What are the main differences between bottled water and tap water? How are they both regulated, how healthy and safe are they, and what’s their environmental impact? Which water type is best?
We’ve answered these questions and more in this bottled water vs tap water guide. By the end, you’ll have enough knowledge to decide whether bottled water or tap water is your preferred choice for drinking.
📌 Key Takeaways:
- Bottled water is water from a variety of sources that has been independently treated and bottled for drinking.
- Tap water is water that’s delivered to your tap. It’s usually sourced from a surface water supply and is treated by public water utilities to EPA Standards.
- Tap water is more affordable and available whenever you want it, but bottled water is more convenient if you’re on the go and is sometimes cleaner or purer than faucet water.
Table of Contents
🆚 Main Differences Between Bottled Water & Tap Water: Overview
Just looking for a quick overview of the main differences between bottled water and tap water?
The key differences between tap and bottled water are:
- Packaging – Bottled water is packaged (usually in plastic water bottles), while tap water is not.
- Choice – There are a variety of bottled water sources and types, while tap water is what it is – you get what you’re given and don’t have the benefit of an alternative.
- Source – Local tap water is usually sourced from one or two locations; usually surface water. Bottled water comes from a variety of surface water and groundwater sources.
- Price – Tap water is “free” (you just pay your water bill), while bottled water costs per bottle. Bottled water is much costlier than tap water.
There are no distinct differences between the quality, taste, and safety of bottled and tap water because these factors vary widely across both sources.
Main Benefit of Bottled Water vs Tap Water
The main benefit of bottled water compared to tap water is that it offers significantly more variety. You can choose from tens of different types of bottled water from tens of different brands, so you can narrow down your search based on water source, treatment type, cost, manufacturer, and more.
Bottled water brands have more money to produce their products than local water treatment facilities, so they can often provide water with additional perks, like mineral-infused water or flavored water.
Main Benefit of Tap Water vs Bottled Water
The main benefit of tap water compared to bottled water is that it’s much more affordable and accessible. You can drink tap water anywhere in the US with a drinking water faucet, and the cost of tap water is very low.
You can pay just pennies per day for a constant supply of clean, disinfected water straight from your tap.
🧴 Bottled Water Overview
Now we know the key differences between bottled water and tap water, let’s look in more detail at both water types – starting with bottled water.
Bottled water is drinking water that’s sold in sealed plastic bottles. There are many different types of bottled water from a variety of sources, including natural springs, private wells, and even tap water supplies (that’s right – some of your favorite bottled water brands sell bottled tap water).
👨🔬 The natural water source of bottled water affects its taste and quality. For instance, bottled mineral water is usually sourced from natural springs, where water flows through layers of rock that give it an appealing mineral taste.
Bottled purified water is also available. This water is treated to remove all the bad stuff you might find lingering in your tap water.
Carbonated bottled water – water infused with carbon dioxide gas, causing small bubbles to form – is another popular option.
You can find bottled water in pretty much any supermarket around the world. The cost of bottled water depends on what brand you go for, or the type of water you prefer.
🚰 Tap Water Overview
Tap water is the water that comes out of our taps.
This water is treated to be safe to drink, according to regulations set by the Safe Drinking Water Act, though it still usually contains trace amounts of contaminants.
Your local authority is responsible for sourcing and processing your home’s water and making sure it’s safe for drinking. This usually involves filtering out sediment and using a disinfectant, like chlorine, to kill harmful pathogens.
The quality of tap water depends on factors including the local area’s water source and treatment processes.
👨🔧 Top tip: you can search online for your local Water Quality Report if you want to know exactly what’s in the water you’re drinking.
📊 How Are Bottled & Tap Water Different? Key Areas
To get a proper understanding of the differences between bottled water and tap water, we’ve looked at 5 key areas: price, health, safety, regulation, and environmental impact.
Tap water costs $0.0034/gallon on average (excluding fixed fees and sewer fees), according to data from 2017. Let’s assume that the annual cost increase is 4% – that would make the current cost of tap water just a bit over $0.0040/gallon.
How does this translate to an annual cost? Let’s say you drink 8 cups a day (the recommended amount for adults), or 1/2 gallon of water. So, a family of 4 drinks about 2 gallons per day on average. 365 (days of the year) lots of 2 is 730 gallons.
So, at the cost of $0.0040/gallon, a family of 4 drinking 730 gallons would spend $2.92 on tap water per year.
👨🔧 Note: this doesn’t include the cost of shower water, appliance water, and so on.
