Tap or bottled water: Which is better for you?

Dear Alice,

Which is better for you, tap or bottled water?

Dear Reader,

Whether you mean healthier, safer, or both, it’s not clear which is better. Without an obvious winner in this match-up, making a decision between the two boils down to personal choice. Some people prefer to drink bottled water because of taste preference, convenience, or a lack of access to clean and safe tap water. However, tap water tends to be more budget- and environmentally-friendly. Overall, water may seem like a simple drink of choice, but there are several factors you may want to consider the next time you’re between tap and bottled water.

All water, bottled and tap, must adhere to standards of quality. Both sources contain microbiological and chemical contaminants that enter the water supply through nature, by animals, or from humans and must meet state and federal safety requirements for acceptable levels of contaminants. In everyday terms, it wouldn’t be feasible to eliminate all contaminants from water — not only would it be extremely expensive, it also wouldn't offer any added health benefit for most populations. Here’s where the differences emerge: In order to ensure safety, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — under requirement of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) — sets a maximum acceptable level for certain contaminants in municipal water (public water supply, such as town or city drinking water; a.k.a., tap water). Bottled water is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), just as any other packaged food or beverage. It has to be processed, packaged, shipped, and stored in a sanitary manner, and labeled accurately and truthfully. Bottled water still may contain contamination, though, depending on the source and bottling method. And though it’s regulated by the FDA, there are fewer regulations for bottled water testing and compliance compared to tap water — at least for now.

While these regulations for tap and bottled make the water you’re drinking safe for most individuals, those with compromised immune systems might be more vulnerable to these contaminants (such as people undergoing HIV/AIDS therapy or chemotherapy, organ transplant recipients, pregnant women, or older adults). If you’re part of this vulnerable group, it’s a good idea to read the label on bottled water thoroughly and talk with your health care provider to see if any additional precautions are advised.

That’s not to say every substance in your drinking water is harmful. Many American tap water supplies contain fluoride, which is typically added at processing plants before it flows through your faucet. Fluoride is critical to preventing cavities and promoting oral health in general, especially among children with developing teeth. Bottled water, on the other hand, is not necessarily fluoridated or, if it is, it contains a very small amount. If you live in the United States, check out My Water’s Fluoride to learn about how much of it is in your tap water.

Cavity protection may be a bonus, but some people find tap water taste unpleasant. That could be because some contaminants (such as iron, sulfur, and chlorine) can affect the taste and smell of tap water. If you’re interested in keeping fluoride in, but the other stuff out, you can use a variety of water treatment strategies to further filter drinking water. Two methods for home treatment include:

  • Filtration units: These devices remove impurities through either a physical barrier or a chemical or biological process. Canisters must be changed according to manufacturer's recommendations. It’s good to note that these units don't remove lead or copper.
  • Boiling water: This process kills bacteria, but since it reduces the volume of water, it can concentrate other contaminants that aren't affected by temperature.

Though there are some minor differences, neither bottled nor tap water is stands out as the definitive choice; the difference may only be felt in your wallet or recycling bin. If portability or convenience is an issue, reusable water bottles are a good option for helping you stay hydrated on the go. To learn more about them, read Is reusing water bottles safe? in the Go Ask Alice! archives.

Here’s to quenching your thirst for knowledge on water! 

Last updated Jul 15, 2016
Originally published Nov 30, 2001

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