IN A NUTSHELL
- Showering can contribute to indoor air pollution by releasing VOCs from the water into the air, which you then breathe in.
- These VOCs mostly include disinfection byproducts (DBPs) that result from chlorine and/or chloramine being mixed with natural organic materials in the water.
- Shower filters have pros and cons. They can’t filter out all kinds of contaminants, but they can significantly decrease the amount of chlorine, chloramine, DBPs, and certain other contaminants that are in tap water.
- Installing a shower filter can be a good idea for anyone, and it may help soften skin and hair. But those with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, allergies, eczema, dandruff, and sensitive skin may benefit the most.
- The main types of media used for shower filters include carbon, KDF, and vitamin C.
Table of Contents
- IN A NUTSHELL
- Do You Really Need a Shower Filter?
- Chlorine vs. Chloramine
- Health Effects of Chlorine and Disinfection Byproducts
- Health Effects of Chloramine and Its DBPs
- Different Types of Shower Filters for Different Types of Water
- Do Shower Filters Work? (Pros & Cons)
- 1. Shower filters can help reduce overall exposure to environmental toxicants.
- 2. Shower filters cannot filter out everything.
- 3. Shower filters cannot soften water.
- 4. Shower filters can help with dry skin and hair.
- 5. Some shower filters may reduce water pressure.
- Who Should (and Should Not) Use a Shower Filter?
- How to Choose a Shower Head Filter
- 1. Type & Amount of Media
- 2. Third Party Testing/Certification
- 3. Water Pressure
- 4. Shower Head Filters vs. Inline Shower Filters
- 5. Price
- 6. Filter Replacement Frequency
- 7. Types & Preferences
- The Best Shower Filters to Check Out
- Shower Filter Alternatives
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Do You Really Need a Shower Filter?
Despite the fact that most (though not all) water in the U.S. is free from pathogens that could potentially make one acutely ill, there are a lot of other kinds of chemicals and contaminants in the average US tap water, including things like PFAS, lead, industrial chemicals, and more.
When it comes to the water that you ingest through drinking and cooking, you’ll want to filter out as many of those toxicants as possible. But for the water that comes out of our shower head, your strategy will likely be a bit different. The main reason for this is that many types of water filters (like the under-the-sink or countertop ones you’d use for drinking water) will not work well with the hot water and high water pressure you get in the shower.
Therefore, the main chemicals of concern when it comes to showering and bathing are chlorine, chloramine, and disinfection byproducts (DBPs).
DBPs such as trihalomethanes, haloacetic acids, and nitrosamines are formed when chlorine and bromine interact with natural organic materials in water. Many are known to cause cancer, disrupt normal thyroid function, and more.
For this reason, federal US water standards set maximum allowable levels for some DBPs. There are a lot of different kinds of DBPs and most of them (and their effects) are still unknown.
Therefore, many people find a shower filter helpful in at least decreasing their exposure to these chemicals.
Chlorine vs. Chloramine
Chlorine and chloramine are the main contaminants that shower filters aim to remove. These chemicals are used by municipalities to disinfect water and remove bacteria. Chlorination was first introduced in the U.S. in the early 1900s (other parts of the world had started doing it before then) and then chloramine treatment was introduced as an alternative a few decades later.
Cities started using chloramination (which is a process that adds ammonia to chlorinated water) in order to help meet standards set by the EPA to lower levels of DBPs. Chloraminated water tends to produce less DBPs compared to chlorine.
A second reason chloramination is used is because it lasts longer in the water compared to chlorine (which dissipates from water relatively quickly). This means that by the time the water has made its way from the treatment plant to your home, chloraminated water has had less of an opportunity to be re-contaminated with bacteria and other pathogens from the pipes.
While that initially sounds like a good idea, chloramine just comes with its own problems, which we’ll get to in a minute.
The reason this matters when it comes to your shower filter is because different types of filter media remove different chemicals. A filter that will reduce chlorine may not remove chloramine and vice versa.
So before choosing your shower filter, you may need to find out whether your local water treatment plant uses chlorination or chloramination. The best way to find out is by simply contacting your water supply plant or doing a quick Google search. If you search for “[your city] water quality report” you should be able to find a recent annual report outlining what kind of filtration is used, where chlorine/chloramine may be added in the process, and how much chlorine and DBPs were found during testing.
