Hard Water Laundry Problems

If your garment, towels, and sheets do not appear properly washed, feel stiff, and you often notice weird residue in the fabrics - the chances are high that you live in a hard-water area. Hard water laundry can even provoke the breakage of regularly treated fibers. The culprit for all these issues is the excessive mineral content in water. It can be fought by additives, special detergent formulations, or water-softening systems.

In this article you can read about:

What Is Hard Water?

The term “hard water” defines a specific chemical structure of a water molecule, characterized by high levels of magnesium and calcium. We recognize two types of water hardness, temporary and permanent. The temporary condition is caused by calcium bicarbonate converted by boiling to become insoluble (carbonate form), while the high presence of other soils marks a permanent state. 

How to Know if You Have Hard Water 

The most common hard water red flags include:

  • Weird film on washed dishes.
  • Limescale in faucets and showerheads
  • A ring of limescale inside the bathtub.
  • Sensitive, itchy, dry skin

Common Hard Water Laundry Issues

  • Fabric stiffness
  • Gradual weakening of fibers, that can lead to their breakage
  • Fabric color developing a gray or yellow patina
  • The residue that doesn’t wash away
  • Hard water stains on clothes, visible white or gray streaks
  • More detergent must be used for proper cleaning results

How to Perform a Hard Water Test

Take a clean bottle and fill about 30% of it with water, adding a few drops of liquid soap. Close it tightly and shake vigorously for ten seconds. If the water becomes milky and cloudy, with very little or no bubbles on the top, it is mineral-rich or “hard.” Clear liquid with an abundance of bubbles is a sign of normal, soft water.

How Hard Water Affects Soap Properties

Hard water reduces soap’s effectiveness. Dissolved minerals like calcium and magnesium ions appear in hard water in the form of dissolved salts. At the same time, soaps and detergents often contain sodium salt from stearic acid that dissolves easily in soft water.

In hard water, however, it binds to the minerals, producing insoluble calcium or magnesium stearate – an insoluble gelatinous curd, also known as soap scum.

In other words, while the soaps and detergents produce plenty of foam in soft water, mineral content in hard water prevents them from lathering, diminishing their cleaning capacity as a result.

How to Soften Hard Water for Laundry

While modern detergents and soapless formulas made from propene are beyond such problems as the soap scum, that still doesn’t mean everything is solved. Hard water laundry washing often requires higher temperatures and up to 30% more detergent for one load.

Research conducted in 2010 revealed that softening water used in washing machines might decrease the necessary amounts of detergent per load by up to 50%. Moreover, the washing temperatures can also be significantly reduced and still produce the same or better cleaning results.

Ways to Fix Hard Water Laundry Problems

One common solution here is adding hard water softeners. Decreasing exceptionally high mineral levels prevents them from attaching to the fabric, leaving it stiff and often covered with a residue. Borax, ammonia, trisodium phosphate, and washing soda (sodium carbonate) are some of the additives used to soften hard water for laundry on a small scale. Homemade hard water softeners – such as vinegar – are also sometimes used as the hard water laundry solution.

Another way is the installation of the water softening systems, where available. They typically connect to the water supply lines and work by exchanging sodium for calcium and magnesium. Water softening systems are an excellent permanent solution for areas with very hard water and users with sensitive skin.

Add More Laundry Detergent

Adding an extra dose of detergent enhances its foaming and cleaning capacity.

Use Laundry Soap/Laundry Detergent Formulated for Hard Water

Many modern detergents can maintain their efficiency in hard water. Look for low-pH detergent formulas developed to dissolve minerals and eliminate hard-water build-up.

Hard water laundry detergents with vinegar as an ingredient, for instance, not only fight minerals but also remove unpleasant scents.

Opt for a Liquid Detergent

Liquid detergents formulas typically react less with the hard water minerals. Their fast-dissolving nature also minimizes the possibility of leaving a residue. 

Higher Washing Temperatures

Washing at the warmest cycle suitable for the treated fabric decreases the advert effects of hard water. However, make sure always to check the garment labels – some materials do not tolerate high water temperatures.

Clean the Washer Regularly

Frequent cleaning and descaling your washing machine prevents the issues that come with mineral build-up. Running an empty hot water wash after every cycle will help to get rid of most residue. You can enhance the process by adding baking soda and white vinegar to the drum.

Key takeaway

There are several essential methods for dealing with hard water laundry issues. The simple ones include adding additives to every load, increasing detergent dosing, and buying specialized products. The permanent solution is installing a water softening system. 

