The waterless beauty movement looks to save water and help the environment thanks to some unique formulas.

By Shannon Bauer
February 10, 2020
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If you've ever taken the time to read the ingredient label (known as the deck) on a beauty product, then you probably know most products have water as the first ingredient. The order of ingredients is actually pretty important since ingredients are listed in order of concentration in descending order. This means that water is also the most prevalent ingredient in most formulas too. Now, water isn't inherently bad; it's used to grow food and you drink it to stay alive, but its relationship to other ingredients and the environmental impact is what can raise concerns in beauty product formulation.

How Water Plays a Major Role In Beauty Manufacturing

Water is used as a solvent in which other ingredients can be dissolved into to create an emulsion. It can also help to provide volume to products (read: increase the quantity) as well as dilute products to ensure the ingredients are gentle and won't irritate the skin. But if you've ever left a water bottle full collagen powder or your pre-workout beverage in your gym bag for a few days, then you know it gets moldy. The protein powder mix was perfectly stable...until you mixed it in the water. Similarly, beauty formulas that contain water also have preservatives to ensure that the product remains stable for months—and even up to a few years. (Related: Why Everyone Is Obsessed with ‘Beauty Fridges’ for Skin-Care Products)

But good news: The beauty industry has slowly started to remove water from its formulas to cut out preservatives, make products more stable, and support sustainability. Water-free or waterless beauty refers to limiting the use of water in product formulations, says Marisa Garshick, M.D., a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York City. Large beauty companies are making an effort to reduce water consumption per product while some smaller companies are trying to go completely waterless across their entire portfolio.

The Potential Benefits of Waterless Beauty Products

Anhydrous formulas—a.k.a. formulas without water or those that can be diluted with water during use—actually have some advantages. With no water, preservative requirements can be generally minimal since bacteria tends to grow when there is water, explains K.P. Ananth, Ph.D., professor and director of the cosmetic science program at the University of Cincinnati's James L Winkle College of Pharmacy.

Removing water could also increase the concentration and efficacy of the product. And while that's a good thing for most, for those with acne or sensitive skin, it can sometimes be helpful to have a water-based product, says Dr. Garshick. Too high of an oil-based concentration or certain ingredients without water can be considered too irritating, she adds. Another advantage of products being more highly concentrated is that you don't have to replace them as often, which could save you money. (Related: What is Hypoallergenic Makeup—And Do You Need It?)

Some companies are trying to remove water from their formulas to be more environmentally conscious. They're looking at the bigger picture to conserve natural resources since other countries outside of the United States are suffering from water-stressed conditions. Here's a scary fact: More than 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population might face water shortages. While the beauty industry is certainly taking a step in the right direction with a more eco-friendly approach, going waterless to support sustainability is not the only reason for the beauty trend in the U.S.

Many companies are cutting water from their products to create more concentrated formulas, which boils down to less volume and packaging. This means companies are requiring less energy and resources to create formulas and also using less fuel—while being able to transport a larger inventory—to get their products to their final destinations, says Kailey Bradt, founder and CEO of OWA Haircare, a waterless beauty brand. "Our powder format requires much less time and resources to manufacture, while conventional liquid shampoos are heated and cooled for up to 12 hours to form a stable emulsion and that is a lot of energy," she adds. (Related: What's the Difference Between Clean and Natural Beauty Products?)

If waterless beauty products are the future—or at least help to support a more environmentally conscious future—then there's no reason not to give them a shot. Ahead, nine potent, waterless beauty items, including waterless shampoo, cleanser, serum, and sunscreen that are taking over the skin-care scene for a good cause.

Skinnies Sungel SPF30

AMAZON

This sunscreen is made without water making it potent and concentrated enough to only need a pea-sized amount for face, ears, and neck—yes, really. The clear gel formula spreads easily, feels like a primer, and is completely invisible on all skin tones, meaning no white cast or chalky finish.

