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The Shocking Truth about Vancouver Water and Hair Wellness

Published: 17/Jul/2014     
Brassy haircolour? It's probably the water!

Brassy haircolour? It’s probably the water!

This is an issue that I have been dealing with for years, and I’ve finally decided to come out and say something because it seems nobody else is. The truth is that there is a residue in everyone’s hair from the tap water in Vancouver, and sadly it doesn’t seem to be helped by filters. I’m extremely concerned about the number of complaints including:

-Noticeable metallic-smelling buildup on hair

-Greenish, brassy or rusty tint on blondes and redheads

-Ashy tint on rich red browns

-Scalp disorders such as acne and fungal infections

-Loss of volume, lifeless hair

-Extreme dryness regardless of quality of care

…And many other complaints! I’ve done some research and found that Vancouver water contains all sorts of dissolved metals in addition to residues from a triple-disinfection process using ozone, chlorine and soda ash. This may or may not be contributing to your hair and scalp issues, but there are so many complaints from my clients and friends that I feel the water is certainly a factor. I noticed that in the Tricities area there are more colour-related complaints than anywhere else in the Lower Mainland. Is it coincidence that the water turbidity (listed simply as ‘Turbidity” in the chemical analysis) is higher in the Tricities area than anywhere else? I have a platinum blonde, nonsmoker, toning shampoo user in Coquitlam whose hair goes yellow all the time. She is my main indicator of the water quality in that area, as there are some months where her colour is better than others. Again, is it a coincidence that local colour complaints are predictable based on how her colour is doing?

Also, we have a term called ‘West End Blonde” which is that awful rusty shade that even the brightest blondes pick up in older areas of the city, as well as in older homes. The pipes in those areas are older – and the water picks up a lot of residue from those. It doesn’t matter if the pipes in an old building are replaced, because the systems underneath the buildings are left alone. In any case, I receive colour complaints even from those in new homes, so I still feel strongly that the water itself is more to blame than the pipes.

Still, you need to hear my experience in the West End for yourself. I lived in a building where many of the tenants complained to me of greasy scalp, fungal infections, eczema, scalp acne and colour issues. I had painful scalp acne for the entire time I lived there; as well, I developed eczema patches on the insides of my elbows which disappeared within 48 hours of traveling (minimum 2 showers for me) and reappeared within hours of my first shower back in the building. My bleached-white ombre ends went brassy within a few weeks and there was always a metallic smell in my hair, even after a shower. The tub would get blue stains all the time, which apparently is indicative of acidic water. Acidic water breaks down piping and results in a high concentration of dissolved metals that stain your fixtures blue. Also, did you know that although acidic pH is good for your hair strands, it’s terrible for your skin and can exacerbate skin issues such as acne, psoriasis, dandruff and eczema? They replaced the pipes while I was living there, but nothing changed – this led me to conclude that the underground pipes are part of the problem. Now that I live elsewhere, my acne and eczema have cleared up, but my ends still go yellow. Want to know something really interesting? I have 5 clients who have also moved out of that building, and we have noticed an amazing change in their hair and scalp since they left! What was making the water in that building so acidic?

One extremely disturbing story comes from a client who lives in Kitsilano and has an expensive water filter on his shower. His hair has been gradually thinning over the 5 years I’ve been doing his hair, and last year he took an extended vacation to Vancouver Island. When he returned, I was convinced he had started taking Minoxidil or another hair thickening drug: his hair was fluffier, shinier and obviously thicker than I had ever seen! He was taking nothing and had changed nothing other than moving to the Island for a bit. The next time I saw him, his hair had started to thin again and there were many new grey hairs…and we are both convinced it was Vancouver water that was affecting his hair.

The most common complaint is that clients’ hair feels dry and damaged, even if they take great care of it. I found this extremely helpful breakdown of what dissolved minerals in the water do to your hair…and surprise, suprise! They make your hair dry, lifeless, damaged and weighed down. They also contribute to hair loss. Compare this to the chemical analysis of Vancouver’s water, and you have the answer to ALL of your hair complaints.

