Your Drinking Water Could Contain Toxins—Here Are The Best Water Filters To Keep You Safe

Being aware of your water quality—and how to adequately filter it—is incredibly important.

August 8, 2017
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how to choose the best water filter
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We wish we could simply tell you "This is THE BEST water filter you can buy"—and send you on your merry way.

But the truth is the “best” water filter for your home depends on two factors that will be different for everyone: the contaminants present in your water, and the style of filter that is most practical for your household. Luckily, once you’ve identified those two things, the rest is easy.

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What's contaminating your water supply?

Thanks to the Environmental Working Group’s new Tap Water Database, you can type in your zip code and find out exactly what contaminants are lurking in your local public water supply. For example, you might find that your municipality is plagued with high levels of agricultural chemicals but that your water is well within safe levels of mercury. This information will help you decide what types of contaminants you want to focus on when shopping for a water filter, since not all filters work the same way or filter out all of the same toxins. (If you have a well, you can buy a well water testing kit like this one to find out what’s in your water.)

Related: This New Online Tool Helps You Find Out If Your Local Tap Water Is Safe To Drink

How can you filter it out? 

Now that you know the contaminants in your water supply, use the EWG’s Water Filter Guide to find a water filter that will remove the contaminants you’re most concerned about. The most important rule of buying a water filter is to choose one that is certified by the Water Quality Association or NSF International, independent organizations that have verified the filter actually gets rid of the contaminants it claims to remove.

When you're shopping for a new filter, it helps to understand the available options in water filter technology. There are a dozen or so different types of water filter technologies available, but the three most important ones you should know are activated carbon, ion exchange, and reverse osmosis. Most water filters will use one or a combination of these three filtration technologies. (You can read more about water filter technologies here.)

Activated carbon filtration: You may know this material by its trendier name, activated charcoal. It's also the most widely used type of water filter. Contaminants chemically bond to the carbon as water flows through the filter, removing them from your drinking water. There are two types of activated carbon filters: granulated activated carbon and carbon block. Carbon block is carbon that is shaped into blocks under high pressure and is typically considered more effective because it has more surface area for contaminants to bond to. Granulated activated carbon filters are comprised of small bits of carbon and are generally less effective (though they work better when water moves through slowly.)

Ion exchange filtration: Ion exchange works by passing water over a resin that replaces undesirable ions with more desirable ones. This technology is most commonly used for water softeners. Lots of filters use ion exchange filtration in conjunction with activated carbon.

Reverse osmosis filtration: Reverse osmosis is the king of water filtration systems. It forces water through a semipermeable membrane, blocking all particles larger than water molecules, and therefore captures many toxins not trapped by carbon filters. Reverse osmosis filters often do incorporate a carbon filter component, too, however, in order to capture chlorine, trihalomethanes, and VOCs that can slip past the membrane. It’s important to note that reverse osmosis systems waste a lot of water—they typically use up three to twenty times more water than they produce, according to the EWG, which is why it is recommended they only be used for drinking and cooking.

Water filter options

Choose the style of water filter that works best for your needs—whether that’s a big reverse osmosis system installed under the sink, or a simple water pitcher with a built-in filter. Below, we weigh the pros and cons of each. 

faucet water filter
Photograph courtesy of Amazon.com
Faucet mount systems

These typically use carbon filters that last up to three months before replacement. Advanced models may also include ion exchange water softener components.

Pros

+ Can easily switch between low pressure filtered water and regular tap water
+ Doesn’t take up fridge space
+ Easily accessible for cooking
+ Filters last longer than pitcher filters
+ Great for apartments where you can’t install plumbed-in systems
+ Inexpensive
 

Cons

+ Can crowd sink space, especially when washing dishes
+ May not fit all types of faucets
 

Recommended options

Brita Faucet Water Filter System, from $20, Amazon.com
Culligan Faucet Mount Filter, from $22, Amazon.com
PUR Horizontal Water Filtration Mount, from $20, Amazon.com

water filter pitcher
Photograph courtesy of Target.com
Pitchers

Pitchers often use granulated activated carbon filters; some models may include ion exchange.

Pros

+ Portable
+ No installation necessary
+ Good for apartments and one or two person households
+ Inexpensive
 

Cons

+ Takes up refrigerator space
+ Filters slowly
+ Needs to be refilled often
 

Recommended options

Brita Grand Pitcher, from $35, Amazon.com; from $25, Target.com
Bria Stream Rapids Filter-As-You-Pour Pitcher, $30, Amazon.com and Target.com
Zero Water Stainless Steel Pitcher, $40, Amazon.com

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water dispenser
Photograph courtesy of Target.com
Countertop dispensers

These are basically a giant version of the water filter pitchers—in fact, filters are interchangeable between pitchers and countertop dispenser for most brands.

Pros

+ Holds a lot of water without obscuring sink space
+ Good option if you have a sink that isn’t compatible with faucet mount filters
+ Inexpensive
 

Cons

+ Heavy
+ Hogs your counter or fridge space
 

Recommended options

Brita Ultra Max 18 Cup Water Dispenser, $29, Amazon.com
PUR Classic 18 Cup Water Dispenser, $25, Target.com
Zero Water 23 Cup Dispenser, $40, Target.com

counter top sink filter
Photograph courtesy of Amazon.com
Countertop filter (connected to sink faucet)

These systems typically use carbon block filters, which are more effective than granulated activated carbon. They also often have a secondary filtration technology, like ion exchange or a physical filter, to capture additional contaminants.

Pros

+ Space saving; doesn’t crowd access to sink
+ Good choice if you can’t install an under-the-sink system
+ Easily switch between filtered and regular tap water
+ Better filtration technology
 

Cons

+ More expensive than faucet mount systems
+ Replacement filters can also be more expensive than for faucet mount systems

Recommended options
 

Aquasana Countertop Water Filter, from $80, Amazon.com
Brondell H2O+ Cypress, $130, Amazon.com; $169, Target.com
Brondell H2O+ Pearl, $63, Amazon.com and Target.com

water filtering bottles
Photograph courtesy of Amazon.com
Filter water bottles

Water bottles with built-in filters use granulated activated carbon technology. Filters last as long as those for water pitchers, about 2 months.

Pros

+ Great for when you’re filling up your bottle at the gym or another location without a filter
+ Dishwasher safe
+ Handy for travel
+ Inexpensive
 

Cons

+ Not practical for all house water filtration needs
 

Recommended options

Brita Bottle 2-Pack, $14, Amazon.com and Target.com
Thermos Tritan Filtration Bottle, $13, Amazon.com
Zero Water Tumbler, $15, Amazon.com and Target.com

 
 
under sink filtration system
Photograph courtesy of Amazon.com
Under sink filters

Of all the filter styles, under sink systems that attach directly to your plumbing offer the most options in filtration technology. Many of them use carbon block filters paired with other types of filters designed to block additional toxins, sediment, and minerals. You’ll also find plenty of under-the-sink water softeners, too, as well as pricier reverse-osmosis systems. Similar options are available for in-line refrigerator filters.

Pros

+ Lots of options for filtering specific toxins
+ Filter is hidden out of the way
+ Don’t need to sacrifice water pressure
+ Don’t need to replace filters as often
 

Cons

+ Usually more expensive (though price can vary widely)
+ May require professional installation depending on system
+ Reverse osmosis systems use up a lot of water
 

Recommended options

GE Twist and Lock Under Counter Dual Flow, $125, Amazon.com
Frigidaire Refrigerator Filter, $41, Amazon.com
APEC ROES-50 Reverse Osmosis System, $199, Amazon.com