As I stepped out of the shower in my new apartment, I instantly knew something was wrong.
It felt like my insides were itching (burning, even) - and suddenly, my skin was on fire. A few minutes later, my chest and back were inundated with tiny red and white welts; soon enough, my whole body was covered. It felt like my skin was crawling, and all I could do was sit there and wait for it to stop. After panicking for another few minutes, I popped a Benadryl, then chalked the adverse reaction up to something I'd eaten the night before. And in just an hour, all my hives were gone. However, the next time I showered, my little friends were back with a vengeance.
I'm no stranger to skin reactions, as I was born with a rare skin condition called Netherton Syndrome. According to Washington, D.C.-based dermatologist Adam Friedman, Netherton is an inherited skin disorder that results in improper turnover - aka shedding - of the upper portion of the skin due to a defect in the machinery that breaks down proteins, which can result in dry, thick scaly skin that can easily get inflamed. To put it simply, my skin barrier is comprised, which makes me more prone to reactions and irritation.
In my whole 25 years of existence, however, I'd never experienced full-body welts after showering before - until moving to New York City.
Something was telling me it had to be the shower water, as I wasn't doing anything differently in terms of my skin-care routine or otherwise. You see, the sources for New York City's water are considered "slightly" to "moderately" hard water, which means it's high in dissolved minerals like calcium and magnesium.
Unlike soft water, hard water tends to be more common in big cities, like Las Vegas, Tampa, and - my home sweet home - New York City. Therefore, the fact that I grew up in the suburbs is likely why I'd hadn't experienced it up until now. After doing my own research and reading many Reddit threads, I knew others had experienced concerns with their skin due to the effects of hard water, so I decided to turn to an expert to see if I was actually on to something.
"In some people, hard water can contribute to skin dryness and irritation, and may even aggravate existing conditions," explains Sejal Shah, a dermatologist and the founder of Smarter Skin Dermatology in New York City. It's certainly not a definitive answer, but it's a start, I thought.
Over the course of six months, I tried a variety of mineral-swallowing showerhead filters, though sadly they didn't seem to help my situation much at all, save for a day or two. I also tried taking allergy medicine beforehand, but still, the welts stubbornly persisted. It finally got to the point where having hives after showering became my new normal. (I should also mention that when I showered at home in the suburbs of New Jersey, the hives didn't occur.)
So when I stumbled upon the ShowerStick, a shower attachment that claims to actually soften hard city water with resin beads rather than just filter it, I had little hope it would work - despite there being a wellspring of rave reviews. But reviews aside, do experts believe in water softeners? Surprisingly, yes.
Friedman reassured my theory when he confirmed that water softeners are actually legit. "Water softeners remove the minerals, like calcium and magnesium, and replace them with sodium through a process called ion exchange," he explains. Because the skin-irritating minerals are passed through the water via ion exchange, the water then becomes soft and can potentially be less irritating to the skin.
Sure enough, when I looked back at ShowerStick's website under the "how it works" section, it read: "Similar to whole house water softeners, the ShowerStick contains resin beads, which soften water through a process called 'ion exchange.' While the whole process admittedly confused me a little, I was desperate and willing to try anything before turning to my only other option: moving out of the city I had always dreamed of calling home.
The day the ShowerStick arrived, I was eager to set it up and see how it would work. To my surprise, it was fairly easy to do - a process that only took about 10 minutes and didn't require any tools. (The seven-step written instructions seem a bit aggressive, but the instructional video on the brand's website helped me out a lot.) After removing my original showerhead and replacing it with the ShowerStick attachment, I let the water run for a few minutes and hopped in, and got my shower on.
A few minutes out of the shower and my skin was still hive-free - a good sign - though at the time I was afraid they would return the next day. Thankfully, they didn't, and they haven't since my first use, which was about a month ago now. No longer having the dreaded, hive-signaling prickly sensation creep up seconds after I get out of the shower has been huge for me. It's really helped speed up my mornings, but more importantly, it's alleviated a great deal of stress I was struggling with on a daily basis.
Every seven days or so, I regenerate the ShowerStick using salt water, a process that's done in order to flush out the hard water minerals that build up over time, and it's as simple as that.
After a few weeks of showering without a reaction, I told Shah about my experience and asked what she thought. "By softening the water, the skin can potentially improve," she offered. And in my case, it seems like it has.
All this is to say: If you, too, have a skin condition or struggle with skin irritation that you think could be being heightened by the effects of hard city water, I would suggest talking with your dermatologist about water softeners.
On the flip side, if your water does not appear to affect your skin, hair, and overall health in any negative way, then you won't be needing a water softener and can save your money.
Speaking of which, at $180 and up, the ShowerStick definitely doesn't come cheap, but in my opinion, it's well worth it to be hive-free and feel happy about showering again. If you're interested, you can purchase one for yourself now at watersticks.com. Additionally, check out these alternative water softening showerheads that have some solid reviews from Amazon customers.
Needless to say, I couldn't be happier that I threw caution to the wind and decided to try the ShowerStick. It's certainly improved my quality of life (cheers to enjoying showers again!) and hopefully can help a few of you out, too.
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