The many myths of the UAE’s tap water

Hairloss, dry skin, premature ageing ... is there really something in the water in the UAE or is it all urban myth?

The tap water in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the government says, is fit for drinking, even unfiltered. Pawan Singh / The National
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Hair loss, dry skin, premature ageing – the problems blamed on tap water are many and varied. But experts dismiss them as myths to which people have been clinging for too long.

UAE tap water has been blamed for a multitude of evils, such as hair loss, dry skin and premature ageing. But is there really something in the water?

The official government line is that the desalinated water in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is fit for drinking, even unfiltered, and for washing. So what about that hair loss?

Mike Ryan, the “Dubai Hair Doctor”, has been studying the issue extensively since he arrived in the UAE five years ago, and carried out clinical trials with the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority on the subject.

The specialist in hair loss believes it is an urban myth to which people have been clinging for too long.

“There’s no scientific way the tap water can cause hair loss,” Dr Ryan says. “People think that because when they come to the UAE, in the first 12 to 18 months, they have a huge problem with hair fall and they attribute this to the water.

“There are various factors that are actually causing this – the food, the arid conditions, stress – but the water in your shower is not one of them.”

He estimates that 90 per cent of his clients think otherwise.

“I’ve fallen out with countless expat women because they swear by it, but they’ve got no scientific evidence for it at all,” he says. “Dubai life is quite stressful when you first arrive because it’s such a different lifestyle here, ­especially if you’re a European.

“The quality of the food is different and the fact that you’re living in air conditioning for 90 per cent of your life makes a big difference. But not the water in your shower.”

Despite this, the market for “anti-hair loss shower filters” in the UAE is booming.

One of those who experienced the hair-loss problem “within days of moving to the UAE” is Ela Jayne, an Australian living in Abu Dhabi.

“Once I bought a water filter it stopped and my normal, healthy hair returned,” she says. “If it’s anecdotal, it’s incredibly suspect that so many people have the ­exact same experience.”

Dr Ryan does concede that those anti-hair loss shower filters have some benefits.

“Your skin won’t feel quite as dry, as they filter out any impurities that are in the water – inevitably chlorine, which is a bleach and has a drying effect, particularly on western skin,” he says.

“It also dries the hair, for sure. So from a cosmetic point of view, the shower filters are a good idea.”

But he denies it is possible for the water to make your hair grey.

“If you’re going grey, it’s because you’re genetically predisposed to it, or because you could have vitamin B group deficiencies or oxidative stress,” he says.

Dr Ryan believes the water quality in Dubai to be “actually not bad, as desalinated water goes” but water from plastic bottles could affect your hair.

“If you drink out of bottles that have been stood in 40°C heat in Jebel Ali Port, that will certainly have an impact on the internal workings of your system, which the hair doesn’t like,” he says.

Zoe Shelley, an Australian environmental engineer, also has no qualms about drinking tap water. Ms Shelley says the desalination plants that make the UAE’s tap water are “world class”.

“I’m from Queensland and when we wanted to build a desalination plant we came to the Middle East for expertise,” she says. “People think I’m crazy for drinking tap water but as long as your plumbing is good, the water is probably better quality than bottled water.”

Mike Sand, director of Hitches and Glitches in Dubai, says that although bacterial contamination of water can happen with dirty water tanks or pipes, contamination of the water supply is “very unlikely”.

“In other countries where water pipes might run through an oilfield, if there was an oil leak there is a possibility you might pick up some sort of residual chemical,” Mr Sand says. “But it’s very unlikely in the UAE because we’re surrounded by sand more than anything else.”

While many western countries add fluoride to tap water, which studies have shown can reduce the rate of dental decay, the UAE does not. Fluoride is added to Nestle bottled water, Al Ain Water and Palm Spring Pure Water.

Dr Koyes Ahmed, medical director at Intercare Health Centre Abu Dhabi, says adding fluoride remains a controversial topic.

“Some people believe chronic consumption of fluoride may lead to dental fluorosis [brown staining], arthritis and bone disease, and other health issues, although the evidence is questionable,” Dr Ahmed says.

“In the UAE, some bottled brands add fluoride while others state naturally occurring levels instead, and no further additions.”

A major argument to support drinking filtered tap water is that the chemical BPA, or bisphenol A, in plastic bottles can also be harmful.

“This is disputed by some people as they believe the level of BPA in these bottles is minuscule,” Dr Ahmed says. “And many bottles are now manufactured with polyethylene terephthalate instead, and contain no BPA at all.”

Dr Ahmed says the biggest argument against bottled water is the environmental one.

Stephen King, a Dubai researcher and consultant on the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development, has been drinking tap water for the past 15 years.

“By 2050 there’s going to be more plastics in the ocean than fish,” Mr King says. “I drink directly from the tap for environmental reasons. That’s how I was brought up in the UK, so it’s just the norm for me.”

Tatiana Antonelli Abella, the founder of Goumbook, an environmental organisation that recently launched the “Drop It” campaign against plastic water bottles, recommends that people filter their tap water.

Ms Abella claims that bottled water and filtered tap water are almost exactly the same and it’s the taste, rather than health benefits, that distinguish them.

“The water companies just bottle that water and add more minerals to give their water a specific taste,” she says.

“For people to recognise their water it has to have this distinct taste, which depends on the minerals and salt you put in. But that doesn’t make it any healthier.”

Ms Abella claims that people wrongly assume they need to get magnesium or calcium from their water, “which is totally not necessary”.

“The minerals you need on a daily basis come from foods, not water. If you need calcium eat cheese, or broccoli,” she says.

She also disputes the notion that tap water contains too much salt.

“If you live in a country where you sweat a lot because it’s very hot, you actually need salt in the water,” Ms Abella says.

“It’s a myth that we need low-sodium water.

“That’s important for people who really suffer from hypertension or water retention but, otherwise, it doesn’t matter.

“They’re just branding ideas to sell you the water.”