A good shower head can help you prep for the day
If your morning shower is more of a depressing drizzle, a new shower head could be the solution. Not only have today's shower heads improved flow compared to earlier versions, even in water-saving models, but many have variable settings so you can pound those tight muscles with a water massage or be soothed by a gentle fall of rain.
There are two basic types of shower heads: fixed and handheld. Fixed shower heads are most common and range from extremely basic, with just a single spray setting, to more sophisticated, with a variety of spray choices that you access by turning a knob or dial. Fixed shower heads are generally easy to install, but they vary significantly in price. A no-frills model can cost $10 or less, while a high-end, well-built shower head with an adjustable flow rate and a variety of stream settings can cost as much as $400.
A handheld shower head offers more versatility. This type of shower head is a shower nozzle attached to a flexible hose. Nestled into a wall-mounted cradle, it can function just like a fixed shower head or be removed from its mount and directed onto particular parts of your body. Reviewers say they're also handy for cleaning the shower itself or washing the dog. Most handheld shower heads have multiple settings, so you won't find them at truly rock-bottom prices, but we found good ratings for models priced as low as $25. Installation is straightforward; in most cases the flexible hose is attached in place of a fixed shower head.
Fixed and handheld shower heads are available in low-flow versions. Shower heads are required to use no more than 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm), which is significantly less than the flow rate of some older shower heads. However, if you want to save even more water, you can choose a shower head bearing the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) WaterSense label. Models with this label are guaranteed to use no more than 2 gpm and may be required in some areas, such as parts of New York. In addition, some states, such as California, are passing new low-flow requirements that will take effect over the next couple of years, ultimately bringing shower head flow rate requirements down to 1.8 gpm.
Older low-flow shower heads often felt either misty and anemic or sharp and needle-like, but newer models have worked around these problems, delivering a satisfying spray with 1.5 to 2 gpm. In fact, our two top-rated fixed shower heads both meet the WaterSense criteria. For those who really want to stretch their water as far as possible, there are ultra-low-flow shower heads, which use less than 1.5 gpm. However, we did not find many recommendations for shower heads in this category.
One of the hottest trends in shower heads is the rain shower. These can-shaped shower heads have broad, flat faces that drop water straight down onto the user to simulate rainfall. Many reviewers rave about the luxurious feel of this type of shower, but it's not for everyone. Most rain shower heads use the full 2.5 gpm allowed by law, and some people still find the flow too weak. Rain shower heads tend to be pricier than other shower heads, and installation can be more complicated, as well.
If you can't decide between fixed and handheld, you may like a dual shower head. Some dual shower heads combine a fixed shower head with a handheld one; others combine a regular shower head with a rain-type shower head or have two regular or two rain-type shower heads. The fixed shower head/handheld combination gives you the best of both worlds, while two side-by-side shower heads make it more convenient to shower with a friend. Most dual shower heads can be installed by a handy do-it-yourselfer.
How we found the best shower heads
To find the very best showerheads of all types, we looked at professional tests and expert reviews, especially those shower head evaluations that include flow rate verification and other specific measurements, as well as hands on testing by more than just one person. From there, we consulted hundreds, sometimes thousands, of user reviews on sites like Amazon.com and HomeDepot.com for feedback on how these shower heads work in real homes, which gives great insight into long-term performance and durability as well. The results of our research is our picks for the best shower heads on the market, including low-flow, handheld and rain shower heads. One is sure to make your morning toilette a bit more refreshing.
The best shower heads
Fixed shower heads are pretty straightforward -- they attach to a pipe that comes out from the wall or ceiling and water comes out. From there, though, things can get more interesting, with spray options that include everything from a gentle, dispersed flow to an invigorating massage. The best of these shower heads offer a flow that is strong enough even to rinse shampoo from long or thick hair, while still meeting the maximum flow rate requirements of 2.0 to 2.5 gpm (check your local or state regulations for specifics).
What this type of shower head doesn't have is a wand, so, if you want a handheld shower head we cover those in a separate section of this report. If you prefer a shower that's more like standing in the rain, check our separate discussion of rain shower heads, or, if you like to shower with a friend, you can see our picks for the best dual shower heads.
