How to find the best shower filter (and why you should have one in your house)

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Written by Leigh Matthews

Last updated on

A whole home water filtration system is an ideal way to filter all of the water you use at home. Whether it’s your drinking water, or the water you shower and bathe in, there are filter options available. Isn’t filtering your shower water a little overkill? Isn’t it enough to just filter your drinking water? While I was also skeptical at first, a little research on shower filters has convinced me of the benefits of filtering shower water. In this post, I’ll take a look at those benefits and offer my recommendations for the best shower filter systems available.

The first thing to understand about the water you shower and bathe in is that it is normally pre-treated with chemicals such as chlorine to kill potential pathogens. Sadly, these chemicals do not magically disappear after use. Instead, the water you’re using to get clean likely contains residues of chlorine and other disinfection by-products (DBPs).

Looking for a pitcher, whole-house, or kitchen water filtration system? We’ve written on those too over here.

Our top picks for eco-friendly Shower Filters

ProductHighlightsLeaf Score Product Link

Culligan Wall-Mount Filtered Showerhead

Read the Review
  • Filters chlorine, and may also filter sulfur and bacteria
  • Allows a maximum of 2 gallons per minute or less; great for water conservation
  • Product is not BPA-free
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Raindrops Shower Head with Filter

Read the Review
  • The Raindrops six-step filtration system is certified by National Sanitation Foundation as ANSI 42
  • Shower filter does not require tools to install
  • To be fully effective, the water running through this filter media should be at a pH of 6.5 to 8.5
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Propur ProMax

Read the Review
  • The company claims that this unit reduces or removes over 200 potential contaminants
  • This system has been independently tested and the results are published online
  • This shower head also helps control scale, algae and bacteria and meets EPA WaterSense efficiency criteria
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Berkey KDSF-HEAD

Read the Review
  • Filters last for up to a year (or 20,000 gallons)
  • Berkey shower head does not carry NSF certifications
  • Berkey products have not held up well in independent testing
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OPUS Aroma Sense Aromatherapy Vitamin C Handheld Shower Head

Read the Review
  • Filter helps to conserve water by as much as 25%
  • Aroma Sense provides aromatherapy courtesy of a lemon oil cartridge
  • Product doesn't seem to have any specific certifications
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Things to consider in Shower Filters

Benefits of shower filters

The problem with chlorine and DBPs

Showering in unfiltered water usually means exposing your body to disinfection by-products (DBPs), typically in the form of chloroform. Chloroform is a trihalomethane that exists at room temperature as a clear, colorless, heavy liquid with a specific odor you probably recognize from public swimming pools.

Chloroform is the most common trihalomethane in the water supply and is present both in tap water and well water. Swimming pools that rely on chlorination for disinfection also contain trihalomethanes as by-products. Chloroform is light sensitive and degrades in the presence of light and air. The concentration of chloroform is inconsistent in different water systems and in the same system, and trihalomethane concentrations rise as water remains in the distribution system (Ashley et al. 2005).

Other trihalomethanes include:

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Bromoform.

Shower water may also be contaminated with haloacetic acids (HAAs):

  • Monochloroacetic acid
  • Monobromoacetic acid
  • Dibromoacetic acid
  • Dichloroacetic acid
  • Trichloroacetic acid.

Human exposure to these substances comes via ingestion, inhalation, and contact with the skin (HSDB 2009), and showering, bathing, or using hot water for doing the dishes or other purpose appears to increase absorption.

So, while it’s smart to filter the water you drink, it may make even more sense to prioritize filtering your shower water, given this absorption rate.

Showering and chloroform exposure

The average adults is exposed to 0.199 to 1.89 μg of chloroform per kg of body weight every day, according to the World Health Organization. Other estimates suggest that exposure could be higher than 3.0 μg/kg of body weight if you account for chloroform inhalation from air and ingestion from food (R, R). Chloroform is found in food, drinking water, and in the air, but the largest single source of exposure seems to be from showering and bathing.

Daily showering and bathing in unfiltered water increases chloroform exposure both through inhalation and through the skin. This is thought to add 0.36 to 3.4 μg/kg daily, with studies showing increased chloroform concentrations in the blood after using household water for showering, bathing, and even for doing the dishes by hand (R, R). Specifically, blood chloroform concentrations increased by 2 to 7 times after showering; in one study, water levels of chloroform were 8 and 85 parts per billion, while blood concentrations after showering were 57 and 280 ppt (ng/L) (R).

One reason why showering and bathing seem to increase chloroform levels so significantly is that you absorb more chloroform through your skin from hot water. At bath-water temperatures of 30°C, volunteers in one study exhaled 0.2 μg of chloroform, versus 7 μg at the highest temperature (40°C) (R). In another study, the absorption of cytotoxic DBPs haloacetonitriles and chloral hydrate (CH) in human skin increased by approximately 50% to 170% when water temperatures increased from 25°C to 40°C (R).

