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Is the Future of Beauty Waterless?

When you look at the ingredient list on most beauty products, the odds that water is the first ingredient you’ll read are high enough that I’d bet on it nine times out of 10. Often listed as “Water/Aqua/Eau” or some iteration of that, water has become one of the most commonly used ingredients in beauty products, from shampoos to face wash to shower gels — even facial toners are full of water. But products that are majority water aren’t necessarily better (or even very good) for your skin or the earth.

We think of water as hydrating (and it is — keep drinking your water!), and because hydration has such a positive connotation when it comes to health, it’s easy to assume that having a heavily water-based product on your skin will have the same benefits as drinking water. But that’s not necessarily the case. When water is the first ingredient listed, that means it’s also the most predominant. Products like shampoo, conditioner, body washes, and skincare products are usually made up of at least 80 percent water, with some coming in around 97 percent water. With the other ingredients being majorly watered down, they become less potent. The watering down dilutes the formulas and makes them less effective. And, because of all the watering down, a lot of these products have long lists of preservatives and fillers as well (that’s why you’ll see ingredient lists that read like a short essay). By eliminating the water, products not only become more effective but also have fewer preservatives.

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So, not only is removing water from some products is probably better for your skin, but it’s also better for the environment. Using water is a cost-effective filler for brands (more water means less of the more expensive ingredients), but it comes at a high cost to the environment. As something that’s readily available and helpful for emulsification, water is a great choice for companies but not for the environment. With water scarcity increasing each year, companies are trying to find ways to conserve water as much as possible. Even big brands are on board, with beauty conglomerates including L’Oreal and Unilever committing to focus on water conservation. When beauty products are made up of almost entirely water, it leads to water waste and high water usage. Manufacturing beauty products can take up to thousands (yes, thousands) of liters of water because of this.

The solution: waterless beauty. Waterless beauty comes out of South Korea and was born out of trying to find a more potent and effective option for skincare. Korean skincare brand Whamisa was founded to preserve the benefits of natural ingredients, resulting in offering waterless, organic, and sustainable vegan products. From the brand’s toners to serums, products are hydrating even without the added water, and Whamisa has gained traction across the globe since.

As time went on, waterless beauty turned out to be a more environmentally sustainable option as well. The trend began to gain traction in the mid-2010s in the west, and has continued to grow and become more mainstream ever since.

Waterless beauty comes in several forms: powders, solids, bars, cleansing balms, oils, and masks, and extends from hair products to face care. This can look like an Ethique shampoo bar, which not only saves water but also cuts down on excess packaging, another problem the beauty industry is grappling with — more than 550 million plastic bottles of shampoo are thrown out every year in America alone, and only a fraction of those get recycled. If you’re still not convinced that a shampoo bar is for you, it’s also worth noting that it lasts longer than regular shampoo. Because it lacks the preservatives and filler, the formula is more potent and less is needed (this goes for all waterless beauty products, too).

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But waterless beauty isn’t just shampoo bars. Several smaller indie brands have formulated several water-free products as well, including the Everist shampoo and conditioner concentrates that are activated by the water in your shower, Susteau Moondust hair wash (a powder-to-lather shampoo), and anything from Pinch of Colour (this is an entirely waterless beauty brand that makes everything from lip oils to balms).

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And bigger brands have leaned into waterless beauty as well. The Cocokind chlorophyll mask is a powder that you mix into water, yogurt, or anything you want to make it into a mask; Naturopathica also makes a watercress & spirulina detox mask that you can add as much or as little water to as you want. Drunk Elephant or Then I Met You offer waterless cleansing balms and Glow Recipe makes an oil-free, waterless moisturizer. Costa Brazil’s body cream has no added water, making skin super soft.

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Of course, waterless beauty doesn’t mean there’s no water used whatsoever. Brands can’t completely eliminate water usage when it comes to harvesting and processing ingredients, and water is needed to activate some products. But the idea that products are being offered with no added water speaks volumes about how much the industry has innovated recently.

With waterless beauty being both more effective and more sustainable, we’re expecting to see many more water-free beauty products on the shelves soon.