How to Remove Hard Water Stains: A Detailed Guide

Updated October 5th, 2022

For most of us, purchasing a house is one of the most significant financial investment we will ever make. Whether it’s the first or just a step closer towards that dream home, that feeling of satisfaction is one to cherish.

It’s a great accomplishment. You finally have a place to call your own (and everything in between). But sadly, things won’t always go as expected. There will be days when the refrigerator stops working or the roof starts leaking, and you will either have to fix it yourself or hire a professional.  

But what do you do when there’s white, rusty scale buildup all around the mouth of your faucets, shower heads, along shower walls and in toilets? What about when your dishwasher no longer cleans your dishes as well as it used to, and your laundry starts feeling hard, dingy and scratchy on your skin?

If you start seeing these signs, you may be a victim of “hard” water. In this article, you’ll learn all you need to know to remove any stains caused by this uninvited guest.

What is hard water?

Hard water is described as water that contains high amounts of dissolved calcium (Ca2+) and/or magnesium (Mg2+). Sometimes manganese (Mn2+) and other minerals are also used to measure hardness in water.

Although water is usually crystal clear, it’s the high concentration of these minerals that creates the “hardness”. The higher the concentration, the harder the water.

Also, keep in mind that water is a universal solvent. That means it easily picks up and dissolves most of the impurities it encounters. As the water moves through the ground, it picks up small amounts of minerals and continues to accumulate these minerals until the concentration is enough to impart a “hardness” to the water. And the result? The water takes on a bad taste and can negatively affect your plumbing fixtures, appliances, and personal grooming.  

How to tell if you have hard water

There’s no way to tell if your water is hard by just looking at it – as much as we wish that were the case. In most situations, it’s what the water does to your water-using appliances, plumbing fixtures, kitchenware, countertops and glass surfaces, laundry, and even your skin and hair that tells the tale.

Here are several common signs that you might have hard water:

  1. Your water has a funny taste or smell: Hard water can make your water taste salty, metallic or dirt-like and/or smell fishy. This bad taste and/or odor can impart an unusual favor in teas and beverages.
  2. Mineral buildup around water fixtures: Mineral buildup around water fixtures and faucets is another obvious sign of hard water. These nasty mineral deposits can discolor your plated plumbing fixtures beyond restoration. At some point, the mineral deposits can become so bad that there is a chemical change that permanently smears glass shower doors.
  3. Strange stains in your sink or toilet: When water is at its normal mineral level, it does not leave any sort of stains behind. If you start seeing reddish-brown stains in your sink or toilet, there’s a high chance that your water is hard.
  4. Soap scum on bathtubs, shower curtains/glass doors: Soap is made to make things cleaner. But when it combines with hard water, it can create a mess. Brown, gray, white or black soap scum on your bathtubs and shower curtains/glass doors is a good indicator that your water might contain a high level of hardness minerals.
  5. Inability to easily form a good lather: Hard water makes it difficult to form a good lather even with the best soaps, detergents, and shampoos on the market. But how could this be? Well, the hardness minerals in the water partially deactivate the active ingredient in those products so you cannot form a good soapy lather as easy as before.
  6. Ugly spots on dishes, glassware, and silverware: Do your dishes look like you forgot to start the dishwasher? Are there spots on your dishes, glassware, and silverware? If so, those signs could point to a hard water problem in your household. The white spots are similar to the soap scum that’s probably in your shower. The hardness minerals mix with the dish washing detergent used to clean your dishes. When that happens, the minerals then stick to the items inside the dishwasher, leaving you with dishes that are far from clean.
  7. Damage to the water heater and other water-using appliances: There’s nothing more annoying than turning on the shower to find that you have no hot water – especially when outside is cold.Hard water buildup can damage the heating elements in your water heater and make it completely dysfunctional.
  8. Clogged pipes: When limescale deposits build up in your plumbing system, they can reduce the flow of water through your pipes. Over time, you’ll see significant drops in your water pressure. And as the water flow slows down, the buildup will accelerate until all your water pipes are completely clogged. Thereafter, all your pipes will have to be replaced.
  9. Dry, itchy skin: You might have noticed a white, chalky film on your skin after taking a shower or washing your hands. If so, that could be a result of soap scum. The hardness minerals combine with your soap and leave a soapy residue on your skin. This film of soap then blocks your pore and makes it harder to moisturize your skin. 
  10. Dry, brittle hair: If your hair looks dull and dry or feels dingy and thin even after using your favorite moisturizing shampoo and conditioner, you might be a victim of hard water.
  11. Your clothes look dull and feel dingy and stiff: When the hard water minerals bind with your washing detergent, the result can be frustrating. This mixture leaves behind a powdery substance that can make your clothes, towels, and sheets feel as if they weren’t even inside the washer and can make the colors fade much faster. Not only that, but hard water can damage the clothing material itself.