Shockingly, one small study found that swimming for a couple of hours in a chlorinated pool could raise the average concentration of chloroform in breath to as much as 371 μg/m3 (R). Worryingly, chloroform and other potential contaminants in shower water, such as benzene, have been shown to pass through the placenta to an unborn fetus where they accumulate at a higher level than in maternal blood (R).

The health effects of unfiltered shower water

Why does it matter how much chloroform and other DBPs are in your water? Well, for a start, higher levels of trihalomethanes have been linked to a higher rate of certain types of cancer, particularly cancer of the urinary bladder and rectum, and possibly colon cancer (R). Indeed, the US Department of Health and Human Services included concerns over chlorinated water and cancer in the 14th Edition of their Report on Carcinogens, National Toxicology Program.

A 2013 study in South Korea also found a significant association between exposure to trihalomethanes from showering and the lifetime risk of cancer, with up to a 10-fold increase in risk when ingesting shower water (R).

Concern over DBPs and lead contamination in tap water in Flint, Michigan, made national and international news a few years ago when the city switched its water supply and inadvertently exposed nearly 100,000 residents to potentially unsafe water. Research subsequently revealed that children under 5 who used tap water during this time had much higher levels of lead and DBPs than normal, with potentially life-long consequences for health as well as for their immediate growth and development. Residents were advised to drink filtered water or, in the case of those who were pregnant, to drink bottled water. This advisory seemingly ignored the science showing showering and bathing in unfiltered water to be the greatest source of trihalomethane exposure in the home.

Even before we get to that stage though, unfiltered shower water could be causing ongoing damage to you skin and hair. If your shower water is hard, i.e. if it has a high mineral content, it could leave a residue on your skin and make skin feel dry and irritated. Hard water can also leave hair feeling dry and looking dull, and cause scalp flakiness, thanks to minerals such as calcium, magnesium, silica, and iron. Over time, this may cause hard to break more easily and could increase unwanted frizz. Exposure to chloroform and other DBPs from unfiltered water could also, in theory, reduce your ability to synthesize vitamin D from sunshine. That’s because these DBPs can strip the skin of a variety of natural substances, including cholesterol esters that form previtamin D (R).

Not only does chloroform in shower water strip the skin of its natural oils, reducing the skin’s natural barrier to infection, shower water pipes also appear to have a higher level of bacterial contamination than kitchen tap water pipes, at least according to one study (R). This may be because less frequent use leads to biofilm formation. Opportunistic pathogens in this water, such as Legionella spp., mycobacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and free-living amobae (FLA) pose a risk to human health, especially for anybody who is immunocompromised, including young children and seniors (R).

The absorption of some chemicals also increased with the addition of two common surfactants found in shampoos and soaps, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) (R). Indeed, this same study found that these surfactants (which are also used in car-cleaning products) disrupt the stratum corneum, i.e. the layer of the skin that provides the main barrier protecting us against environmental contaminates. Disruption of the stratum corneum means that the skin has a harder time maintaining moisture levels and keeping pathogens and irritants out. As such, showering in unfiltered water that is hot, while using cleaning products containing SLS or SLES, could have a drying effect on your skin, and may exacerbate skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.  

All in all, installing a complete home water filtration system, or single fixture water filters for your shower and bath water could have benefits including:

  • Reducing skin irritation and dryness
  • Relieving psoriasis and eczema
  • Reducing scalp flakiness
  • Improving hair shine and healthier
  • Reducing frizziness
  • Reducing exposure to opportunistic pathogens
  • Lowering your risk of some cancers.

Things to look out for when buying a shower filter

When looking for a shower filter, check for certification by our old friends at the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF). An NSF/ANSI 42 certification means that the filter reduces aesthetic impurities such as chlorine and taste or odor. NSF/ANSI 177 certification is for shower filters that attach directly to the pipe in front of the showerhead and reduce free available chlorine.

You’ll probably notice that some shower filters mention vitamin C, which might seem a little odd. There’s good reason for this, however. Vitamin C (as sodium ascorbate or ascorbic acid) rapidly neutralizes chlorine. As such, vitamin C has become quite popular with sanitation engineers who need to quickly and safely dechlorinate waste water.

Even a little bit of chlorine residue in treated waste water can have devastating effects on local wildlife. Happily, vitamin C is not toxic to wildlife and does not lower the dissolved oxygen in water as much as sulfur-based chemicals. Ascorbic acid is mildly acidic and reacts with chlorine to form hydrochloric acid. Don’t worry, though, this has a negligible effect on the pH of the water exiting your shower head. And, if a system uses sodium ascorbate, this is neutral and does not affect the water pH.

Shower Filter Certifications

We’ve written pretty extensively on the various certifications to be on the lookout for as far as water filters are concerned, and thankfully they’re the same ones you should be looking for in a shower filter.

Take a look at the most important shower filter certifications over here.

Eco-friendly shower filter companies to consider

After testing and digging into the company’s certifications, some of our top contenders for best shower filters to consider include:

Leigh Matthews

Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT, is a health and wellness writer for Gene Food specializing in plant-based nutrition. Read her full bio here.

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