Do Water-Softening Showerheads Work? (2024)

Updated on:
January 6, 2024

Water-softening showerheads are advertised as a cheap alternative to a whole-house water softener. 

Unfortunately, if you’ve already purchased a water-softening showerhead, I have bad news for you: Water softening is a complicated process that cannot be performed by a simple water-softener showerhead.

Are you in the mood to bust some myths surrounding water-softener showerheads? Here’s how they work and how they stack up against whole-house water softeners.

What Is a Water Softener Showerhead?

A showerhead water softener (or showerhead filter) is a compact filter that connects directly to a showerhead and, depending on the type of filter, removes (or is supposed to remove) specific compounds from your shower water. In contrast to whole-house water-softener systems, which can soften water by eliminating up to 99% of calcium and magnesium ions from hard water using ion-exchange technology, the majority of showerhead water softeners simply filter out excess chlorine from hard water.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, chlorine inhalation can cause respiratory issues, including shortness of breath. Although water-softener showerheads are pretty good at removing chlorine in water—which is great if that’s all you need—they are highly inefficient at removing calcium and magnesium ions in hard water.

A showerhead filter functions similarly to a car’s catalytic converter. Chlorine is transformed into harmless chloride inside the showerhead filter. This chemical process within the showerhead filter is known scientifically as “reduction-oxidation,” or “redox” for short. 

During a redox process, electrons are transferred between molecules, generating new elements. This reaction converts free chlorine to a chloride element that is too big to evaporate or absorb through the skin.

Any product claiming to be a water-softener showerhead is basically a compact water filter with no actual water-softening capabilities. A whole-house water-softening system uses a five-stage softening process to remove magnesium and calcium ions in hard water. Due to their compact nature, showerhead filters can’t replicate this process.

Types of Water-Softener Showerheads

In general, there are two types of shower filtration systems: showerhead water filters and in-line shower filters.

Showerhead water filters

Showerhead filters, which you use in place of your existing showerhead, have a built-in filter. To install a showerhead filter, unplug your current showerhead and screw the new one into your shower’s water line. These systems are available with both standard showerheads and detachable spray nozzles. If you want to upgrade your old showerhead for a more attractive design, higher water pressure, or more spray settings, a showerhead filter is an excellent way to combine those upgrades with cleaner water.

In-line shower filters

In-line shower filters attach to the water line and allow you to continue using your current showerhead. They are designed to be fitted between the shower arm (the water supply pipe) and the showerhead. This choice is appropriate if you prefer your current showerhead’s design, water pressure, or spray features.

How Do Water-Softener Showerheads Work?

Showerheads that claim to soften water employ a variety of filtering technologies:

Kinetic Degradation Fluxion (KDF Filter)

Kinetic Degradation Fluxion is a common filter medium composed of granular zinc alloys that exchange electrons for contaminants in the water. This exchange results in the chemical transformation of chemical compounds and other contaminants into innocuous substances that do not irritate or exacerbate skin conditions. 

KDF treatment media falsely claims to have “softening” capabilities. It is most effective at removing chlorine. KDF does NOT eliminate calcium and magnesium ions from your water supply. However, some KDF dealers (in an effort to boost sales) claim that it protects pipes and fixtures against scale buildup. 

Obviously, a filter attached to your showerhead will have no effect on your pipes. Only a whole-house water-softening system can effectively eliminate the mineral buildup caused by calcium and magnesium ions in hard water.

Activated carbon filter

Activated carbon filters are tiny bits of carbon that have been processed to be highly porous, often in the form of granular or powdered blocks. Because of their large surface area, these carbon filters can absorb much more chemicals and allergens than typical carbon filters.

Organic chemicals in water react chemically with activated carbon through absorption, causing them to adhere to the filter.

As effective as they are at removing harmful chemicals from your shower water, activated carbon filters cannot remove microbes, sodium, nitrates, fluoride, and hardness minerals such as calcium and magnesium. 

Vitamin C media filter

Despite the growing trend of showering with vitamin doused water, vitamin water filtration is not intended to protect against hard water and its detrimental effects. Instead, a Vitamin C showerhead and associated filter allegedly neutralize harmful chemicals in water and promote healthy hair and skin by adding Vitamin C powder to the shower stream.

Some Vitamin C media filters have multiple layers of microfiber sediment filters that can remove rust and other contaminants from water. However, since they lack the capability to run an ion-exchange process, these showerhead softeners cannot eliminate calcium and magnesium ions in hard water.

According to the American Council on Science and Health, the only significant benefit of Vitamin C filters is that they may help build collagen, which in turn prevents hair and skin from becoming dry and flaky. However, numerous studies indicate that the added Vitamin C has a negligible impact on the body.

Ion-exchange filter

There aren’t many water-softener showerhead filter brands that claim to fully utilize the ion-exchange process, and even if they can, such claims may be bogus. 

