Pharmaceutically active compounds (PhACs), including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, drugs used in hospitals and veterinary drugs, have been found throughout the water cycle. A desk study was initiated by the Global Water Research Coalition to consolidate a uniform selection of such compounds in order to judge risks of PhACs for the water cycle. By identifying major existing prioritization efforts and evaluating the criteria they use, this study yields a representative and qualitative profile (‘umbrella view’) of priority pharmaceuticals based on an extensive set of criteria. This can then be used for further studies on analytical methods, occurrence, treatability and potential risks associated with exposure to PhACs in water supply, identifying compounds most likely to be encountered and that may have significant impact on human health. For practical reasons, the present study excludes veterinary drugs. The pragmatic approach adopted provides an efficient tool to manage risks related to pharmaceuticals and provides assistance for selecting compounds for future studies.