A couple of weeks ago, I traveled from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles for spring break. After a shower, my dry, sensitive, acne-prone skin had the worst breakout I’ve had since high school. (Insert sobbing emoji here).
Despite using all my regular skincare products, I noticed my skin felt abnormally dry and tight – almost how I imagine I’d feel if I got a face lift. I ignored the feeling, put my makeup on, and went about the rest of my day.
The next morning, I woke up with a deeply reddened and irritated face full of pimples. On the verge of tears, I tried to figure out what went wrong for me to end up looking like a pepperoni pizza. I washed my face, hoping my go-to routine for clearing breakouts would save me in my time of need. Unfortunately, it only made matters worse: every product I used on my skin burned and made it look more dried out.
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I’ve struggled with acne for the majority of my life. In high school it was really severe, but since going to college (and getting on birth control) it has mostly just been a few hormonal breakouts here and there – certainly nothing this drastic.
It took my return to New York to realize what the reason was. The culprit? A change in water. Yes, I realize it was California’s water that made me break out. How can water be harmful for your skin, I asked, mortified. And how can I avoid an unexpected breakout – aka how do you avoid water? Is anything sacred anymore?
Here’s everything I found about water and breakouts and what you can do.
Tap water can cause irritation in your skin.
To understand your skin a little better, you need to know it’s all about balance – we’re talking pH balance. And sometimes different water will throw your skin off depending where you are.
Dr. Yunyoung Claire Chang, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in Manhattan, explains to Very Good Light that tap water can definitely affect your skin in my ways than one. According to her, some tap water is considered “hard water,” which contains a high concentration of minerals like calcium and magnesium; both of these minerals appear in high quantities in tap water in Southern California. “Hard water has been shown to reduce the ability of water to dissolve and rinse away soaps and surfactants, leaving potentially harsh, irritating products on the skin,” she says.
Tap water, specifically hard water, can throw off skin’s ideal pH balance and lead to “rashes like acne, eczema and rosacea.” The residue left on the skin from hard water “leaves an alkaline environment on the skin, making it more prone to dryness, irritation, and worsened complexion and texture,” says Dr. Chang.
The reason is that your skin’s happy place is at a pH level of 4.5-5.5. And in order for the skin barrier to function optimally and maintain hydration and protection against external factors, its pH balance needs to be slightly acidic. “At a pH outside of this normal range, the skin can be prone to dryness, irritation, rashes, and impaired barrier,” Dr. Chang tells us. Meaning, if you’re traveling, make sure you’re prepped. Read on!
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“I always recommend carrying around a make-up remover and cleanser when traveling,” says Dr. Chang. “With long travel, make-up, oil, dirt, and bacteria can build up in the pores and make you more prone to breakouts. The increased risk of breakouts makes cleansing the face ultra-important when traveling.”
When traveling somewhere with hard water, which can cause skin to become more irritated, Dr. Chang recommends using products which can counteract its effects. “I recommend gentle cleansers that are not too harsh on the skin as well as moisturizers,” she says. “Harsh soaps can strip away the natural oils from the skin and leave it looking drier and more irritated.” Besides counteracting the effects of hard water, Dr. Chang explains that toners can also be used to help re-balance your skin’s pH.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in the Dermatology department of Mount Sinai in Manhattan, recommends a hydrating soap, like Dove Deep Moisture Body Wash which he says offers moisturizing benefits when you wash. Moisture, as Dr. Zeichner explains, is essential to repairing the skin barrier. “Moisturizers like Vaseline Clinical Care Extra-Dry Skin Relief Lotion contains a lipid complex that softens the outer skin layer and keeps the skin barrier in optimal shape,” which means it’ll stay happy – and healthy.
If you’re moving to a city with hard water, and suffer from dry or sensitive skin or conditions like eczema, Dr. Zeichner recommends changing out the shower head for a water softener that will remove metals like calcium so it’s not damaging to the skin.
Climate can make the effects of hard water even worse
Weather switch-ups can also make your skin switch-up, and not in a good way. “If the weather is cold or dry, the skin barrier may be at a greater risk for disruption from hard water,” says Dr. Zeichner
Dr. Chang agrees, stating that you need to adjust your skincare regimen to acclimate to the climate of wherever you’re traveling. “Dry, cold weather with low humidity can dry out the skin, leaving you irritated and flaky,” she says. “In contrast, tropical and humid environments can leave the skin oilier and more prone to clogging the pores.” In order to combat the effects of hard water and climate changes, “skincare should be tailored not only to a patient’s skin type (dry vs oily) but also to the environment and time of year.” That means in dry environments, it’s important to apply more moisturizer to the skin, and in moist environments it’s important to cleanse more frequently.
So, yes tap water can definitely cause a break-out, but there’s no need to worry as long as you’e prepared to give your skin a little extra attention when you’re traveling. Just keep in mind that climate and water quality can seriously affect your skin. So pack your skincare kit, accordingly – and pray.