When water passes through this shower filter, calcium and magnesium ions are attracted to and adhere to plastic resin beads due to their opposing electrical charges. After a few showers, the resin must be “regenerated” by adding a simple mixture of saltwater (brine solution) into the filter. 

However, this water-softener showerhead is more of a gimmick aimed at duping customers to increase sales.

To completely soften hard water, it must be passed through a large tank of brine solution. Initially, this solution can soften water, but it would need continuous regeneration to discharge collected minerals and prepare for the next water-softening session. This process cannot be reproduced in a water-softener showerhead. 

Are Water-Softener Showerheads Worth the Hype?

I’ve been asked this question several times by folks who are dissatisfied after spending a lot of money on different shower filters that don’t provide the desired effects.

To soften water, you need a lot of resin, way more than a hand-held shower filter could ever hold. Even if the resin were placed inside a filter cartridge, it would be such a small quantity that it would only soften the water for a few minutes before it would never soften water again, since it wouldn’t be able to regenerate.

Many consumers keen to soften water cheaply have been misled by advertisers’ use of keywords and phrases like “soft water,” “soft water effects,” “soft skin,” and so on. However, it’s all smoke and mirrors. Mere filters attached to your showerhead cannot soften water.

Do You Even Need Soft Water?

So, showerhead water softeners are phony, but your water is still hard. You may be tempted to give up, especially if you’re on a tight budget, but that’s a bad idea.

Despite the fact that the majority of American homes have access to water of higher quality than the rest of the globe, many Americans nevertheless live in areas with hard water. Hard water simply refers to the quantity of dissolved calcium and magnesium molecules. However, other dissolved metals such as aluminum, barium, strontium, iron, zinc, and manganese may also result in hard water.

These minerals are especially prevalent in groundwater and areas with both limestone and gypsum deposits. While hard water is usually not a health threat (depending on the level of hardness) and many people don’t have problems as a result, it can still be a nuisance. 

Hard water’s effects on the home

Hard water can decrease the efficiency of home appliances and pipes, leave mineral deposits on dishware, and discolor sinks and toilets.

If your home has hard water, stains are the least of your concerns. If left untreated, hard water scale and soap scum can eventually clog your drains and pipes as it travels through your plumbing system.

As more hard water flows through the pipes, the soap scum will eventually mineralize into solid blockages that can slow drains, interfere with garbage disposals, and clog toilets. Clogged plumbing not only poses health risks in your house, but it can also damage your pipework, leading to issues like pinhole leaks and joinery gaps. 

Mineral scale can also build up inside your expensive home appliances, reducing their efficiency and costing you more money in the long run.

As more pressure builds up inside the pipes, you’ll start having more serious issues like mold development, and even flooding inside the home. 

Consider installing a whole-house water-softening system to save both money and time. Safeguard your pipes and avoid plumbing issues by filtering and softening water before it enters your house.

Hard water’s effects on skin

Hard water minerals react with fatty acids in your soap, shampoo, body wash, and shaving cream.

Positively charged calcium ions replace sodium ions in your shampoo or soap in this chemical process, creating scum and lime scale deposits on your skin and hair. That’s correct. If you have hard water, the same unpleasant soap scum you’re always seeing in the shower is also on your body.

The simplest method to tell whether you have hard water issues in the shower is to observe how effectively you lather up. Hard water makes it difficult to produce a nice, soapy lather in the shower. It is much simpler to make a frothy lather from your soap and shampoo when you have soft water.

Mineral and soap accumulation on your skin can cause it to appear and feel unhealthy over time. The soapy residue that hard water leaves on your skin causes it to become dry and irritated. The scum not only absorbs moisture from your skin, but it also clogs pores, which can cause acne.

If you have sensitive skin, you may experience increased skin irritation while showering in hard water. People with sensitive skin may experience discomfort just by wearing clothes that have been washed in hard water. People with chronic skin conditions, such as eczema and dermatitis, are particularly vulnerable to hard water. They can experience more frequent or severe flare-ups of their symptoms.

Hard water’s effects on hair

When minerals from hard water build up in your hair, they can make it look and feel very different. The weight of the residue described above can make your hair look dull and lifeless. Also, the minerals in hard water take moisture out of your hair, which is why it gets dry and frizzy. If your hair is hard to manage when you wash it at home but gets better when you take a shower at a vacation hotel or the gym, the hardness of the water in your home could be to blame.

In the worst cases, hard water can even cause hair loss. This scary effect happens when calcium deposits build up on the scalp and cause hair strands to break off at the roots.

So How Do You Effectively Soften Water in the Shower?

The most efficient method for softening shower water is to install a whole-house water softener. With a whole-house water softener, every drop of water that flows into your house is soft and free of damaging minerals.

Unfortunately, water-softening systems can be expensive. The national average cost to install a whole-house water-softening system is around $3,000. But don’t worry! There are cheaper alternatives.

Even though whole-house water-softening systems are costly to install, it may be worthwhile to invest in a system with an established track record of durability.

