Water softening is the removal of calcium, magnesium, and certain other metal cations in hard water. The resulting soft water requires less soap for the same cleaning effort, as soap is not wasted bonding with calcium ions. Soft water also extends the lifetime of plumbing by reducing or eliminating scale build-up in pipes and fittings. Water softening is usually achieved using lime softening or ion-exchange resins.
The presence of certain metal ions like calcium and magnesium principally as bicarbonates, chlorides, and sulfates in water causes a variety of problems. Hard water leads to the buildup of limescale, which can foul plumbing, and promote galvanic corrosion. In industrial scale water softening plants, the effluent flow from the re-generation process can precipitate scale that can interfere with sewage systems.
The slippery feeling associated with washing in soft water is caused by the weaker attraction of the soap to the water ions when the water has been stripped of its mineral content. The surface of human skin has a light charge that the soap tends to bind with, requiring more effort and a greater volume of water to remove. Hard water contains calcium or magnesium ions that form insoluble salts upon reacting with soap, leaving a coating of insoluble stearates on tub and shower surfaces, commonly called soap scum.