Bottled water varies considerably in cost, depending on the brand, water source, treatments used, and so on.
In 2020, the Beverage Marketing Corporation reported that the price per gallon of non-sparkling bottled water was $1.17. Let’s assume that the markup is 100% (somewhere in between the average markup of 50-200% for bottled water). This brings up the cost per gallon to $2.34.
Again, we’ll suppose that you drink 1/2 gallon of water per day. So, a family of 4 drinks 2 gallons of bottled water per day, or 730 gallons per year.
730 (gallons) multiplied by $2.34 (cost per gallon) is $1,708 – just under 600 times the annual cost of drinking water from the tap. And that’s for wholesale water bottles – the cost of buying individual bottles is even higher.
⚖️ Verdict: Tap water is much cheaper than bottled water.
Tap water and bottled water don’t display an inherent difference when it comes to their health benefits or effects. The potential contaminants and health properties of any water supply are specific to its source, treatment, and delivery/storage methods.
Tap water is filtered and disinfected according to EPA regulations. However, it’s still common for tap water supplies to contain traces of contaminants that have health effects, like chlorine, lead, fluoride, nitrates, and pesticides.
According to the Environmental Working Group – which believes that the EPA’s Standards are too lenient – a glass of tap water may contain agricultural or industrial pollutants that cause health effects including:
- Hormone disruption
- Nervous system damage
- Fertility problems
Why don’t municipal facilities purify their water supplies? It’s mostly due to cost limitations. Thorough water treatment methods like distillation and reverse osmosis are incredibly expensive and time-consuming on a large scale, so they’re not commonly used by water utilities.
Many bottled water plants treat their water to boost its health properties. Manufacturers may filter their water with processes like reverse osmosis, or they might add minerals to their water or infuse it with other healthy ingredients. But that doesn’t mean that bottled water is always healthier than tap water.
Numerous studies uncovered a range of potentially health-harmful contaminants in bottled water sold in the US, including PFAS compounds, bacteria, microplastics, volatile organic compounds, radiological elements, and heavy metals like lead.
Not all bottled water products are created equal. Some may be more thoroughly filtered and cleaner than tap water, while others may contain the same trace contaminants – or contaminants unique to the water source or storage method.
Of course, bottled water is always the healthier option when it’s used in an emergency situation where tap water quality has been compromised or when clean drinking water isn’t available, such as after a natural disaster or on a hiking trip in the wilderness.
⚖️ Verdict: Bottled water can be healthier than tap water, but it’s not guaranteed. The water’s health properties are determined by its source and treatment, and what the end product contains.
In the US, bottled water and tap water are generally equally safe.
There’s no evidence to suggest that all bottled water is safer than tap water – there are simply too many different types and brands of bottled water to measure this.
However, bottled water often is safer than tap water in developing countries that don’t have access to a clean tap water supply. You can also choose between bottled water companies and pick a bottled water product that has been treated to protect against certain microorganisms. Folks with weakened immune systems may need to drink bottled water for this reason.
Both bottled water and tap water may contain contaminants that have safety concerns, like pathogens, heavy metals, and chemicals. According to the Environmental Working Group (which has produced a tap water database that highlights pollutants in US tap water), even low levels of certain contaminants in drinking water may be unsafe.
The safety of bottled and tap water supplies may be compromised by certain catastrophic events or natural disasters. For instance, the Flint, Michigan water crisis is an example of how even a regulated water supply can pose a huge safety risk.
Some bottled water products may be safer than others depending on their source and treatment:
- Bottled water sourced from wells or underground springs is generally the safest because the water source is less exposed and more protected from pollution than lakes and reservoirs (the most common tap water source).
- Bottled water may be treated more thoroughly than tap water, further improving its safety.
- Bottled water doesn’t have to travel through potentially-contaminated pipes to reach the customer, although there are concerns about the safety of storing bottled water in single-use plastic bottles.
- Bottled water isn’t usually protected by disinfection chemicals, while tap water is.
⚖️ Verdict: Both tap and bottled water are safe in equal measures because both are strictly regulated. However, there’s controversy surrounding both water types due to the presence of trace contaminants that (many people believe) may be unsafe even in trace amounts.
Related: Is it safe to drink bottled water left in a hot car?
Both bottled water and tap water are regulated, but by different government agencies, which have their own specific standards and regulations.
Tap water in the US is monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA’s regulations were created based on the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
As part of these regulations, the EPA has established Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) and Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs) for contaminants of concern that all public drinking water suppliers must adhere to, viewable in the EPA’s National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.