Hard Water Laundry Additives in Detergents – What to Look For

Many detergent formulas feature ingredients that can perform well in hard water, even if the product itself is not specially formulated for the purpose. Check the ingredient list of your favorite brand for the following chemicals.

STPP (Sodium Tripolyphosphate)

Sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) is a builder agent capable of neutralizing the effects of calcium and magnesium in water. It’s a colorless salt that binds strongly to metal cations, preventing them from interfering with the sulfonate detergent.

4A Zeolite

Aluminosilicates, obtained from the rocks or synthetically manufactured, are affordable and available detergent ingredients. 4A Zeolite is one of such ingredients from the group of hydrated aluminosilicate minerals. It’s a detergent builder which also acts as a hard water laundry booster in formulas.

The three-dimensional crystal structure of the zeolite molecule holds water in the lattice cavities. Heating can eliminate water content, allowing zeolite to incorporate other similarly sized molecules. This process is what makes its structure useful in the ion-exchange process that results in water-softening.


Sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) is one of the most commonly used surfactants among detergent manufacturers. Its popularity comes from several properties, including solvency boasting, hard water resistance, and high biodegradation levels.

SLES binds calcium and magnesium ions, which is particularly important for hard water laundry.

Non-Ionic Surfactants

Often featured in liquid detergents, non-ionic surfactant molecules such as fatty alcohols or ethers have no electrical charge. They also do not interact with magnesium and calcium ions in hard water. Non-ionic surfactants can be combined with anionic surfactants for improved detergency; however, most anionic surfactants are not particularly effective in hard water laundry alone.

Common non-ionic surfactants include ethoxylates, alkoxylates, cocamides – look for Coconut diethanolamide in the laundry detergent ingredient list.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (K12)

Sodium lauryl sulfate, also called Sodium dodecyl sulfate, is one of the anionic surfactants that work well in hard water. It’s a powerful detergent booster with properties like good emulsification, strong decontamination, emulsification, and high foaming. 

Resistance of Sodium lauryl sulfate to hard water makes it a preferred foaming agent in hard water laundry detergents. It helps to maximize the formula’s cleaning efficiency without excessive dosing.


Amylase is an enzyme found in a multitude of detergent formulas, most effective against food stains containing starch (ice creams, sauces…). It works by degrading starch to short-chain sugars. According to this study, hard water has no effect on amylase enzymatic activity/cleaning power. 


Medium-strength alkali, such as borax, possess a strong ability to soften hard water and suspend soap particles.

Key takeaway

Look for specific ingredients in the list featured on the detergent package. Many formulas can satisfyingly perform in hard water even if not tailored for such conditions exclusively.

The Best Laundry Detergents for Hard Water

Liquid Detergents

Liquid detergents are convenient for pre-treating stains and hand-washing. Pre-treating enhances the cleaning process efficiency, while the formula’s resistance to hard water helps minimize its effect on sensitive skin. In addition, most liquid laundry detergents contain non-ionic surfactants that are unaffected by water hardness. Opt for ultra-concentrated formulas for maximum efficiency.

Powder Detergents

Powder detergents are an affordable and versatile option. In contrast to popular belief, these formulas can be effective in hard water, especially when containing water-softening ingredients like sodium carbonate. For best results, consider a premium powder formula over a bargain brand.

Detergent Pods

Laundry detergent pods are premeasured single-dose packages, each designed for washing one machine load. Many formulas contain hard water additives, water softeners, and a variety of other ingredients that can enhance their hard water performance.

HE Laundry detergents

HE laundry detergents for hard water are designed for use in high-efficiency washing machines exclusively. They make the new eco-friendly standard, requiring less water than regular machines per load, subsequently reducing costs associated with energy and water bills.

Homemade Laundry Detergents for Hard Water

Most homemade compounds typically rely on soap, which rarely performs well in hard water. In order to avoid the formation of soap scum, homemade laundry detergents for hard water must contain excessive amounts of borax. In return, the mix becomes skin-irritating and less healthy than professionally manufactured solutions.

In Conclusion

Hard water can be a hassle, but at least it’s manageable. While it’s undoubtedly aggressive towards fabrics, skin, and household appliances, there are many solutions available for minimizing or eliminating its effects. Decoding the detergent ingredient lists allows you to choose the most convenient product for your washing needs. Additives such as borax and vinegar can help with every washing load, and enhance the cleaning of the machine drum and drainage system. At the same time, permanent solutions like water softening systems require a higher initial investment and more effort – but also offer long-term convenience.