The jury is still out as to whether it’s a good idea to wash your face and body with tap water. A lot of studies show it isn’t; the World Health Organization has stated there’s no “convincing evidence” to this end.
In general, the problem with proving this scientifically is that there are so many and multiple factors that can affect the health of our skin, from stress to food to sleep to soap. But there’s reason to think critically about what’s coming out of the tap in this modern age.
The water in our taps is largely “hard,” meaning it contains an excess amount of added minerals and metals. If you showered in hard water and then soft water, you’d likely notice a stark difference in the way each made your skin feel. Research has shown that people living in certain places with hard water are at higher risk of developing eczema, a condition that makes the skin dry and itchy.
One way to measure the hardness of your water is by testing the pH level. pH stands for potential hydrogen; the measure gauges the ratio of acid to base in something, whether it’s a jacuzzi or a salad dressing or your largest organ. The scale stretches from 0 to 14, with 0 being acidic and 14 being alkaline. A 14 is 10 million times more alkaline than a seven, which is the neutral center, so there are vast differences between levels.
Experts tell us the skin’s preferred pH level is 5 -- slightly acidic, similar to coffee. Levels in tap water vary across the U.S., depending on where it’s sourced from, but typically, what’s coming out of your faucet ranges between 6.5 and 8.5.
Another important point is that most of our tap water is chlorinated. Remember when your mom insisted you rinse off after you swam in a pool? That was because chlorine is a chemical so powerful it can turn blonde hair green.
Chlorine can also strip the skin of its protective layer, made of natural oils and enzymes, among other compounds. The elimination of a buffer between the deepest layers of the skin and the outside world exposes the skin to countless pollutants.
Water doesn’t make everyone break out, but if you have sensitive skin, it may be worth looking a little deeper into what’s flowing through your faucet. Non-profit organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) created a database of tap water for people living in California; other organizations have studied this elsewhere. Categorized by ZIP code, the EWG database relies on information from the California State Water Resources Control Board and the EPA to create a map of how many contaminants your water contains. Legal limits for contaminants in tap water have not been updated in two decades; legal, EWG insists, does not equal safe.
Los Angeles ZIP codes reveal such additives as total trihalomethanes (231 times the EWG’s accepted limit), bromodichloromethane (147 times the limit), chloroform (24), nitrate (two), and uranium (18). Heavy metals can break down the body’s natural mechanisms for maintaining balance. They’re like chemo drugs: they kill the bad, but they also kill the good.
Various solutions to this largely unsolved problem of whether to revolve your skincare routine around tap water have been suggested and tested. Some people prefer to use micellar water, a cleanser that doesn’t need to be rinsed off. Some use distilled water from the fridge. Some have even reported using pasteurized milk to wash their faces because it has a more conducive pH balance.
Probably the easiest way to ensure your skin is getting the best and cleanest possible source of hydration is to purchase a water filter. Make sure it’s certified by the National Science Foundation and rely on proven technologies. If the model you’re looking at is marketed to last for years, you might want to do a little more digging; generally these shouldn’t last more than six months.
Another good defense strategy is to find a good toner, as one of the primary functions of a toner is to restore the skin’s pH balance. The jury may be deliberating for some time, as it is on such matters as whether eggs are good or bad cholesterol and whether you should eat carbs, but until then, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to fill the gap.