Is There Something in the Water? A Hairy Tale…

A rising tendency amongst Dubai residents to blame local tap water for their hair ailments leads to the question of whether the desalinated water really is the primary culprit and not mere rumour.

Your hair is really frizzy!

How many times have you heard that before? Well, how about this: “Do you even brush your hair?” Or, “Have you tried using conditioner?” Truth be told, if you were one of the ladies out there that suffered from dry and unkempt hair, the only thing you said in reply was “That’s just my hair’s nature,” or, “I’ve tried everything already!” And of course, following your exasperated response comes another string of suggestions from your hair accuser, supposedly foolproof solutions to your dilemma that you probably won’t be bothered to try.

However, as of the past couple of years, a whole other justification for hair problems was circulated around Dubai, one that released many from the cycle of searching high and low for a reasonably priced miracle product: it’s the water. Finally, women had found a source besides their futile haircare methods to point fingers at: tap water is now blamed for dry and frizzy hair amongst other symptoms, even hair loss, but how legitimate is this accusation? At what point do these allegations cross from the realm of truth to that of rumour? 

Perhaps a good place to start is the essential fact that most expats notice a change in the quality of their hair once they first move to Dubai. Hairdresser Catherine Samaan Jamal moved to Dubai from Beirut, Lebanon in September 2014, and has also noticed these effects: “When I first came here, I started washing my hair and it started falling a lot. It became dry and it lost its shine. It changed completely.”

Accounts like these are quite common amongst women in Dubai, as Koman Rachwani, a hairdresser at Juice Salon in Arabian Mall, has said, “We do get a lot of complaints from clients saying the water has spoilt their hair.” 

Considering that the noticeable change appeared almost immediately after moving to the city, it is clear that there exists contributing variables in Dubai that were not present in the expats’ home countries. Of course, one of the easiest variables to single out is the weather, since the Middle Eastern region where Dubai sits is geographically hot and arid, further coupled with the coastal city’s humid environment. Now when it comes to hair on a molecular level, any contact with water will cause strands to swell and their surface hair cuticles, which are are described by trichologist Dr. Michael Ryan as overlapping slates on a roof, to open. 

“You come to the desert, the heat, the humidity. The hair will swell, the cuticles will lie open, and so the hair will feel more rough and dry. That can lead to all sorts of problems,” said Dr. Ryan, who has been residing in Dubai for 5 years.

That could be a legitimate reason as to why women are complaining of coarser hair after arriving here. Although, another important variable is the existence of one in the first place. To explain, the mere change of surrounding conditions experienced when moving to an entirely different country can be enough to justify the differing hair quality, regardless of what the change actually is. Dr. Ryan and both hairdressers highlighted that subjecting the hair to varying conditions, whether internal or external, can change the behaviour of hair. 

“The hair follicle is very sensitive to change. It doesn’t like change of diet, it doesn’t like change of surroundings, environment, emotions, systems in the body, hormone changes, medication changes, it doesn’t like any of these things,” said Dr. Ryan.

“When you move, obviously there has to be a change in your system whether its your body or whether its your hair,” said Koman.

Again, that could also explain the unfamiliar or strange behaviour of your hair. However, amongst all these contributing variables that hair problems could be attributed to, why are women in Dubai so quick to blame the tap water? The truth of the matter is that tap water in Dubai is particularly unique in the sense that it is harvested from the sea, rather than conventional sources like rivers and groundwater. The salt water is converted into sweet water through a process called desalination. Simply, the water’s salt content is extracted, and then is cleaned of bacteria using chlorine. Calcium is also added to stabilise the water acidity so as to prevent corrosive damage to pipes. Other substances are also probably added to transform the sea water into one that is safe for use at home. As such, the tap water in Dubai is classified as being hard water, or water that is high in minerals like calcium and magnesium. Many believe that it is the hard quality and the abundance of the dissolved substances that is damaging their hair. However, there is no definitive proof that this is correct. Dr. Ryan claims that a balance of these dissolved substances is needed, and that neither extremes of soft or hard water is particularly good for the hair. 

“So, the water here does cause problems. The problems it causes are dryness and the skin can also feel dry as well, and can sometimes leave an almost film on the hair, a microscopic film, that’s because it’s desalinated water,” said Dr. Ryan.

“The water here is more calcic (rich in calcium) than usual. There are also acids and other things in the water that dry the hair and take away its shine,” said Catherine.

So what solution is there for this predicament? Some women resorted to washing their hair with bottled water, a habit that Dr. Ryan dismisses as a waste of money. An alternative that has been on the rise in Dubai, and probably one of the significant agents through which the tap water craze spread, is the shower head filter. One popular example is the Ionic Power Filter shower filtration system distributed by Blu Intelligent Health Solutions. The product is an actual shower head that can be swapped with your normal one at home, and contains a “Nano Molecular Cluster” cartridge that fits into its handle and filters out soluble heavy metals and chlorine, in addition to a stainless steel plate that prevents blockage and buildup of bacteria. 

“Our customers say that (their hair) is falling out and then it’s drying. Its very, very dry, because chlorine dries the hair. When you use the ionic power filter from Blu its actually more manageable, it’s less frizzy,” said Kristine Joy Tiu, Channel Accounts Manager for Blu’s Dubai division.

The company started selling the product in Dubai in 2008, and while the product has spread to other countries, its largest source of revenue still comes from Dubai. Kristine attributes this to the large amount of expats in the city.

“The majority of the customers that we have are Europeans, because I believe they are more sensitive to the water here. They have thinner hair. In their country, they are more or less used to the water, so when they move to Dubai its gonna be a major adjustment. I would say that 9/10 said that the product really helped,” said Kristine.

The filtering shower head largely spread through word of mouth, with 500-600 filters being sold per month by Blu. How? Because it turns out that filtered, cleaner water does help. Women using it reported experiencing less hair fall and less frizziness, and their skin’s hydration also seemed to improve. Evidently, filtering the water delivered the desired positive effects, meaning that the tap water did initially inflict negative consequences. On the subject of hair loss and hair health though, Dr. Ryan had a differing opinion, “The shower filters do improve the quality of the skin, for sure, and the quality of the condition of the hair. But does it stop hair loss? Absolutely not. The two things are separate, they’re intertwined, but cosmetic feel is not hair loss.”

As such, Dr. Ryan recommends the filtered shower heads to his patients, but as he made clear, although the filter improves the hair’s cosmetic quality, it does not contribute to its health. Kristine also supported this in saying that the Blu filter is not akin to medicine or any medical treatment. The filter may create a placebo effect, in that it works only because one believes it does, but Kristine also reported positive feedback from customers who were initially sceptical. As for solutions besides the filter, Dr. Ryan recommends using lotions or creams that help in carrying water to the hair to moisturise it and counteract the tap water’s drying effects.

“So long as you’ve got something of a molecular weight and size small enough to penetrate the hair and deliver water to it, then you moisturise your hair,” said Dr. Ryan.

At the end of the day, it seems that Dubai’s tap water, to a certain extent, may indeed have some negative effects on women’s hair, particularly when it comes to dryness and pure cosmetic feel, but not hair loss or any health-related problems. But that is not to forget that other contributing factors such as weather, diet, and general surrounding circumstances could also affect your hair’s quality and health, since the hair’s condition is infinitely more complex than some seem to think. 

It is probably safe to say that like blood, hair is thicker than water.

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