitive digestive systems.
Are Water Softeners Safe During Pregnancy?
Many expecting mothers wonder if it’s safe to use a water softener during pregnancy. Here’s what the research says so far on risks versus benefits:
- Sodium levels – Higher sodium from a softener may be a concern for those advised to limit sodium during pregnancy for blood pressure reasons. Checking with your doctor is recommended.
- Lead exposure – Modern softeners themselves are unlikely to cause lead issues. Testing your tap water for lead is important however whenever pregnant, regardless of softener use.
- Magnesium levels – Small magnesium reductions from soft water are unlikely to be problematic given dietary intake. But optimal magnesium is important during pregnancy, so this should be monitored.
- Safer cleaning – Softened water may help pregnant women keep their home cleaner and reduce chemical use, which is advantageous.
Overall, there is no definitive evidence that softeners themselves are unsafe during pregnancy. But consulting your doctor helps evaluate your individual mineral needs and any special sodium restrictions you may have.
Water Softener Alternatives
If you have concerns about sodium, mineral levels, or just want to avoid a water softener, what are your options? Here are a few alternative approaches:
- Install a water filtration system – Filtration using carbon blocks can remove some hardness and improve taste/odor but will not fully soften water.
- Use boiling or distillation – Boiling water for 15-20 minutes per gallon will eliminate some hardness-causing minerals through precipitation. Distillation can also purify water.
- Try magnetic or electronic devices – Some devices claim to use magnetism or electrical currents to change the mineral structure of hard water. However, effectiveness claims are often unfounded.
- Use bottled or delivered soft water – Having softened water delivered is an option, though the environmental impact and cost over time may be high.
- Try chelating agents or water conditioners – Adding compounds like salts of EDTA can bind and sequester hardness minerals but may be inefficient compared to a true ion exchange softener.
- Improve diet – Eating more magnesium-rich foods may help compensate for mineral losses from drinking softened water long-term.
Making an Informed Decision on Water Softener Use
When weighing whether to use a water softener in your home, here are some key considerations:
- Get your water tested – Know your starting water hardness and sodium levels before installing a softener. This provides a baseline.
- Evaluate your mineral intake – Check that your diet provides enough calcium, magnesium and other essential minerals so that softened water does not cause deficiencies.
- Assess your sodium needs – Those on low-sodium diets for health reasons should consult their doctor before using a softener. Monitor sodium.
- Choose the right softener – Opt for an on-demand, NSF-certified system with user-adjustable settings. Avoid excessive water softening.
- Test for lead – Test your water for lead as a precaution whenever introducing any new treatment system. Address any risks found.
- Consider alternatives – If avoiding a true softener, filtration, boiling, bottled water, and conditioning agents are alternatives with their own pros and cons to weigh.
The Bottom Line
Overall, the potential health impacts of water softeners are unlikely to be significant for most people when the system is properly maintained and dietary mineral intake is adequate.
For those with specific sodium restrictions or mineral deficiencies, extra precautions should be taken and alternatives considered. Consulting your doctor can help determine if a water softener aligns with your needs and health status.
With a quality, certified system and the right water testing and monitoring, most households can safely benefit from softened water’s pleasant properties and protection against the hassles of hard water. But getting informed beforehand is the wise approach.
Key Takeaways on Water Softener Safety
- Water softeners increase sodium levels but unlikely to a major degree, especially with new demand-initiated models.
- Calcium/magnesium loss from soft water not typically problematic with an adequate diet.
- Modern softeners less likely to leach lead than old systems when standards are met.
- Benefits like silkier skin/hair, cleaner water, fewer plumbing issues. But alternative options also exist.
- Check with doctor if concerned about sodium, minerals, or if pregnant.
- Testing water beforehand and monitoring diet/intake levels recommended.