Benefits of Whole-House Water Softeners

Apart from supplying extremely clean tap water free of hardness minerals, water softeners provide the following benefits:

Low energy bill

When weighing the benefits and drawbacks of water softeners, lower energy consumption is one of the most prominent advantages. First, soft water enhances the exchange efficiency of your water heater. Second, you will need less water in the shower to effectively clean your skin and hair.

Cleaner household items

Calcium and magnesium ions in hard water discolor household items such as clothing, silverware, glasses, sinks, and appliances. This makes them quite ugly and increases the amount of cleaning you need to do. A whole-house water softener cuts down on the time you spend cleaning so you can spend more time scrolling on your phone.

Lower water usage 

The harder your water is, the more water you have to use, thanks to scale buildup and slow, clogged appliances. You may be amazed by how much less water you use after installing a water softener.

Stain-free car washes

Car enthusiasts have no doubt noticed a chalky residue on their prized possession after one wash. Hard water wrecks the car’s paint job and dulls the car’s overall appearance. It’s best to wash your automobile with soft water since it doesn’t include any of the contaminants of hard water.

Longer-lasting appliances

Layers of calcium and magnesium gradually form within various water-using appliances, such as water heaters, washing machines, and dishwashers. Even the filtered water dispenser in your refrigerator. 

This affects the performance of these appliances and significantly limits their life-span. Soft water helps to prevent clogging from the accumulation of these minerals, extending their longevity.

Better-tasting water

Hard water has a distinct flavor. It has a salty, sour taste and a little odor as well. Through an ion-exchange mechanism, water softeners replace these ions with tasteless and odorless sodium ions. This produces tasteless and odorless water that is suitable for consumption.

Better hair and skin

Hard water dehydrates skin and hair. Additionally, it develops a film on skin and hair that is a risk to personal hygiene. After installing a water softener, you will find it much simpler to moisturize and preserve the cleanliness and appearance of your skin and hair.

Common Types of Water Softeners

There are three common residential water-softening systems: sodium water softeners, potassium-chloride water softeners, and reverse-osmosis filtration systems.

Let’s have a closer look at each one:

Sodium water softeners

Sodium-based water-softening systems are the most common residential water filtering systems available. They are useful in eliminating calcium and magnesium ions from hard water.

Ion exchange technology transforms “hard” water into “soft” water in sodium water-softening systems. Positively charged hard water ions pass through a resin bed made of negatively charged polystyrene beads. They attach to these beads, freeing the water of the minerals. The resin bed is then flushed by a sodium solution called brine in a process called regeneration and sent down the drain.

Potassium-chloride water-softener systems

A potassium-chloride water softener removes harsh minerals from hard water using potassium chloride. It undergoes the same ion-exchange process as a sodium water-softening system, except potassium is delivered into the water rather than sodium.

Potassium is an electrolyte that aids in maintaining normal blood pressure, which is a benefit of adding potassium to water. However, if you have a medical problem, such as diabetes or heart disease, you should consult your doctor before converting your household to potassium-enriched water.

Some people, especially those with high blood pressure or other health limitations worsened by sodium, prefer potassium-chloride water softeners to those that use sodium. Some even report the water tastes better.

Reverse-osmosis filtration systems

A reverse-osmosis filtration system is one of the most effective residential water filtration systems. It can remove up to 99% of contaminants, including calcium and magnesium, microorganisms and other dangerous substances, and unpleasant smells and odors.

Whole-house reverse-osmosis systems are available, but uncommon. The most common setup is a whole-house water softener, either sodium or potassium chloride, and a point-of-use reverse-osmosis system for drinking, usually in the kitchen. 

Final Thoughts

While a water-softener showerhead may seem like a worthwhile investment, in practice, it is not effective at removing calcium and magnesium. Due to the complexity of the water-softening process, even a high-quality showerhead from a respected brand will only soften your water for a limited period of time.

By installing a whole-house water softener, you’ll not only be able to keep all hazardous materials from your home’s water supply, but you’ll also have clean drinking water, your water-using appliances and piping will be free of limescale, and you can finally enjoy that well-deserved shower at the end of the day without worrying about dry skin and hair.

Be sure to read my review of the best water softeners to choose the best one for your home and family.

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Harold Calkins

I agree that water softening shower filters cannot soften the water. I am a retired plumber and worked in a hard water area for decades. I have used KDF-based filters in certain applications but I have never seen the claim that the material softens water. Can you explain this claim?

James Layton

KDF does NOT soften water. The internet is full of misinformation, often created by people who don’t understand the science behind what they read in studies and manufacturer data. KDF was found to modify the way calcium reacts in hot water industrial process. Normally in hot water reactions the hardness minerals form a pesky scale that damages the equipment. KDF was found to inhibit the scale formation by forcing the calcium to stay in the water and not form solid scale on the equipment. This is in no way the same as water softening. Calcium is not removed from the industrial process water by KDF. If you want soft water, a water softener is the way to go.