I could really go on and on, but I want to give you three easy solutions to this problem. Here they are:

-Buy a strong clarifier such as Neutrogena Clarifying Shampoo and crush up 3-7 cheap white aspirin (must be pure acetylsalicylic acid; amount depends on your hair length) and mix together to make a paste. Apply to hair and gently massage through, then leave for 10 minutes. This works best with blondes.

-Ask your colourist to use a clear glaze to seal your hair after every service. This will last a month or so, and will laminate your hair so that damaging metals cannot attach to the hair. I use Paul Mitchell Crystal Clear.

-My personal favourite is the Malibu line of products. I love the Swimmers and Hard Water treatments! Even though Vancouver Water is allegedly soft, the Hard Water treatment makes a noticeable difference. I can also perform an intense 45-minute Malibu clarifying treatment for my clients upon request.

-If you have the means, try washing and rinsing your hair once a week with your Neutrogena or Malibu treatment plus bottled, distilled water. I guarantee you’ll notice a dramatic difference! Distilled water is under $5 for a gallon.

So what do you think? How is your hair feeling? I want to hear your feedback on this issue, so please do contact me and let me know if you have any tips or tricks to pass along, or if you notice anything I haven’t mentioned here.

Stay tuned in the next month for another Shocking Truth post in which I will tackle the ubiquitous and extremely damaging Moroccan Oil line of products!

15 responses to “The Shocking Truth about Vancouver Water and Hair Wellness”

  1. Barb says:

    Hi Victoria. Came across this article as I was researching local water. I used to live in Vancouver, where I experienced some dryness and scalp issues (I’m blonde with highlights…definitely not overprocessed hair). We moved to cetnral Coquitlam a couple of years ago (we renoed the house, but still an older neighbourhood so still had some original pipes and of course the city system). And surprise surprise…within months, my hair turned completely brittle. Pieces literally were breaking off when I touched it. And the back of my scalp was a mess. My hairdresser was aghast…I was quite the topic at the salon. She treated my hair…it felt great after. We changed shampoos to a mild (and very expensive) brand as she thought I might be getting protein overload. She said if it wasn’t the product, then it was likely the water. Within days of the salon treatment, I felt my hair start to dry out again. So I researched. I need to get my water tested to prove out my theory, but I think it has to do mainly with the chlorine in the water. Chlorine is very active in hot water (similar to Wes’ comments) But as a solution, ascorbic acid neutralizes chlorine (and chloromine for those living in White Rock). It is also a good cleanser similar to vinegar (but without the lingering odor). I crush 1/2 a plain 500 MG vitamin C tablet (not chewable, not a capsule) and put it in a water bottle and shake it up. After I shampoo, I rinse a bit with the water. It makes a noticeable difference before applying conditioner. And then I do a final rinse at the end. I don’t use much, just enough to rinse through. It sounds crazy, but it works. It’s a bit of a process, but I don’t shampoo that often so I live with it. My hairdresser is absolutely amazed at how my hair has changed…health, new growth, volume.

    There are vitamin c filters you can put on your shower as well, but I’ve read the filters need to be replaced fairly often so they can get quite expensive. I’m going to try the Sprite filter to see if it makes a difference. Good article here: https://reactual.com/home-and-garden/toiletries/best-shower-filter.html. It seems that chlorine is tricky to remove, so hence the problem with some filtered water not solving the issue.

    The other thing I started using recently is Adam Phllips apple cider shampoo. It has been working really well, and noticing it has helped my scalp even more than just the rinse.

    As another aside, my research of metro Vancouver water shows that they have been slowing increasing the hardness of the water. Average PH has gone from 6.5 to 7.3 (there is a study here: http://www.metrovancouver.org/services/water/quality-facilities/testing-reporting/Pages/default.aspx). So that means some areas may be even higher. High PH is not good for your hair either. I did test our PH, and it was around 6 – 6.5. So that doesn’t appear to be an issue for me.