If you’d prefer to save the time and effort, you could also choose a shower filter that contains multiple types of filtration media. Aquasana, for example, is a good option for both chlorinated and chloraminated water.
What About Well Water?
If you have well water, you likely won’t have chlorine nor chloramine in your water. Those with well water will most likely want to skip the shower filter and instead go with a more complete whole-home filtration system that is tailored to the specific needs of their water. Unfortunately, this isn’t the guide for that, but stay tuned for more well-water related guide in the future!
Health Effects of Chlorine and Disinfection Byproducts
Although we certainly don’t want pathogens in our water, disinfecting chemicals come with some concerns.
Negative health impacts of chlorine and its byproducts can include:
- Respiratory problems (asthma)
- Eye, throat, and lung irritation
- Disruption of the gut and skin microbiota
- Skin and hair concerns
- Cancers of various kinds
- Birth defects and miscarriage
The main way we ingest chlorine’s byproducts when we shower is not actually through skin absorption but rather through inhalation. Chlorine gives off various VOC byproducts through vaporization and contributes to indoor air pollution. So basically: when chlorine mixes with hot water, these toxic byproducts vaporize into the air where we then breathe them in.
Health Effects of Chloramine and Its DBPs
Now let’s talk about chloramine. According to the EPA, more than one in five Americans drinks chloraminated water. Remember: chloramination was introduced in an effort to meet federal standards for DBPs. While that seems like a positive thing, there are some downsides to chloramination, including:
- While it may decrease the amount of DBPs, it doesn’t get rid of them completely. (Chloramination water still contains DBPs and can even exceed the legal limit set by the EPA.)
- Plus, there are different DBPs to worry about with chloraminated water. For example, in a process called nitrification, the ammonia from chloramination can oxidize and transformed into nitrates and nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.
- Chloramine is more difficult to filter out of the water. It technically can evaporate from water like chlorine does, but not as fast. (This is important for people who own fish and other aquatic animals to know!)
- Some cities, such as Washington D.C. and Greenvile, N.C., have seen lead levels rise when they transitioned their water treatment plants from chlorine to chloramine.
- Nitrification can actually reduce the antibacterial power of chloramination and in rare cases can result dangerous bacteria growth.
Okay, now that you’ve got the basics about chlorine, chloramine, and their DBPs, let’s talk specifically about shower filters.
Different Types of Shower Filters for Different Types of Water
As mentioned above, you may need a different kind of shower filter depending on if your water is treated with chlorine or chloramine. So let’s look at the different kinds of filtration that’s most commonly used for shower filters:
There are a few different kinds of carbon filters. Activated carbon is probably the most well-known type since it’s commonly used for Brita-type water pitchers. Activated carbon is generally good for removing or reducing chlorine, but it has limitations when it comes to chloramine. Although activated carbon can technically reduce chloramine, it can usually only do so at a slow flow-rate, which is obviously not what you want in a shower filter.
Activated carbon is also not great with higher temperatures. This is one reason why the best shower filters combine several types of filtration media.
Catalytic carbon is one of the few types of media that does a relatively good job at dealing with chloramine and DBPs. However, it tends to be a more expensive option and is usually only used for whole-house filtrations systems rather than shower head filters or pitcher filters.
Kinetic degradation fluxion (KDF) filters are made from a combination of flaked or powdered copper and zinc. KDF is one of the most common types of media used for shower filters. That’s because it’s one of the few types that can withstand higher temperatures, and also because it can deal with both chlorine and chloramine.
KDF shower filters can also reduce other contaminates like heavy metals, as well as fungi and bacteria.
Vitamin C shower filters can also reduce chlorine and chloramine, but they can’t do much for other types of contaminants. They’re not the best option, but they’re definitely better than nothing. Again, some filters will combine vitamin C filtration with other types of media.
Do Shower Filters Work? (Pros & Cons)
As mentioned above, when you’re in the shower, you can either absorb chemicals and contaminants through skin absorption or via inhalation. So let’s look at the potential benefits as well as the limitations of shower filters.
