The influence of hard water (calcium) and surfactants on irritant contact dermatitis

Contact Dermatitis. 1996 Dec;35(6):337-43. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0536.1996.tb02414.x.


Although the induction of irritant contact dermatitis has been extensively studied for surfactants, the role of the environmental factor water hardness (i.e., calcium content) on the induction process has not received attention. Our objective was to investigate differences in surfactant-induced irritant skin reactions from cumulative exposure to 3 different personal cleansing agents and determine whether the irritation potential can be affected by the hardness of the water. 2 commonly used exaggerated washing procedures were variously employed to evaluate representative sodium soap, triethanolamine-soap, or synthetic detergent cleansers under conditions where the water hardness varied from 0-grain to 11-grain (gr). Subjects were clinically evaluated for skin dryness, skin redness, and instrumentally for hydration. Soap binding to skin was quantified using Fourier transform infrared reflectance spectroscopy. Using the more mild wash procedure, skin sites treated under conditions of hard, 11 gr water were significantly drier, had more erythema, and were less hydrated than corresponding sites treated with deionized 0 gr water. All 3 surfactant cleanser behaved similarly. We also found the hardness of the rinse water to be the more significant factor versus that of the wash water. Effect of water hardness on soap binding to skin revealed a similar outcome. Under a more exaggerated wash condition the relationship between water hardness and irritation broke down.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Calcium / adverse effects*
  • Dermatitis, Irritant / diagnosis
  • Dermatitis, Irritant / etiology*
  • Dermatitis, Irritant / therapy
  • Dermatitis, Occupational / diagnosis
  • Dermatitis, Occupational / etiology*
  • Dermatitis, Occupational / therapy
  • Female
  • Forearm
  • Hand Dermatoses / diagnosis
  • Hand Dermatoses / etiology
  • Hand Dermatoses / therapy
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects
  • Soaps / adverse effects
  • Surface-Active Agents / adverse effects*
  • Water Pollutants / adverse effects*


  • Soaps
  • Surface-Active Agents
  • Water Pollutants
  • Calcium