How to test for hard water

If the signs above aren’t enough to convince you that you might have a hard water problem, there are several other ways to discover the truth. The most accurate method is to send a water sample from your tap to an independent laboratory to be tested. However, that method can be expensive and time-consuming. For faster and less expensive (if less precise) results, try one of the methods below to get a good estimate of your water’s hardness.

1. DIY Water Test Kit

Using a water test kit is one of the quickest and most economical ways to check the quality of your water. Some kits are only designed for testing for specific contaminants like copper and chlorine, while others test for overall water quality. So, make sure that the test kit you are using tests for hardness.

Now, there are three common types of home water test kits available for purchase –water test strips, color disk kits, and digital testing kits. Water test strips are the most popular of the three. They are small, single-use strips that change color based on the presence of hardness minerals (in this case).

Simply fill a container with tap water, immerse the test strip in the water, then compare the resulting color of the strip to the chart provided with the kit. The instructions will tell you the level of hardness in your water, based on the result.

2. Obtain your water quality report and run the numbers  

If your water comes from a municipal service line, you can contact the water utility and request their latest water quality report. However, most of these reports can be found online. Some of them can be very technical, so it’s important to know how to read a water quality report.

Most utilities report their water hardness findings in milligrams per Liter (mg/L) as calcium carbonate. The U.S. Geological Survey uses the following scale to determine the hardness the of water. Note the value of the calcium carbonate in the report and compare it to the scale below.

  • Soft water: 0 – 60 mg/L
  • Moderately hard water: 61 – 120 mg/L
  • Hard water: 121 – 180 mg/L
  • Very hard water: over 180 mg/L

3.  The Soapsuds Test

The Soapsuds Test is a quick and easy way to determine whether or not your water is hard. To carry out the test, grab a clean glass or plastic bottle with a tight-fitting cap. Fill the bottle 1/3 full with water straight from the faucet. Add about 8 – 10 drops of pure liquid dish washing soap and shake well for about 15 seconds. Set the bottle down and observe the solution.

  • If the mixture foams up quickly and creates a lot of suds, and the water below the layer of suds is relatively clear, you probably have fairly soft water.
  • However, if the mixture does not foam up well, creates a shallow layer of suds, and the water below the layer of suds is cloudy, there’s a good chance that you have hard water.

How to remove and clean hard water stains and limescale deposits from faucets, fixtures & toilets

Dealing with hard water stains is a daily challenge. Hard water can quickly build on plumbing fixtures and clog faucet aerators. Not only do hard water stains and deposits look bad, but they can damage your fixtures over time. To keep your faucets, sinks, toilets, shower heads, and surfaces looking nice and working correctly, you must clean hard water stains and deposits regularly.

Fortunately, you don’t have to purchase special cleaning products to achieve all this. Just use your regular white vinegar (and sometimes some thorough scrubbing) to do the job.

How to remove hard water stains and limescale deposits from faucets

Hard water stains and deposits tend to have a stalker-like attraction to kitchen and bathroom faucets. This burning love affair can make a brand-new faucet look old and dingy, simply because the everyday cleaning isn’t enough to remove the buildup. Thankfully, you can use vinegar to help loosen the hard water film and buildup before scrubbing.

  1. Get a clean rag and soak it in vinegar. Drape it over the faucet and make sure that it covers and touches all the hard water deposits.
  2. Let the rag sit for about an hour.
  3. Remove the rag and set it aside. Use a non-scratch sponge to scrub the faucet. Focus on areas with the most buildup.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until all the hard water stains and deposits are all gone.

Removing hard water stains and limescale deposits from toilets

A toilet sees a lot of use and holds standing water constantly. As a result, hard water toilet stains can be an ongoing issue. While some commercial cleaning products can remove hard water stains and limescale buildup in the toilet, several household products can be just as effective and will eliminate those nasty stains in your bowl without toxic chemicals.

