Water Softeners—Does Salt-Free Really Work? (+ What to Consider)

Posted April 21, 2021 by in Lifestyle

Water softening refers to the removal of metal cations, such as magnesium and calcium, from water. The resulting water is better for washing and drinking.

Apart from ion exchange, which is the most common water softening method, some other processes are also in use these days. A pressing question that arises is whether these methods work or not.

Does a salt-free water softener work as well as a salt-based softener? The marketing claims hint towards the affirmative, but does science back up this method? We discuss this in detail below.

Why Is Soft Water Better?

The hardness of water is determined by the presence of certain minerals in it. By removing these minerals, water is made ‘soft,’ thus, more suitable for usage. Here are some of the benefits of soft water:

  • Better Cleaning: Since hard water contains minerals, it lowers the efficiency of detergents by binding with their components. On the other hand, softer water increases their efficiency many times.
  • Less Soap Usage: When cleaning dishes or clothes with hard water, you need to use an excess of soap. However, soft water lowers your soap usage by 70%.
  • No Buildup: Being rich in minerals, hard water leads to scale buildup on faucets and nearby countertops. On the contrary, soft water prevents buildup and maintains the efficiency of water heaters.
  • Long Appliance Life: Hard water lessens the life expectancy of appliances like electric kettles, washing machines, dishwashers, etc. Meanwhile, soft water increases their lifespan since it does not leave deposits.
  • Clean Dishes: Regardless of how awesome your dishwasher is, the dishes will still come out unclean when hard water is used since it leaves mineral deposits and spots. On the other hand, soft water makes your dishes spotlessly clean.
  • Clean Clothes: Just like dishes, soft water also keeps your clothes clean since it increases the efficiency of detergents and prevents mineral deposits on the garments.

When Should You Use Salt-Free Water Softeners?

While they’re not considered as effective as salt-based softeners, salt-free softeners have their advantages. If you’re not a fan of the ‘slick’ feeling soft water has on your body while showering, you might want to opt for this softening method.

Here are some benefits of salt-free water softeners.

  • Scale Removal: While salt-based softeners prevent new scale from forming in your pipes, salt-free softeners actually help in removing old buildup from the plumbing.
  • Maintenance-free: Unlike salt-based systems, a salt-free water softener does not need to be maintained.
  • Easy Installation: Moreover, these systems are also easy to install.
  • Eco-friendly: Since there’s no involvement of salts, the systems are environment-friendly.

Do Salt-Free Softening Systems Work?

A standard water softening system uses ion exchange to remove calcium and magnesium from water. In this process, there’s a polymer resin that’s responsible for replacing the hard minerals with sodium ions.

Many people believe that salt-free systems remove hard minerals just like salt-based ones. However, this is a misconception since salt-free softening systems do not follow the ion exchange principle.

Therefore, they merely ‘condition’ water rather than softening it.

Instead of removing minerals from water, a salt-free system only alters them so that they do not precipitate to form buildups or cling to plumbing and other surfaces.

Salt-Free Conditioners Or Salt-Based Water Softeners: What To Consider?

Now that we’ve established that salt-free systems merely condition water, let’s discuss the considerations when choosing between them and salt-based softening systems.

Hard Mineral Removal

First off, it’s important to remember that salt-free water conditioners do not remove hard minerals from water. They only crystallize these minerals so that they do not precipitate on your clothes, dishes, or water pipes.

On the contrary, salt-based systems remove hard minerals, such as magnesium and calcium, lowering the water hardness in real terms.

Number of Benefits

Salt-free water conditioning systems only reduce scale buildup in the plumbing and on faucets. Other than that, they do not have any benefits, nor do they reduce hard water effects.

Meanwhile, salt-based systems have a range of benefits. They minimize buildup and prevent staining on clothes and dishes. Moreover, salt-based softeners remove minerals from shower water, giving you shinier hair and softer skin. Here are all the benefits of these softeners:

  • Lower scale buildup
  • Healthier hair and skin
  • No spotting on laundry
  • Reduction in the amount of cleaning products that need to be used
  • Higher efficiency of hygiene and cleaning products
  • Increased lifespan of appliances

Certifications

Salt-free systems do not meet NSF standards. Do note that the Department of Public Health legally requires this standard.

On the other hand, salt-based softening systems are NSF-certified and are in line with the standards set by the Department of Public Health. Moreover, salt-based water softeners are actually backed by science and provide measurable results.

Thus, water passing through these systems has different characteristics than hard water, while water conditioned by salt-free systems does not test differently.

Are Salt-Free Water Conditioners Disadvantageous?

On the surface, it might seem like salt-free systems are beneficial since they do not add excess sodium to your diet. Plus, these ‘softeners’ have been marketed to make it seem as if they do exactly what their salt-based counterparts do.

More importantly, some people are attracted by the idea of these systems’ no-maintenance functionality. Since you don’t have to add salt to the system regularly, there’s little to no hassle.

However, salt-free systems aren’t as reliable as they may seem. First off, they’re more expensive yet less efficient. In fact, they don’t require maintenance simply because they don’t work the same way.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t install salt-free systems.

Just know that salt-free ‘softeners’ are a sham. Instead, you should only buy from companies who market the salt-free systems as ‘conditioners.’


To answer the question if salt-free softeners really work, you need to consider how they differ from salt-based systems in operation. While the former only crystallizes hard minerals, the latter actually removes them from drinking and cleaning water.

Therefore, when you’re choosing a water softener system, keep in mind that only salt-based actually soften water, imparting the benefits of soft water for your hair, skin, plumbing, laundry, and dishes.