Among standard fixed shower heads, reviewers have nothing but good things to say about the Speakman S-2252 Icon Anystream (Est. $70 and up). Made of solid brass, this shower head features six individual spray jets that offer 48 different spray options and can function in three different patterns, from a gentle rinse to a full-flood stream. To switch between settings, there's a side-mounted lever that's reported as easy to grip even with wet or soapy hands. This shower head is a popular choice with professional reviewers, who describe the spray as "invigorating" and "rewarding." Professionals and owners alike are impressed with the Speakman's heavy-duty construction and stylish looks.
The Speakman Anystream has a 2.5 gpm flow rate, the maximum allowed law, but users say it feels plenty strong in spite of those limitations. However, some users say it doesn't work very well with low water pressure. The Anystream comes in five finishes: polished brass, polished chrome, polished nickel, brushed nickel and oil-rubbed bronze. Many owners rave about its stylish looks, and say it's extremely well-built. Quite a few who felt that the Anystream was rather pricey for a shower head eventually concluded that it is worth every penny.
It's a fraction of the price of the Speakman, but the Delta 75152 Shower Head (Est. $22) earns kudos from both experts and owners for its performance and value. This Delta shower head offers dual flow rate settings, 1.85 and 2.5 gpm, using up to 26 percent less water than a dedicated 2.5 gpm shower. Reviewers say the flow at the lower setting feels plenty strong thanks to Delta's proprietary H2OKinetic technology. Quite a few say they just leave it on the 1.85 gpm setting and they can't tell the difference. We also saw a number of comments from users who have seen a noticeable decrease in their water bills.
The Delta 75152 has only four jets in contrast with the Speakman's six, but reviewers say it offers a steady, consistent stream that offers a good, full shower feel. As with many shower heads, if you already have low water pressure, this one may not work as well, but some say it's fine even with lower water pressure. We did see a few comments from those who felt that the air diffused the spray too much, especially at the higher 2.5 gpm setting, which they found annoying. The 75152 only comes in one finish option -- chrome -- and there are a few complaints that it looks and feels cheap.
Another shower head with strong overall ratings is the Oxygenics 60120 SkinCare (Est. $35). Oxygenics makes several versions of this shower head, ranging from 1.5 gpm to the full 2.5 gpm allowed by law (the 60120's flow rate is 2.5 gpm). However, its high-powered aeration amps up the pressure, so reviewers say that even the low-flow versions produce a powerful stream. This shower head is particularly popular with homeowners who have low water pressure; they say it has made it possible for them to enjoy a powerful shower again. However, some users complain that the heavily aerated water flow is very noisy and tends to feel sharp and prickly. The Oxygenics SkinCare comes in chrome and gold; some versions, including the 60120, have a "comfort control" lever to adjust the strength of the spray.
Ultra-low-flow shower heads great water savings; are required in some areas
The future of the shower head -- and the toilet and the faucet and just about everything else that uses water -- is in constantly decreasing flow rates. In some zip codes in New York, newly installed shower heads must have flow rates of no more than 2.0 gpm. Effective on July 1, 2016, California will decrease its maximum flow rate requirement from 2.5 gpm to 2.0 gpm; then, in July 2018, that will drop to 1.8 gpm.
Fortunately, there are a few shower heads out there that meet these requirements and perform well. A standout in this category is the American Standard 1660.717 FloWise (Est. $45 and up). It has a nice selection of three spray patterns (full spray, turbine massage spray and combination spray) and a stylish flared design. Although it has extreme water saving features -- using between 1.5 and 2 gallons per minute, depending on spray pattern -- reviewers say the stream feels generous and strong. It's also a top performer in professional tests, with high scores for water feel, ease of adjustment and hot water temperature. One feature users don't generally love is the fact that the shower head automatically resets to its lowest-flow setting when you turn it off. The American Standard FloWise 1660.717 is available in polished chrome or satin nickel, which costs about $20 more.
The Niagara N2915 Earth (Est. $9) is an ultra-low-flow shower head, using just 1.5 gpm, that gets very good reviews for performance from hundreds of reviewers, as well as hundreds of comments that talk about noticeable savings on the water bills. Many say the water flow feels surprisingly strong considering the low flow setting, and it feels like a full flow shower head. Of course, as with any shower head, a lot of the user's satisfaction depends upon the water pressure in the home.
The Niagara has three spray settings and nine jets and reviewers say it's easy to adjust by turning the dial on the nozzle. Although it's an inexpensive and very basic unit, plenty of owners say they like the way it looks. It's available in chrome and white and models are also available in 1.25 gpm, 1.75 and 2.0 gpm for about the same price.