Baking soda and vinegar are among the most powerful household products that can be used to clean almost anything, including hard water stains in the toilet.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pour about 1 cup of vinegar into the toilet bowl and swirl and swish it around with a toilet brush for about 30 seconds, and scrub away the dislodged residue.  Let it soak for about one minute.
  2. Add about 1 cup of baking soda to the toilet bowl, then add another 2 cups of vinegar. The mixture will give off a fizzle effect. Let it sit for about 10 minutes.
  3. Scrub around the interior of the toilet bowl, targeting any stains that are above the waterline. Don’t flush as yet.
  4.  Let the vinegar and baking soda solution sit for about 30 minutes. Give it a thorough swish until the stain and buildup are all gone. If any stain remains, scrub it with a toilet brush or a stiff-bristled nylon brush.
  5. Flush the toilet to rinse.

Borax and vinegar are also a great multipurpose cleaning combo that can be used to clean hard water stains in the toilet.

  1. Pour ¼ of Borax into the toilet bowl and use a toilet brush to swish it around.
  2. Add 1 cup of vinegar and let the solution sit in the bowl for about 20 minutes.
  3. To finish, scrub the bowl with a toilet brush to remove the stains.
  4. Flush the toilet to rinse.

Cleaning sinks, tubs, hard surfaces and showers

Removing hard water deposits from a porcelain sink, an enameled tub or ceramic shower tiles uses a similar technique – even though each one is made from a different material.

To remove hard water deposit from these surfaces, apply vinegar or a mixture of vinegar and Borax to a good-enough sponge, pad or scrub brush that won’t scratch the final. You can also use 0000 steel wool or ultra-fine sandpaper on most tiles, sinks, and enameled tubs.

How to remove hard water stains and clean glass surfaces and glass shower doors

Hard water can leave white, hazy spots on glass surfaces and shower doors. This is due to a buildup of alkaline and other minerals in the water.

  1. Mix vinegar and lemon juice in a spray bottle and lightly warm the solution in a microwave for 20-40 seconds depending on your microwave. Make sure to remove the bottle top so it doesn’t explode in the microwave. (A warm cleaner can be more effective at removing stains than a cold or room temperature cleaner.)
  2. Spray the solution on your glass surfaces and shower doors and let it stand for 3-5 minutes.
  3. Wipe the surfaces with a clean, lint-free dry cloth, sponge or paper towel.
  4. Repeat to remove all the stain and limescale buildup.

As an alternative to vinegar, you can use salt and water to remove mineral buildup.

  1. Add a cup of water to a small bowl or container. Add about 2-3 tablespoons of salt to the water and mix well with a spoon.
  2. Apply the solution to the area and rub the stain in a circular motion.
  3. Rinse the glass thoroughly when finished to remove all the saltwater residue.

How to prevent hard water stains and limescale deposits

If you are sick and tired of  having to deal with hard water and all the frustration it brings, consider installing a water softener to treat your home’s water supply. Water softener systems are the most complete and common home solution for treating hard water. These systems are specially designed to remove high concentrations of calcium and magnesium that cause the “hardness” in your water supply. When hard water flows through the system, it uses various techniques and processes to filter out these hard water minerals, producing softened water, which then flows into your home.  

There are various types of water softeners to choose from such as ion-exchange softeners and salt-free softeners.

Ion-Exchange Water Softeners

Ion exchange water softeners (or salt based water softeners) replace the calcium and magnesium in the water with salt, potassium or hydrogen. This type of softener consists of a resin tank and a brine tank.

As water passes through the resin bed, the hardness mineral ions in the water are exchanged for sodium or potassium ions. Once the resin becomes saturated with hardness minerals, the system goes through a regeneration cycle that flushes the brine solution through the resin bed, exchanging the hardness mineral ions with sodium ions. The hardness minerals are then washed down the drain, leaving the resin ready to go through the process again.

After the system treats the water, the water flows into your household water supply as soft water.

Salt-Free Water Softeners

salt free water softening system
Salt Free Water Softener

Unlike ion-exchange softeners, salt free water softeners don’t use chemicals or remove minerals to soften water. Instead, they use a physical process called Template Assisted Crystallization (TAC), which converts the hardness minerals in the water to a hardness crystal that will not stick to any surface. This process conditions the water then distributes it to your home.


That’s it. Now you know how to remove hard water stains from your plumbing fixtures and different surfaces. What’s even more exciting is that you can purchase a high-quality water softener to prevent those nasty stains and buildup from plaguing your home.

Just make sure to contact Springwell so we can help you decide on the best water softener for your needs.