On World Water Day, Olivia Young looks into how waterless beauty products are shifting the industry’s approach to sustainability and lowering the environmental impact of our skincare classics.
Producing a reported 120 billion units of packaging per year, the beauty industry is a notorious driver of global plastic consumption, and yet its contribution to the growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only part of a larger, partially invisible waste problem. As much as it relies on polymeric material to encase its products, it relies equally on water to bulk those products up.
In light of World Water Day, March 22, it’s key to note the vital role H2O plays in the beauty industry: It is habitually made the leading ingredient in creams, cleansers, shower products, and liquid cosmetics, widely used as a solvent, an emulsifier, or a point-blank cheap filler that allows brands to skimp on active components. The average moisturiser contains 60 percent or more of the stuff. Liquid shampoos and conditioners are even worse, comprising about 80 percent aqua.
The World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate that one in three people globally lack access to clean drinking water. According to the United Nations’ 2020 World Water Development Report, 2050 will see 52 percent of the world’s population living in regions that are “water-stressed.” And amid the looming global water crisis — deemed more dangerous even than coronavirus, the UN report says — more than 80 percent of beauty products on the market contain large doses of the dwindling resource. Sometimes up to 95 percent.
“We’re quickly running out of this precious resource,” says Janelle Changuion, founder of Green + Bare, Australia’s newly launched anhydrous skincare label. “Just like seeing the bigger picture when it comes to how much plastic we use, we should also be doing the same when it comes to how much water we use.”
The waterless beauty trend can be traced back to South Korea, where it caught on mostly because the absence of water was found to increase the potency and stability of skincare products. In recent years, the movement has been picked up by Western brands due more to its environmental benefits, and brands like Green + Bare, Toronto’s aN-hydra Skincare, U.S.-based Vapour Beauty, and Susteau (formerly OWA Haircare) are leading the charge.
A 2020 report from IBM and the National Retail Federation showed that 79 percent of Millennials surveyed said they consider the sustainability or environmental responsibility of a product before purchasing it. And waterless products, according to Vapour Beauty cofounder Krysia Boinis, have a bigger impact on the planet than just preserving water.
“No water in formulas means smaller packaging made of significantly less materials with less waste being generated during packaging manufacturing and at the end of product life. Lighter, smaller packaging also reduces shipping weight and space, which requires less fuel and reduces the overall carbon footprint,” Boinis says. “These ‘extra’ benefits can make a real impact and contribute to a sustainable business model.”
Without water, products also last longer and can be stretched further. One bottle of Susteau’s powdered Hair Wash, for instance, is said to do the work of four standard-sized bottles of liquid shampoo — hence why going anhydrous can be more expensive. But consumers reap skin benefits from more concentrated formulas, too.
Water is a bacterial breeding ground. Preservatives are often added to water-based formulas to help stabilise them and therefore increase their shelf life. What’s more, water can actually be dehydrating, as it strips away the skin’s natural oils as it evaporates.
“Innovative waterless alternatives are already entering the market for scrubs, masks, serums, primers, foundations, blushes, deodorant, and toothpaste,” Boinis says. It is, however, difficult to know which brands use water responsibly when the ingredient is often disguised behind code names like “eau” or used heavily in the supply chain, even when absent from the product itself. Suddenly, there’s a growing need for industry-wide regulations on “waterless” claims, Susteau founder Kailey Bradt says.
“It’s key to note there does not exist a product that does not use any water in any part of the supply chain. Plants take water to grow. Production equipment is cleaned with water at some point in the sanitization process. If the product was conventionally mostly water, the consumer will use the product with water,” she says. “I see the future of waterless beauty having some water footprint index consumers recognize as we easily identify a cruelty-free Leaping Bunny certification. It will have to be formally defined and I hope to see major corporations help to develop that standard as they begin to address water footprint publicly.”
While entirely anhydrous beauty may be an impossible standard, many of the brands laying claim to this precarious label have made clear their commitments to sustainability beyond just the elimination of water as an ingredient. Bradt says Susteau considers how its ingredients are sourced, how they’re manufactured and transported, and what happens to them after they go down the drain. Likewise, Boinis says when choosing ingredients for Vapour Beauty — based in and inspired by the dry climate of Taos, New Mexico — impacts on habitat and aquatic life come into play.
“At the end of the day, the waterless beauty trend is helping us to become more mindful and in turn responsible about our own water usage in everyday life,” says Allie Compton, product development manager of the clean beauty curator Credo, which has its own Credo Clean Standard certification. “Making small, mindful changes and putting in a little effort each day will end up making a big impact on reducing water usage in the scope of one year, and beyond.”
Apart from buying water-friendly products, the Water Services Regulation Authority recommends taking a five-minute shower instead of a bath, collecting rainwater for plants, turning off the tap when brushing teeth, and investing in a water-saving device for the toilet. Compton says she, personally, turns the shower off while lathering and uses a special dry-cleansing method (i.e., applying product to dry skin, massaging, and wiping off with a bamboo cloth) to remove makeup.
Her message to brands aiming to reduce their water consumption is to “peel back the layers in the supply chain process to discover how sustainable they are.”
“I’d encourage them to ask detailed questions to their manufacturers or raw material suppliers to dig deeper into the overall environmental footprint of their products,” Compton says. “Talk about what specific steps your brand is taking to be more sustainable overall and how to involve the consumer in your efforts.”