Watered down: The pros and cons of beauty's waterless products

By Becky Bargh 24-Feb-2021

Water is a fundamental ingredient in most beauty products, but it’s fallen out of favour with consumers. How are beauty’s H₂O-dodging alternatives shaping up under the microscope?

H₂O – it has multiple dedicated songs, an Australian TV series with the same name and a London bus route that will take travellers from Hounslow to Twickenham. But, more commonly, it is known as the chemical compound for water, the substance we as humans (and pretty much any other living creature) cannot live without.

A far more important task than keeping most living organisms alive, the element of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen is hailed in the beauty world for its beneficial effects on the skin.

Touted as the treater of acne, suppressor of fine lines and wrinkles, and maintainer of skin’s elasticity, the 8x8 rule – eight eight ounce glasses of water a day – is one that is not just recommended by beauty connoisseurs, but health care professionals as a key part of consumers’ skin care routine.

Days gone by have even shown beauty brands to turn up the heat on their water game. Deviating from ‘still, sparkling or tap’, some have used water from the melted ice caps of Canada and ‘volcanic island water’ as water-based beauty has been refreshed over the years to spark new interest in the category and cater to consumer needs.

And yet, in spite of its distinguished reputation, waterless beauty has, ironically, infiltrated the industry.

But removing water from a product isn’t as simple as swapping water out in favour of an oil or other compound; waterless has taken many different forms.

Solid products have been hailed for their reduction in packaging but are known to have more concentrated formulas, while powders and sticks are growing in popularity and even being adopted by some of the biggest players in the field.

In 2020, almost 12% of global beauty and personal care launches in the soap, bath and shower category claimed to be waterless, while nearly 10% were in skin care and 4% of new products hit the hair care sector. A slight shift from 2019’s results, which saw almost half of waterless beauty launches join the skin care sector.

So why has this special commodity fallen out of favour with beauty brands?

Blue gold

To date, more than two billion people live in countries that are experiencing high water stress and, at least once a year, that figure doubles. But the UN has said the issue is not due to global shortage of water. Instead, it notes certain countries’ ‘frivolity’ towards water as the culprit which could result in 700 million people worldwide being displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030.

With that in mind, big players L’Oréal, Unilever and P&G have committed to reducing their water consumption as part of their sustainability efforts. But, while the beauty industry is not itself draining the world of its water supply, liquid products are notorious for being made up of mostly water. The average shampoo, for example, contains around 80% water, according to Forbes, while a cream skin care can contain anywhere from 60-85% water.

Water is also a key commodity in the growth of the plant-based alternatives consumers are desperately demanding. Avocado, a commonly used oil in cosmetics, commended for its high vitamin content, but requires an especially water-intensive farming process, depending on the region.

Chilean-grown avocados on average need around 1,200 litres of fresh water to produce one kilogram, that’s 320 litres per fruit. By comparison, on average five litres of water are needed to grow one tomato, according to Water Footprint Network.

“We need new models. We need new ways of using cosmetics that generally lead to a more sustainable way,” Barbara Olioso, Managing Director at The Green Chemist Consultancy, tells Cosmetics Business.

And with sustainability selling better than ever – around 75% of beauty and personal care consumers try to act in a way that is not harmful to the environment, while 70% of UK consumers prefer to shop with brands and retailers that are trying to reduce their impact on the environment – there’s never been a better time for beauty brands to ditch the water-based products.

As Olioso notes: “Even though some of them are maybe not perfect, we are just exploring new models, and eventually I think long-term we will find the balance.”

But how are the solids, sticks and powders actually shaping up in terms of sustainability?

The waterless pioneers

Reductions in water usage make products lighter to transport, reducing carbon footprints, making powder products a seemingly ideal alternative. One of the brands that welcomed its second anhydrous powder cleanser in 2020 was Susie Ma’s Tropic.

She tells Cosmetics Business: “Contrary to popular belief, water can actually be quite drying for the skin, watery formulations can also result in lower efficacy rates, as botanical ingredients are often more diluted.

“We have always tried to concentrate our products as much as possible, often using plant juices in our formulations instead of water. A few favourites of these are aloe vera, coconut juice and cucumber juice, but we wanted to take it one step further.”

But, there’s a caveat. While precious water has been saved, the packaging still risks contributing to the industry’s plastic problem. Shiseido-owned beauty brand Kanebo, for example, uses individual plastic pouches for its Suisai Beauty Clear Powder Wash.

While the brand says it is looking for plant-based alternatives for this problem, the issue of plastic waste remains.

So, if water in beauty is drying the world’s reserves and its packaging is contributing to its waste problem, what’s the next logical step to becoming totally eco-friendly? Go naked.