    I am no expert…just trying to figure out a way to ensure my hair stays on my head and is healthy. Appreciate everyone’s thoughts. And I did buy a water test kit, so if I learn anything from that, I will let you know. I’d like to test before and after I add a filter.

    • victoria says:

      Hi Barb! Oh my goodness, thank you so much for your helpful comment! Thank you! One of my clients had just moved to Coquitlam and although she hasn’t complained of hair trouble yet, I am keeping a careful eye on her hair every time I see her from now on. It will be interesting to find out if she has the same troubles you’ve had. Please let us all know the results of your water test kit. I’m looking forward to them 🙂

  2. D. says:

    Water heaters should NEVER reach the boiling point – 212 F.
    120 F is normal and and 160 will take your skin off. No way water will boil off leaving the minerals at these temperatures. However higher temperatures [well below the boiling point] will cause minerals – calcium and magnesium to come out of solution and form solid deposits. Lowering temperature to 120 F will minimise the problem.
    BTW – temperatures reaching boiling in a hot water tank could cause complete failure of the unit. You would be suffering a much bigger problem than mineral deposit. I have yet to see a hot water tank even capable of reaching boiling…

  3. guest says:

    You’re not totally wrong. I’m a blonde obsessed with getting the perfect tone and also work for a water utility so I know what you’re talking about. I don’t know about Vancouver but typically “soft” water is also characterized as “aggressive” water (search Langlier Index for more info). Basically this means that the water leaches out minerals and impurities from the pipes and then when you have a shower, can deposit them in your hair. It’s not necessarily the supply plant that is the problem, but the pipes between you and the plant. That’s why you will find it more in some areas, usually areas with older pipes and house plumbing. In my experience, the Malibu treatments gave me the best result by far.

    • victoria says:

      Thank you so much for your comment and for letting me know about Malibu! That stuff is the best 🙂

  4. Ligi says:

    Hi…you can try using the vinegar rinse after each shower…it worked pretty well for me here in Toronto..I was experiencing severe hair loss each time I washed my hair n the house used to have my hair like everywhere..just tried the vinegar rinse suspecting hard water n it has reduced my hairfall to almost half in the first shower itself.. hope it just gets better …
    Hope this info helps

  5. Chantell says:

    What about the pink residue that is left behind from our water. I just moved here from Toronto and I have never experienced that in my life. I see it in the tub, dish rack and at times toilet too. It’s not iron. Apparently it’s a bacteria? My hair is flat and lifeless here too. I think something is wrong with the water.

  6. Chantell says:

    Nope it’s got to be something more than that. There is definetly something wrong with Vancouver water. Have you seen the pink residue it leaves behind when it dries? I see it in my dish rack, tub and toilet. I just move here 6 months ago and I have never seen anything like it in my life. I’ve lived in Calgary, and Toronto and it was never an issue. My hair feels greasy here, weighed down, it’s breaking like never before no matter what I do to protect it or whatever shampoo I try. Nothing helps.
    When I go to the island to see family my hair feels better there after just one shower, even my husband notices the difference. Vancouver water is bad!

  7. malathypande@yahoo.com says:

    Thanks for the information. I live in surrey bc and losing my hair noticeably.

  8. Victoria Chemist says:

    I can’t comment on your clients’ hair issues, but I can tell you that your theory doesn’t hold water.

    I appreciate what you’re trying to do – but it helps if you know something about chemistry.

    If you want to read the details of how your water measures up on a weekly basis, check out the city’s website: http://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/drinking-water-monitoring-and-results.aspx it publishes weekly reports. And if you want to compare Vancouver’s water to the rest of the country, most major municipalit’s publish similar reports.

    To start with – water turbidity, pH and hardness are three different measures and caused by different factors. While they are somewhat related, you need to understand that they measure different things.