Buy It: Skinnies Sungel SPF30, $35, amazon.com

Loli Beauty Plum Elixir

NORDSTROM

A luxe facial oil is a savior for parched winter skin—just smooth onto cuticles, lips, and dry skin. This glow-inducing serum is an antioxidant-rich mix of plum kernel oil, pomegranate seed oil, tea tree oil, and sea buckthorn fruit oil with an almond-like scent. Since there's zero water in the formula, it eliminates the need for preservatives. Plus, the glass packaging means no plastic waste. (Related: How to Find the Perfect Face Oil for Your Skin)

Buy It: Loli Beauty Plum Elixir, $68, nordstrom.com

Ethique Eco-Friendly Trial Pack for Skin & Hair

ETHIQUE

Switching to solid beauty products is one small step you can take to reduce your reliance on plastic; no bottle, no plastic-waste. Ethique did the math—it takes about 132.8 billion liters of water every year to make plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles and the average formula also contains 80 percent water. A concentrated bar saves water from the creation of the bottle but also from the formula itself. Start with a trial kit with shampoo, conditioner, face wash, and body butter to see which products you like before purchasing the full-size.

Buy It: Ethique Eco-Friendly Trial Pack for Skin & Hair, $14, walmart.com

aN-hydra The Power of Youth No. 1

AN-HYDRA

You can fit three months of twice-daily skincare in the palm of your hand with this face wash. Sprinkle a dime-sized amount of powder into your hand, then add a few drops of water and apply as a cleanser, exfoliator, or leave it on as a spot treatment or mask. The potent combination of vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, clay, and probiotics makes it a powerful product to brighten and hydrate as you cleanse. (Related: New Just-Add-Water Skin Care is Ultra-Effective, Sustainable, and Really Freaking Cool.)

Buy It: aN-hydra The Power of Youth No. 1, $66, an-hydra.com

One Love Organics Skin Savior Multi-Tasking Wonder Balm

DERMSTORE

A workhorse product that can do it all is a must-have in any beauty arsenal. This water- and petroleum-free formula can be used as a makeup remover or salve for dry skin. Beauty products without water, like this balm, are highly concentrated—meaning you can use less and reduce your consumption to help the environment.

Buy It: One Love Organics Skin Savior Multi-Tasking Wonder Balm, $49, dermstore.com

Glo Skin Beauty Daily Polishing Cleanser

DERMSTORE

This powder cleanser transforms from a gritty texture to a face wash when you mix with water. A combination of jojoba beads and salicylic acid provides dual-action physical and chemical exfoliation, that's still gentle enough for sensitive skin. And as an added bonus, you'll never have to worry about travel-size liquids again with this powder.

Buy It: Glo Skin Beauty Daily Polishing Cleanser, $40, dermstore.com

Pinch of Colour Matte Velvet Waterless Lip Colour

AMAZON

Pinch of Colour was founded on the principle that we should preserve water for consumption and reduce industrial use of the resource. A water-free lipstick makes for ultra-pigmented shades, and the rosehip oil, jojoba oil, and mango seed butter ensure the matte formula glides comfortably across the lips. Choose from 12 gorgeous shades. (See also: 10 Beauty Buys on Amazon That Help Reduce Waste.)

Buy It: Pinch of Colour Matte Velvet Waterless Lip Colour, $24, amazon.com

Lush Full of Grace Solid Moisturizer

LUSH

The Lush "naked" line is a plastic-free approach to beauty packaging. Solid bars are formulated sans water to cut down on the need for preservatives. Even though it's a solid, this lotion warms on contact with your skin to moisturize with nourishing botanical oils and butter. Lush also sells one of the best shampoo bars for an eco-friendly shower.

Buy It: Lush Full of Grace Solid Moisturizer, $17, lushusa.com

OWA The Moondust Collection: Hair Wash

OWA HAIRCARE

Once you've wrapped your head around a powder face wash or mask, take it to the next level with shampoo. Wet hair, then pour a thin layer of this powder in your hand and add water. The powder lathers to wash your hair just like a regular shampoo but in a smaller, more concentrated bottle. Give it a try, the powder may just be the beauty wave of the next decade.

Buy It: Owa Haircare The Moondust Collection: Hair Wash, $29, owahaircare.com

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