1. Shower filters can help reduce overall exposure to environmental toxicants.
Shower filters can definitely reduce certain contaminants in the water. Some filters may only slightly reduce chlorine, chloramine, and/or DBPs, for example, while other filters can reduce them by 90% or more.
2. Shower filters cannot filter out everything.
Shower filters are mostly equipped to reduce the types of chemicals that will turn into vapor in warm or hot water.
They cannot filter out everything. PFAS (a.k.a “forever chemicals”), for example, cannot usually be removed by shower head filters.
There are three main characteristics about shower filters that make them unable to filter water in the way a whole-house filter or a high-quality countertop filter can:
- Flow rate: Your shower filter needs to be able to maintain the same or similar water pressure you’re used to. This means the water gets less contact with the filtering media and therefore won’t remove as many contaminants.
- Water temperature: Some types of filtration doesn’t work as well at higher temperatures. (Maybe this is yet another reason to try out cold showers?!)
- Size: Again, more filter media usually means greater filtration capacity. Since shower filters have to be attached right at the shower head, they usually have to have less media compared to something like a whole house or countertop water filter, which can take up more space.
3. Shower filters cannot soften water.
Most shower water filters cannot reduce hard water. For that, you’ll probably need a whole house water softener instead. (Renters with a hard water issue will want to talk with their landlord about this.)
That being said, you may still experience softer skin and hair by filtering out chlorine and DBPs…
4. Shower filters can help with dry skin and hair.
Chlorine and DBPs can be quite harsh on the skin, especially if you’re prone to things like itchy skin, dandruff, brittle hair, and the like.
Even though installing a filtered shower head is not likely to completely solve these types of issues, reducing harsh chemicals from your shower water may help contribute to softer, healthier hair and skin.
5. Some shower filters may reduce water pressure.
This is a common complaint among people who install shower filters, and it’s an important consideration to make if and when you pick out your filter.
I personally experienced zero water pressure reduction with the Aquasana shower head filter. Whatever brand you go with, be sure to check the reviews to reduce your chances of ending up with a shower head filter with a slow flow and suboptimal water pressure.
Who Should (and Should Not) Use a Shower Filter?
People who might want to try out a shower filter include:
- Renters and others who do not or cannot have a whole home filtration system.
- Those prone to dry skin, eczema, hair loss, and similar conditions.
- Individuals with allergies, asthma, cancer, and other chronic conditions.
- Those who live in areas where the water coming from their local water treatment plant may not be safe. (Think Flint, Michigan, etc.)
- People who are generally trying to reduce environmental burden for overall wellbeing and preventative reasons.
Those who may NOT want to get a shower filter are:
- People who have a whole house water filter (the water coming out of your shower head is already filtered!)
- People who have well water will probably want to install a whole-house filtration system instead, since most shower filters aren’t really meant to deal with well water.
- Those who realistically aren’t going to swap out the filter as often as it needs to be replaced. (When filters aren’t changed, it can actually end up putting more toxicants into the water that comes out of our shower head.)
How to Choose a Shower Head Filter
There are several factors to consider when picking out which shower filter is best for you:
1. Type & Amount of Media
As discussed above, different types of media reduce different types of chemicals. You’ll want to consider what kind of tap water you have (chlorinated? chloraminated? something else?).
Usually, shower filters with multiple kinds of media are a better option because they can deal with different kinds of contaminants and different types of water.
Additionally, shower filters with more filter media (in other words, larger filters) may be better because the water will have more contact time with the filtration media. (Larger shower filters aren’t always better, but it’s one factor to keep in mind.)
2. Third Party Testing/Certification
Ideally, you’ll want to look for a shower filter that has been tested by a third party and verified to actually reduce or remove what the company says it does.
The most common standards for water filters is NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) and ANSI (American National Standards Institute).
If a brand says they’re third party tested but won’t share the results or say who actually did the testing, it may not be the best choice.
3. Water Pressure
As mentioned, reduced water pressure can be an issue with some filtered shower heads. Reading reviews from previous customers can usually give you a good idea of whether or not the filter will affect water pressure.
Also, check the return policy before buying to make sure you’re covered in the case that you do end up with a reduced water flow and want to return the filter.
