Is Bottled Water Healthier Than Your Average Tap Water?

After all, they always have names that evoke purity and nature.

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People may prefer bottled water over tap water for a number of reasons, such as taste or convenience. However, a commonly stated reason is that they do not “trust” their tap water, so they turn to the “clean” and “purified” bottled water. 

After all, bottled water always shows images of babbling brooks and sparkling springs. They often have names that evoke purity, nature, and cleanliness. Take a look at some of the most common bottled water brands: Poland Springs, Nestle Pure Life, Ice Mountain, and Fiji Natural Artesian Water. Are these bottled water brands really that “clean,” or is it just smart marketing?

What’s in the Bottle vs. What’s in the Tap

Unfortunately, it’s true that not every city in the United States has tap water that’s safe to drink. Contamination of drinking water can occur from pesticide runoff, animal waste, acid rain (caused by air pollution), hazardous waste dumpsites, and more, according to the National Ground Water Association.

However, the majority of U.S. cities do have access to safe drinking water in their taps. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your tap water doesn’t have “impurities,” but that it’s at a level that has been deemed safe. 

If the thought of any impurities in your tap water has you reaching for the plastic, hang on a second: Bottled water isn’t necessarily cleaner.

The harsh truth is that many studies have recently tested what’s actually in bottled water, and it's not exactly sparkling clean. In 2008, the Environmental Working Group conducted an analysis of 10 major bottled water brands and found at least 38 different pollutants, including disinfection byproducts that are linked to cancer and reproductive problems, a cancer-causing chemical known as bromodichloromethane, heavy metals, fertilizer residue, and pharmaceuticals like Tylenol.

Even more astounding, two of the bottled water brands were actually chemically identical to municipal tap water. In other words, they’re just tap water in a plastic bottle—and with a hefty price tag.

Plus, while municipal utilities are required to test their tap water regularly and publish the results online for their citizens to see, bottled water companies are not held to this same standard. That means you, as a consumer, have no way to check if your pricey bottled water is as pure as the label claims it is.

The Bottle Itself

You probably already know that plastic bottles add plastic to landfills and oceans. In fact, only about a third of plastic actually gets recycled, according to the EWG. The rest ends up in landfills, and 1.6 billion pounds of it end up in the seas. If you’re drinking enough bottled water to avoid dehydration, you might be contributing a few dozen plastic bottles to this problem each week.

But that’s not the only problem with plastic water bottles. These clear and aesthetically pleasing bottles are made from PET plastic. PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, contains chemicals that can leach into the water. These have not been studied carefully for their safety, but early research suggests these chemicals may be endocrine disruptors, meaning they may interfere with hormones in humans. Hormone disruption can affect numerous aspects of health, especially reproductive health.

For this reason, glass bottles may be slightly safer than plastic bottles—if you’re willing to pay more. This helps avoid the health risks of PET plastic, although there's still no way of knowing the water quality inside the glass bottle.

Are There Other Options?

Tap water isn’t necessarily perfect, and being concerned about the safety of your tap water is valid (just look at Flint, MI). If you’re concerned about your tap water, but want to move away from bottled water, your best option is to try a water filter.

Sure, there are fancy and pricey filters available, but even the simplest and cheapest water filters can reduce the most common contaminants, according to the EWG. You can also be more specific in your contaminant targeting: Certain filters work against different contaminants, so check your city’s water report to see what you want to filter out.

Oh, and a bonus: Filters are much, much cheaper than bottled water, and they don’t contribute to the plastic crisis in landfills and oceans.

Speaking about water myths, here are stubborn myths about drinking water you can pour out.