How To Choose The Right Filter For Your Water Quality & Budget
Even though the water we drink in the United States has been regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act since 1974, a lot of the tap water around the country could still use an extra level of filtration.
According to the Environmental Working Group's comprehensive tap water database, last updated in 2019, there are around 300-400 contaminants including lead, microorganisms, radioactive isotopes, pesticides, and metals currently in municipal water systems nationwide.
As a functional medicine practitioner, I frequently get asked about how to clean up water sources at home. Here's my advice on how to do so quickly and effectively, based on your needs and budget:
First things first, know what's in your water:
Water quality varies depending on where you live, so it's important to know what's in your particular water system. Every year your local water utility sends you a water quality report. Most of us just throw it out, thinking it's junk mail or not useful, but it is! If you don't have yours, you can get them online or by calling your local water utility.
Your Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), also known as a water-quality report, compares your water's contaminant levels to the EPA's standards.
This report tells you about the water in your municipality, about what's coming out of your particular tap. Depending on your home or apartments pipes, it's also important to run your own water test as well. Your state or local health department might offer free test kits, or you can find water test kits online or at home improvement stores like Lowe's or Home Depot.
You can also check out input your zip code into the EWG's online Tap Water Database, which compiles the latest results from 32 million state water records.
Once you know what's in your tap water, you can choose the right filter for your needs.
Then, choose your filter based on this pro-con list.
There are four main categories: carbon filters (which come in a few different forms), reverse osmosis, UV, and distillation. Let's break down the pros and cons of each:
Carbon filters remove fewer contaminants than reverse osmosis filters, but they are cheaper. These include a faucet water filter, a pitcher water filter, an under-sink water filter, and a countertop water filter.
What they remove:
Lead, PCBs, pesticides and herbicides, chlorine, gasoline and dry-cleaning by-products, radon, small amount of pharmaceutical drugs, and some bacteria and parasites.
There are several ways you use carbon filters. Let's briefly go over the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Faucet carbon filters:
These filters attach directly to the end of your faucet, hence the name.
Inexpensive and easy to install. Attach to your faucet and voilà.
They don't fit all faucets and can slow down flow, which can be annoying. Faucet filters typically require you to change filters more often than other carbon filter options.
Pitcher carbon filters:
These are pitchers with an activated carbon filter that can be filled up and poured from.
Inexpensive and no installation needed.
Some models can pour slowly and filters can clog. They also require more frequent filter changes.
Under-sink carbon filter:
These are mounted underneath your kitchen sink and attached to your water line.
Unlike other models, these don't take up counter or fridge space. They typically require fewer filter changes. Overall, they are more convenient than carafe or faucet filters—but they can be pricey.
They require installation, some professionally.
$60 to $500
Countertop carbon filter:
These filters sit on your counter and connect directly to your faucet.
These are less likely to clog and slow down pour rate. They require less frequent filter changes than the carafe or faucet options.
They don't fit all faucets and take up counter space.
$80 to $1,000.
This filtration process uses your water pressure to push water through a semi-permeable membrane that blocks particles.
What they remove:
All the chemicals and heavy metal that carbon filters remove and additional ones that they may miss.
Reverse-osmosis filters are overall more effective at removing pollutants and are a good choice for someone whose tap water contains contaminants of concern, like PFAS.
They can be slow and require more upkeep. Reverse osmosis also notoriously wastes water and use up more energy. (You can look for units that have permeate pumps that decrease water waste.)
$99 to $2,000.
This system uses UV light to filter your water.
What they remove:
They don't 'remove' things—they only disinfect the water.
Ultraviolet light units disinfect water, killing bacteria and microorganisms.
They do not remove chemicals and heavy metals. These are best used in conjunction with a carbon or reverse-osmosis filtration system.
$100 to $1,000.
Water distillation systems:
This filtration approach heats water enough to vaporize it and then condenses the steam back into water.
Distillation removes heavy metals, fluoride, and bacteria, viruses and chemicals that have a higher boiling point than water.
Distillers generally use a lot of electricity and require regular cleaning and maintenance. Distillation also cannot remove chlorine and other chemicals that do not have a higher boiling point than water.
$100 to $1,000.
Water filter certifications.
Ultimately, the best water filter for you depends on your needs and budget. With that being said, my favorite affordable option is the the Zerowater pitcher system. It’s a combination of filtration and deionization and comes in at under $50. And for a splurge, I recommend The Ultimate Permeate Pumped Reverse-Osmosis Drinking-Water Home System, which costs around $300. And you can read up on mbg's list of the best water filters of the year here.
Whatever filter you go with, I recommend choosing one that is verified by these National Science Foundation (NSF) standards:
- NSF Standard 42-Aesthetic Effects: This standard only reduces chlorine and improves the taste and smell of your water.
- NSF Standard 53-Health Effects: This is the next level of filtration. Look for this standard to remove more chemicals and heavy metals.
- NSF Standard 58-Reverse Osmosis: This applies only to reverse osmosis systems and removes many toxic pollutants.
- NSF Standard 401-Emerging Compounds/Incidental Contaminants: This standard covers up to 15 contaminants found in tap water such as pharmaceutical drugs, heavy metals, and flame retardants.
Don't forget about your shower!
If you are filtering your water, it's not just what you drink, it's also what you bathe with. Your skin is your largest organ and is highly absorptive. With a hot shower or bath, you are also inhaling steam.
So whether baths or showers are your thing, Rainshow'r Shower Filter and Crystal Ball Bath Dechlorinator are two great options to decrease chlorine levels.
The bottom line.
If recent reports are any indication, we still have a long way to go before every person in America has access to clean, high-quality drinking water. Thankfully, there are many types of technologies that can help you take things into your own hands and filter your water at home. Choose the right one for your needs and budget and drink (and shower!) a little easier.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian,The Inflammation Spectrum, and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.