If water utilities exceed EPA MCLs, they must inform the public and take action to remove this contaminant – and show proof of testing to the EPA.
Bottled water in the US is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has set its own maximum contaminant allowances in bottled water, and also legally enforces bottled water manufacturers to produce their products in safe and sanitary conditions.
Like the EPA, the FDA aims to protect public health with its regulations. However, the EPA has established several MCLs that the FDA hasn’t adopted due to the unlikelihood of the presence of certain contaminants in bottled water.
If bottled water manufacturers exceed FDA maximum contaminant allowances, the FDA may force product recall or block distribution.
The FDA generally offers more frequent monitoring than the EPA (although this varies state to state), but both government agencies require extensive testing and monitoring.
⚖️ Verdict: Both bottled water and tap water are regulated, so you’re (theoretically) safe to drink any water type because it should have been produced to stringent standards.
Bottled water is generally worse for the environment than tap water, although many bottled water manufacturers are taking action to reduce their environmental impact.
It’s estimated that bottled water has an environmental impact that’s 3,500 times higher than tap water.
Bottled water consumption continues to rapidly increase, and an estimated 86 percent of plastic water bottles end up as trash or litter. However, a study by the International Bottled Water Association found that plastic water bottles have a lower environmental impact than other drink packaging, such as aluminum cans and glass bottles.
Many bottled water companies are working to reduce their environmental impact by improving their operations, developing recyclable or biodegradable eco-friendly packaging, and financing global projects to reduce carbon emissions.
Tap water doesn’t have such a big carbon footprint – it’s reportedly about 1/300 or 1/1000 compared to bottled water. However, that doesn’t mean that tap water is good for the environment.
The water treatment processes, including filtration coagulation, disinfection, and flocculation, all use energy and require the use of chemicals. Energy is also used to pump water through the pipes to our homes – though not as much energy as is required to make millions of plastic bottles per year.
⚖️ Verdict: Tap water has a lower environmental impact than bottled water, but of all the packaged beverages, bottled water is the least damaging.
🍶 Pros & Cons of Bottled Water
Now we know the key differences between tap and bottled water, let’s look at the pros and cons of each.
- Improves hydration. Most bottled water contains minerals and has a more appealing taste than tap water. Buying bottled water might encourage you to drink more water and stay hydrated, which is key to good health.
- Convenient for all occasions. Bottled water is more convenient than tap water when you’re on the move. No matter where you are, you can quench your thirst at any time if you have a bottle of water to hand. You can drink bottled water in a location that doesn’t have access to tap water, too.
- Great shelf life. Most bottled water products have a shelf life of 1-2 years. You can save money on bulk-buying bottled water for less, knowing that you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy it.
- Safe, healthy option. If you’re buying bottled water from a reputable manufacturer, you know for certain that it’s safe to drink. Most bottled water is treated to remove trace contaminants, and bottled spring water contains healthy minerals, helping you to meet your RDI (Reference Daily Intake).
- Costlier than tap water. Bottled water costs significantly more than public drinking water.
- Not environmentally friendly. Whether bottled water manufacturers strive to be environmentally conscious or not, there’s no denying that the making of bottled water requires a lot of single-use plastic. This ends up clogging landfills and littering the environment.
- May still pose health risks. While bottled water is safer and contains fewer contaminants than municipal water, it may still pose some health risks. For instance, BPA (Bisphenol A) – which has been linked to health effects like cancer and infertility – can accumulate in bottled water. Microplastics in the water bottles may also leach into water.
Bottled Drinking Water Controversy
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an estimated 25% of bottled water is essentially just bottled tap water.
That means you might be paying a premium for something you’d be able to drink for pennies at home. Sometimes this water is treated, but sometimes it’s not.
Additionally, the Environmental Working Group found that bottled water manufacturers failed to disclose to consumers important facts about the safety of products, including contaminants, on their product labels. Some bottled water manufacturers don’t even reveal information about the treatment and purity of their water.
🚰 Pros & Cons Of Tap Water
Read on to learn the pros and cons of tap water.
- Affordable Option. Perhaps the biggest benefit of tap water is its affordability. We can access drinking water on tap for just pennies per year. Due to its affordability and availability, you’ll enjoy the health benefits of staying hydrated whenever you have access to water from your faucet.
- Better for the environment. Tap water doesn’t need to be packaged and doesn’t contribute to plastic waste.