4. Shower Head Filters vs. Inline Shower Filters
You may want to get an inline filter that will easily attach to your existing shower head, or you may want to get a filter that will actually replace your shower head.
Inline shower filters can come in various different shapes and sizes, but they usually go anywhere in between where the water comes out of the wall and the shower head.
For example, see the difference between this inline shower filter from Aquasana (which you’d use with your existing shower head) versus this Jolie shower head filter which replaces your existing head:
There are different reasons why you might want to go with one or the other, but aesthetic preference is the main thing here.
Most shower water filters run from $20 to $150 for the up front cost. But perhaps more importantly, you’ll want to consider the yearly price of replacing the filters for fresh ones. Before buying, check how often the filter will need to be replaced and the price of each filter will be to find the yearly cost.
Most companies offer a discount if you sign up for a subscription. (This can also help make sure you don’t forget to change the filter when it’s time!)
6. Filter Replacement Frequency
Some filters need to be replaced as often as every 90 days, while others can go about six months without needing swapped.
It’s important that you replace your filter regularly, so be realistic with yourself here. If you get a filter that needs to be changed more frequently, are you actually going to do it? Or should you choose a filter that can go longer without being changed?
Tip: When you install and/or replace your shower filter, put an event on the calendar right when you install it so that you get a reminder when it’s time to swap the filter out for a new one.
7. Types & Preferences
In addition to the size and filtration media, there are other things you may want to consider when choosing which shower filter is best for you:
- Does aesthetic matter to you? Do you want the color/style to match your existing bathroom palette?
- Do you care about the size of filter and how much space it takes up in your shower?
- Do you want a handheld wand shower head?
The Best Shower Filters to Check Out
Best Overall: Aquasana
Aquasana’s shower filters use activated carbon and KDF-55 for their filter media and it’s third-party tested to meet NSF/ANSI Standard 177. They offer four different models, so you can either get a massage shower wand, use your own shower head, or use one of their standard shower heads. And if you’re worried about water pressure, it has the highest flow rate possible.
Best Aesthetic: Jolie
If you want something prettier, Jolie is a good option. It’s just a shower head, and it comes in Brushed Steel, Jet Black, or Modern Chrome. It uses KDF-55 and calcium sulfate for the filtration media. They also say their filters are third-party tested to NSF Standard 177.
The Jolie shower filter has lots of good reviews from buyers, but it is on the pricier side (starting at $148). The filter also needs to be replaced more often (about every 90 days, versus every 6 months for the Aquasana).
Best Budget: Culligan ISH-100 White Inline Shower Filter
Coming in at about $35, this is one of the most affordable shower filters that also meets the NSF/ANSI Standard 177. It also lasts as long as the Aquasana (6 months or 10,000 gallons) before you need to replace the filter. It uses carbon and KDF for the filtration media.
Best Budget Runner Up: Aquabliss
The main reason Aquabliss is the “runner up” instead of the “best of” is that it’s not NSF certified; you basically just have to trust them that it removes what they say it does.
But the reason we’re including them as a good option to consider is that it uses a lot of different kinds of filter media, it has a lot of good reviews, and it also lasts about 6 months. It also is about the same price as the Culligan (~$35).
Shower Filter Alternatives
If you decide a shower filter isn’t for you, you may want to consider a different way of addressing your shower water. The two main options would be a whole-home filtration system and/or a water softener.
Whole Home Filtration System
This would involve installing one big filter where the water comes into your home and would provide filtered water for every faucet and shower in your house.
Whole house water filters tend to be a better option for home owners, but renters can always talk to their landlords to see if they could work something out. It’s definitely a more expensive option up front compared to point-of-use filters. However, once it’s installed, whole-home filters tends to require less filter-changing and be less expensive over a long period of time.
Aquasana has a few different home filtration systems to choose from, but stay tuned for a more complete guide to choosing a whole-house filter.
If you identify hard water as the main problem with your shower water, then you may want to consider a water softener. Although some shower filters can make the water slightly softer, they can’t really soften water the way an actual water softener can.
Water softeners can’t filter your water, so you may want to combine a softener with a filter.
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