    Turbidity measures the buildup of bacteria and other biological agents (fungi, etc) in the water. Municipalities in Canada are very strict about the amount of bacteria that they allow. When bacteria levels rise above a certain level, a boil-water advisory is put in effect. As you can see from the reports above, Vanvouver’s water is consistently clean. If you had a turbidity problem, your hair would be the least of your worries. You’d have stomach problems and infections caused by e. Coli. Having travelled to countries where you can’t drink the tap water due to turbidity, it had no effect on my blonde hair.

    Secondly, pH. pH is the measure of the concentration of hydrogen atoms in a substance – in laymans terms, how much of an acid or a base is dissolved in the water. If your water is between 6.5-8 it is considered neutral. If it is not within those limits, it will wreck havoc on your pipes – something that the city is more concerned about than your hair. Another point to clarify – bleach is basic, not acidic. If your water was actually colouring your client’s hair (which is unlikely) it would be due to a base, not an acid.

    Thirdly, water hardness. This is definitely an issue in much of Canada. Water hardness measures the amount of calcium and magnesium that is dissolved in your water – generally measured in parts per million (ppm). The more minerals, the less your soap is able to dissolve, and this CAN absolutely contribute to grimy clothes and dull hair. No question. But Vancouver has some of the softest water in the country – at around 50 ppm. This is very very soft. The daily recommended consumption of calcium is about 1000 mg/ day. To put that into perspective – you would need to drink 20 litres every day just to get the calcium that your body needs. In fact, the softness is a bit of a health issue as residents have to get their calcium and magnesium somewhere else. But the softness is ideal for hair, not to mention for your dishwater and laundry machine. Whatever hair problems you’re having – I guarantee you that if you live in Vancouver, you don’t have hard water.

    Cities like Banff, Calgary and Winnepeg have hard water problems. Vancouver and Victoria, which are at sea level (sea water is soft!) do not. As a practical example, when I lived in Calgary I had to clean the calcium deposits out of my kettle on a monthly basis due to the crusty deposits. Since moving to Victora two years ago, I have never to clean my kettle.

    One more thing. Calcium is a base. It’s the active ingredient in antacids, like tums. If you did have hard water (which you don’t) you can’t also have acidic water. They’re opposites.

    Look – I get that you’re trying to help people with their hair. But check your facts first next time.

    • victoria says:

      Thank you so much for taking time to comment! My theory is more likely to be wrong since I’m not a chemist, although a wrong theory doesn’t negate the problem – and a problem exists for certain. There’s a simple explanation for what could be going on in another comment, so maybe that’s the best idea?

      Thanks also for clarifying the turbidity thing, it’s obviously not the culprit. So I wonder what exactly about the Tricities area water is building up on my clients’ hair more than in any other area in the Lower Mainland? And I wonder why “West End Blonde” happens to literally everyone in the older parts of the city?

      That being said, I want to comment on a couple things that you have miscomprehended. I did not say that the water was colouring my clients’ hair (definitely unlikely). I said that it was a residue causing a colour change. I actually mention this a few times.

      Nowhere in my article do I claim Vancouver’s water is hard – but I do note that a Hard Water clarifying treatment makes a huge difference for the clients who use it. It also removes the buildup causing the colour change.

      I lived in Kingston for 8 years, where the water is hard, and never saw the hair loss or scalp issues that I see in Vancouver. In fact, at my salon we never had problems with our blondes going brassy. I wore platinum chunks in my hair for 2 years (ugh, that trend was horrible) and they stayed white. So I wonder what’s going on?

      Once again, thank you for your response to my article, it must have taken you a long time to write it, and readers of my article are definitely going to appreciate it…but it doesn’t provide any explanation for WHY.

  9. Wes says:

    BC water contains many dissolved minerals. This is due to glacial tilling of the Mountains. Normally it is not very noticeable because it is weak solution. It is also the reason that our vegetables still have nutritional content.

    The problem you are noticing is due to the concentration of these minerals in your hot water tank. i.e. the temperature is set too high, so the water is boiling off and creating concentrate.

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