- Less likely to contain microplastics. Tap water has a much lower BPA and microplastics risk than bottled water.
- Can be filtered. You have complete control over your drinking water quality and can filter it yourself at home. There are hundreds of at-home water filtration options nowadays, so you can drink contaminant-free water from home.
- Tastes pleasant. Many people enjoy the flavor of mineral-rich municipal drinking water, even though it isn’t quite as high-quality as most bottled water products.
- Contains traces of contaminants. Public water doesn’t undergo the same level of filtration as bottled water. This means that, while tap water is completely safe and mandated by the EPA, this water may contain traces of impurities like lead, nitrates, arsenic, and disinfection chemicals.
- Doesn’t taste as nice as bottled water. Bottled water gives you so many options: spring water; water from an artesian well; or even flavored water. Tap water, on the other hand, comes as it is. You could add your own flavorings and mineral drops, but it takes extra effort.
- Not as convenient. Tap water is great when you’re at home, but it’s no good if you’re out and about or hiking in the wilderness. You may have no choice but to buy bottled water if you simply don’t have access to tap water.
- Contamination risk. In the event of an emergency, like a natural disaster or a public water crisis, contamination of your home’s water may occur.
How Can I Purify Tap Water?
Drinking purified water at home is cheaper and gives you more options than buying purified bottled wat at the store.
There are a few different options for producing filtered tap water.
Popular tap water treatment methods include:
- Reverse osmosis – reverse osmosis systems remove up to 99.9% of all TDS (total dissolved solids) from drinking water.
- Water distillers – distillers work similarly to purify water. Distilled water is almost 100% contaminant-free.
- Countertop filters – countertop filters typically use carbon filters and other filter cartridges to remove chlorine, heavy metals, pesticides, and other contaminants commonly found in municipal water supplies.
- Water filter pitchers – pitcher water systems use a carbon-based filter to thoroughly filter water and remove unpleasant tap water tastes.
- Under-sink systems – under-sink filters use carbon filters and various other filter stages to provide varying levels of water filtration.
- POE systems – point of entry or whole home water systems don’t just produce filtered tap water – they filter your entire home’s water supply.
Of course, water systems that filter or purify your home’s water come at a cost, but most are more affordable to buy and maintain than bottled water.
🆚 Tap Water vs Bottled Water: Which is Better?
It’s clear that both tap water and bottled water have their benefits and setbacks, but in our opinion, tap water is better than bottled water.
Bottled water might be more convenient when you’re on the go, and it’s regulated by the FDA. Plus, some bottled water products are more exciting than tap water, like fresh spring water or natural mineral water.
However, tap water is better from an environmental standpoint and is much cheaper than bottled water.
Interestingly, in blind taste tests, most people couldn’t taste the difference between tap and bottled water, either – in one Good Morning America test, New York City’s tap water was rated the best-tasting above various bottled water products – so don’t be so quick to choose bottled water for taste alone.
If you’re not happy with your tap water quality, it’s easy to install a water filter that can remove common contaminants, like chemicals, heavy metals, and pathogens like bacteria.
👨🔧 Tap water and bottled water both have their places, but in today’s world, there’s no reason to feel that spending hundreds of dollars per year on bottled water is the only way to access high-quality, clean drinking water.
Related: 21 Water Charities Making Clean Water a Reality
❔ Frequently Asked Questions
Why bottled water is better than tap?
Many people think that bottled water is better than tap, but this is actually a myth. Some bottled water products are better than tap water because they contain healthier impurities (such as natural mineral water) or they’ve been treated more extensively than tap water in a water treatment plant. However, many bottled water products contain just as many trace impurities as tap water.
Is bottled water more pure than tap water?
Yes, bottled water is sometimes more pure than tap water because some bottled water manufacturers treat their water with thorough water treatment methods, like reverse osmosis and distillation. Plus, some bottled water supplies are naturally filtered (such as water from natural springs) which tends to make them purer than tap water, which predominantly comes from surface water surfaces like streams and lakes.
Is tap water as safe as bottled water?
Yes, tap water is technically as safe as bottled water because both water types are strictly regulated. However, the safety of any water type depends on the water source and the method of treatment. Some tap water supplies might be safer than bottled water, and vice versa.
Is bottled water safer than filtered tap water?
No, bottled water isn’t usually safer than filtered tap water – unless the bottled water product has also been filtered or is naturally low in contaminants. It all depends on what the bottled water and the filtered tap water contain. Different bottled water products and different filtered water supplies contain different sets of contaminants.