Water-free skincare products are trending. But is this a marketing gimmick, or is there something to it? Waterless products (also called anhydrous) have benefits. For example, they are essential in moisturization and skin barrier repair.
In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of waterless skincare products so you can make an informed decision about whether they are suitable for you.
Water is central to life, and it is not bad for your skin. However, there are sustainability concerns when certain products have a high water concentration.
A perfect example from the laundry world is the invention of laundry detergent strips. Did you know that at least 700 000 000 plastic laundry detergent bottles are sent to landfills in North America alone (per year)? These aren't biodegradable containers and even if they were they likely would never biodegrade in that environment. The invention of waterless laundry detergent strips could revolutionize this. That is an incredible decrease in plastic waste and all the carbon used for shipping giant, heavy containers of liquid detergent.
Brands like Tru Earth can pack 64 loads of laundry into a small, compostable cardboard envelope - true innovation! The story is similar for shampoo and conditioner hair bars. A single shampoo bar can last longer than three bottles of regular shampoo, which can be over 80% water in the plastic container.
The best part of it is that laundry strips and shampoo bars work just as well as their traditional counterparts - there is no downside. Water can be effectively removed from these products, resulting in an overall improvement in sustainability without sacrificing effectiveness.
Waterless face cleansers and waterless face washes are usually cleansing oils and balms. They are waterless in construction but still need to be rinsed off when washing your face. Often they require a second step to remove all the oil entirely. In the long run, this could increase your water usage. Also, be wary of soap bars. They are waterless and great for many things, but usually they are too stripping to use on your face.
Why Is Water Used In Skincare?
Many cosmetic ingredients can only be dissolved in water. So, without water, they couldn't be used in the product. A few examples are hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, panthenol, and Vitamin C. Water is necessary if you want all the potential options available to you from an ingredient standpoint.
Water is very inexpensive. While some critics say it's only used to dilute a product, realistically, it's just an excellent, cheap solvent.
If the effective concentration of an ingredient is 5% and the other 95% is water, that doesn't make the product "watered down" because the effective concentration is being used. In contrast, water can be used as a filler when ingredients are used only for their label-appeal, not their effectiveness. That's a different story that has nothing to do with water being the issue.
Waterless Products and Sustainability
At current water consumption rates, by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population may face water shortages. However, the absence of water in a beauty product does not make it automatically more sustainable. In the case of shampoo bars, the environmental benefits come from the fact the packaging is paper (not plastic) and much smaller/lighter (which saves carbon from shipping).
If you have a 100ml plastic jar of face cream versus the same 100ml plastic jar of waterless face balm, there isn't much environmental improvement - the plastic jar is the problem, not the water.
Skin Benefits of Water-Free Skincare Products
So are waterless beauty products just a skincare trend? There are some specific advantages to using anhydrous products in your skincare routine. Here are a few:
The Best Moisturization
Hydration is about the water content in your skin. It can be increased by using humectants (which will come in a product that contains water). Moisturization keeps the water in your skin - protecting your skin and the skin barrier from water loss (also called TEWL - transepidermal water loss). You don't need water to moisturize your skin - just oils, butters, and waxes. Anhydrous products are especially suited to moisturize and heal your skin barrier and help it heal if damaged.
Better Active Ingredient Penetration
Your skin barrier is naturally waterproof. In order for ingredients to produce an active effect on the cells in your skin, they need to penetrate the skin layers. This is easier for oil-soluble active ingredients and is why oil serums are so effective. Don't get us wrong, water-soluble active ingredients are important too. However, the oil soluble actives have an easier time getting where they need to be.
Improved Ability to Tailor and Layer Your Skincare Regimen
It is best to take a functional approach to layering skincare. There are so many creams, serums, and lotions that try to do too much. Some people want an all-in-one approach: a cream that does it all. It's almost impossible to find a product that does exactly what you're looking for.
If you take a functional layering approach, you choose your products based on their function and solubility profile. Even though this still requires more than one product, it can be a great approach to skinimalsim since you can choose targeted serums with the exact active ingredients you're looking for.
Too many skincare regimens recommend a routine categorized by the type of product: cleanser, toner, serum, essence, ampoule, lotion, cream. When it comes to the main difference between a serum, lotion, and cream, sometimes the only difference is the texture - the thickeners and emulsifiers used.
It's far more effective to divide your skincare routine into steps based on the function of the product. Function means purpose.
Functions are: cleansing, exfoliating, hydrating, moisturizing, and treating. The same function can often be achieved with several different types of products.
For example you can hydrate with a toner, mist/spray, serum, ampoule, essence, lotion, or cream.
If the function you're seeking is hydration then analyze the ingredient list looking for hydrators. After that, choose the delivery system (texture: toner, spray, serum, etc.) based on what you enjoy.
This is the 4-function skinimalism approach we suggest for your skincare routine:
1) Cleanse and exfoliate.
2) Hydrate and Treat: Water-based product with water-soluble actives.
3) Moisturize and Treat: Oil serum with oil-soluble actives.
4) Protect: SPF during the day (and occlusives at night for some people).
Our DIY vegan substitute for Emu oil is a great example of a recipe for a natural occlusive face balm for slugging.
Fewer Ingredients, Less Complexity, More Natural
Many shoppers prefer ingredients that are closer to nature. Many also choose to eliminate unnecessary chemicals from their lives. Anhydrous serums and products do not require emulsifiers, thickeners, or preservatives. Since they are composed of plant-based oils, butters, and waxes, they tend to be more natural than other products.
It's important to emphasize that these shopping preferences should not be encouraged using fear-based or inaccurate marketing. Preservatives are safe and essential in any water-containing formulations. Beauty brands are responsible for marketing ethically and ensuring product formulation is safe from contamination (not just designing an ingredient list to impress the consumer).
Because they are typically more concentrated and more potent, waterless cosmetic and skincare essentials also tend to last longer as you can get away with using less. The upfront cost might be higher, but if the product lasts longer, you save money in the long run.
Waterless Beauty: The Bottom line
Some waterless products are more sustainable and concentrated, making them excellent options. However, be wary of any brand trying to market "water-free" as more than it is. Waterless products have an essential role in your skin health, mainly due to their protective nature and ability to moisturize and help your skin barrier heal.
Dr. Heather Smith developed her love for skinimalism and clean beauty years ago when she began making home remedies for her newborn's eczema. She is an expert in natural ingredients and active botanicals and has now launched bareLUXE Skincare - a full line of effective oil serums. She dedicates this blog to consumers who are researching ingredients and working to make their beauty ritual more natural and sustainable.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Smith nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content should consult their physicians about their skincare concerns and routines.