Is your showerhead making you sick?

Hand sanitizer, flu shots and regular exercise are just some of the ways Americans build their immunity to protect themselves from harmful bacteria and illness. But many may be missing a simple step for preventing health problems.

There’s nothing like a nice hot shower to remove dirt and grime. But showerheads are moist, warm, and dark, and those that spray hard water are especially ripe for bacterial growth.

In fact, newly published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that showerheads that sprayed hard water had a prevalence of bacteria linked to pulmonary, or lung-related, disease. The study reported the results of showerheads analyzed across nine U.S. cities.

Just as Americans take other preventative measures to protect themselves from airborne illnesses, there’s a simple way to ensure your showerhead doesn’t make you sick.

Water softeners dissolve the minerals, like calcium, magnesium and iron that are normally found in hard water. Left untreated, these minerals leave a residue build-up in the showerhead, which plays host to bacteria.

“Water softeners break down the minerals in the water and the accumulated minerals are flushed down the drain,” says Jerry Poe, technical director at North American Salt Company, the producer of Nature’s Own and Sure Soft brands of water conditioning products. “Using a good water softener is an easy way to protect your family from harmful bacteria and certain potential pulmonary problems.”

But the advantages of water softeners go beyond health benefits. They’re also good for homeowners watching their pocketbooks.

The Water Quality Association, in partnership with the Battelle Institute – an independent research and development organization – examined the economic impact of water softeners. The group wanted to understand the effects water softeners had on the efficiency and lifespan of water heaters.

Battelle Institute researchers tested gas, electric and tankless water heaters. The results made a strong case for soft water and water softeners.

The gas and electric water heaters maintained their predicted 15-year lifespan when scientists used soft water. But with hard water, the heaters showed up to a 25 percent decrease in efficiency over the lifetime of the appliance.

Tankless heaters using soft water also maintained their original efficiency rating over a 15-year span. But, when the tankless appliances heated hard water, substantial mineral build-up prevented them from functioning after less than two years of equivalent water use.

And, when it came to cost, researchers at the Battelle Institute found soft water delivered savings of almost 60 percent, compared with water heaters using hard water.

Showerhead performance also was examined by researchers. Those spraying hard water saw a 75 percent decrease in flow rate in less than 18 months due to hard water mineral deposits. Soft water showerheads maintained their consistent flow and stream over time.

“You wouldn’t think the simple act of taking a shower could play such an important role in your family’s health,” says Poe. “But if your home has hard water, using a softener can help protect your family from dangerous bacteria and potential health problems, and it can save you money and prolong your appliances’ lifespans at the same time.”