Could Hard Water Contribute to Infant Eczema?

Health Writer

Credit: Thinkstock

There’s something in the water and it might explain the disproportionate way in which children are affected by eczema. Case in point: some states have nearly double the amount of children diagnosed with the chronic skin condition. And while the overall prevalence rate of eczema in children is roughly 10 percent, it is as high as 18 percent in some states, according to the National Eczema Association.

Recently, researchers have begun homing in on hard water as a possible cause. But before we get into that, it’s important to know that water with high levels of minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, isn’t necessarily bad for your health, and partly helps us meet our dietary needs. Hard water is not toxic and there’s even some evidence it can reduce the risk of heart disease.

However, a new study published by scientists at King’s College in London, has uncovered a possible connection between hard water and eczema in young children.

The study

The study looked at 1,300 three-month-old infants, data on the hardness levels of the water in the children’s households, and local water supplies. In cross-examining this information, researchers hoped to determine if hard water was a factor in areas with high rates of eczema.

What they found was that _children living in areas with hard water had an 87 percent increased risk of developing eczema. _ And even when the researchers factored in other variables that might play a role in infant eczema (such as chlorine levels in water and mutations in the FLG gene that can cause an impaired skin barrier), the results showed that children in areas with hard water were still more susceptible to eczema.

Dr. Carsten Flohr, the lead author of the study, isn’t sure exactly why hard water is associated with an increased risk. “It’s not yet clear whether calcium carbonate has a direct detrimental effect on the skin barrier, or whether other environmental factors directly related to water hardness, such as the water’s pH, may be responsible,” he says. Flohr adds that he plans to complete further studies looking into whether installing a water softener can reduce the risk of developing eczema.

How to deal with hard water

Areas that use groundwater are most susceptible to having hard water. As the water passes through rock and stone, it picks up naturally-occurring minerals that remain in the water. The midwest region of the United States tend to have the highest levels of hard water while the Pacific Northwest, some parts of the Southeast, the Gulf States and New England have the “softest” water, with a supply that contains very little minerals and metals. You can look at a map of water hardness throughout the country on the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) website.

Some signs that you have hard water include water residue such as soap scum on your sink, spots on your glasses and build up in your plumbing pipes and appliances. You may have water if you need more soap to get your clothes, body, hair and dishes clean or if your clothes never seem clean or wear out quicker than in areas with soft water. Your local water utility company should be able to provide you with information on water hardness levels in your area.

However, there are ways you can combat the effects of hard water in your laundry or on your dishes. Some of these include adding a rinse agent or distilled vinegar to your dishwasher, or buying soaps formulated for use with hard water. And if you want to combat the effects of the water on your child’s skin, try installing a water softener system in your home. The upfront costs can be expensive upfront, but in the long run it may help protect your child’s health and allow you to save money on soap or having to replace appliances and plumbing.

For more information on childhood eczema:

The Link Between Eczema and Asthma

The Link Between Eczema and Food Allergies

Eczema in Infants and Children

Eczema & Children: What Parents Can Do

Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of Idiot's Guide to Adult ADHDIdiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral TherapyEssential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.