L’Oréal’s Garnier muscled in on the solid market at the end of 2020 with its collection of Ultimate Blends Shampoo Bars. Said to mark the first move by a major mass market beauty brand to offer consumers alternatives to traditional liquid shampoo products, the bars are expected to launch in four ‘blends’: Revitalising Ginger, Strengthening Honey, Hydrating Coconut and Softening Oat Milk.

Meanwhile, beauty manufacturer Stephenson has recently started offering solid solutions for its customers as waterless becomes more mainstream. This process, the manufacturer tells Cosmetics Business, is also easier than creating liquid-based formulas as thickening and mixing agents are redundant.

However, the reality of creating solid anhydrous products also comes with its own disadvantages. Solid products can require high melting temperatures, which in turn means a large amount of water is needed to cool the heated-up product, potentially wasting more water than if it was used within the product.

Olioso also points to another potential issue with solids: “From the consumer’s point of view, because the products are naked, the customer will need to take extra care to protect the product somehow and make sure they’re kept dry.”

One brand overcoming this is new solid beauty brand on the scene SBTRCT. Pronounced ‘subtract’, the British brand was developed by the former Managing Director of male grooming brand Bulldog, Ben Grace.

Dedicated to formulating high efficacy solid skin care products, Grace’s product line stars its Moisturising Facial Balm and Gentle Foaming Cleanser, but a key element of the skus is the products’ accompanying tray.

The cleanser’s tray is made from a blend of distomite, a form of fossilised algae, and plaster. The dish is also porous, which absorbs any excess water and is mould resistant. Meanwhile, the balm’s accessory tray is made from bamboo and features a magnetic seal that keeps the product out of direct sunlight and looks attractive in consumers’ bathrooms.

These also keep the solid products dry and away from germ-producing water, something MSL Solutions Provider CEO and founder Angela Davies cautions as an issue with solid cosmetics.

Functionality and production aside, Grace also believes using waterless to greenwash consumers will not help the case for water-free cosmetics. “If you're just trying to use it as a marketing gimmick, you're gonna fall short,” he says.

“I think it's really important that these values run through the whole core of the business; you do see some new brands now use sustainability as if it's just a marketing spin, and it doesn't hold up. That's why it was really important to me that SBTRCT and the ‘less is more’ ethos was something that was almost rooted in our product line.”

Water is not the enemy

But there are those that defend using water in their products.

A selection of Wild Beauty’s products, a UK-based skin care brand, are water-based, sourced from the Rhug Estate, where the founders Lord and Lady Newborough reside. The spring water on the estate is not only bottled into the brand’s cleansers and moisturisers, but also feeds into a number of properties on the estate including Rhug Hall.

The water is filtered through organic land that is not contaminated with fertiliser and has never been known to dry up in the last century.

“The main function of skin care is to nurture and protect the skin’s barrier function. Water in skin care can help to dissolve ingredients in the formula that have larger molecules such as oils and this can then help the penetration to the upper layers of the skin and so aids skin protection,” Lord Newborough for Wild Beauty tells Cosmetics Business.

“A positive move as this [going water-free] should mean that the level of potential plant-based ingredients will increase. However, we must remember that there are skin benefits from both water and oil so having a choice allows the customer to choose what is right for them,” he adds.

To that end, Wild Beauty has dabbled in the waterless arena with a trio of products. Its moisturising lip treatment with beeswax, Replenishing mask using Rhug Estate honey and its exfoliating body scrub with rosemary and honey.

Meanwhile, Faiza Cochrane Janselme, the co-founder of science-backed Swiss brand Elixseri, says there is no better ingredient than water to moisturise the skin.

“At Elixseri we take water to a new level and use a patented water. This ‘light water,' where heavy isotopes produced during the last centuries are removed from water, makes it more soluble and perfect for skin care.”

But by developing water-free products the industry is only set to benefit. She adds: “It is a positive thing that consumers and brands want to make positive changes due to environmental concerns. But we need to be aware that by making a choice to move away from one ingredient, we may inadvertently be causing other issues, such as deforestation or overcultivation.

“The key is for brands to be transparent about the provenance of their ingredients and we need to be sure that the cultivation, harvest, processing of alternative ingredients does not risk greater environmental impact.”

The gateway to new innovation

Whether or not waterless is going to become mainstream in beauty, the trend has lent itself as a gateway for new methods of innovation in the category. Solid perfumes, a balm-like constituency rather than a liquid-state, have grown in popularity for their convenient and travel-friendly packaging.

As well as their reputation for being convenient, these waterless formulas have been developed without alcohol, the base for most spray compositions, meaning the formulas are kinder to skin and less likely to cause irritation.

American beauty supplier WWP Beauty launched its first alcohol-free solid stick fragrance line earlier this year. Meanwhile, the packaging solutions include a double-ended stick and two roll-on products with specifically-designed technology to make the products easy to apply onto the neck and pressure points.

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In this regard, waterless is providing a framework for broader choices in beauty and more developed delivery methods.

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