Is water in your skincare really a bad thing? Is “waterless” skincare really better?
One of the biggest skincare trends these days is “waterless” skincare. The main explanation for this trend is that even in expensive skincare products, water is the first ingredient on the list. The top five ingredients on a skincare ingredient label make up about 80% of the product, so what that means is most of the cleansers, serums, lotions, and creams on the market are mostly water.
This is true regardless of whether the product is sold online, in drug stores, department stores, beauty specialty stores, big box stores, or health food stores. It’s also true of “professional” products that can only be purchased from spas, salons, or doctors’ offices. It does not matter if the product is conventional, GMO, non-GMO, organic, green, blue, holistic, cruelty-free, vegan, what have you.
In the majority of cases, if the product is a clear liquid (like a toner), an emulsion of any kind (lotion or cream), “hydrating” serum, or a clear gel–then it most likely contains some form of water.
Is water in your skincare a bad thing?
Well, it depends. On one hand, if water itself was so horrible for the skin, then that would mean that handwashing, bathing, and showering would be bad for the skin. It IS true that over-washing does have detrimental effects on the skin. However, water in properly balanced skincare products would not be solely responsible for those effects.
The skin’s pH is naturally slightly acidic, typically ranging from 4.5-5.5 on the pH scale (the most acidic at 0 and the most basic/alkaline at 14). Water, however, has a neutral pH of about 7 (distilled water is 7, but other types of water might be a little higher–and not all skincare contains distilled water), which in theory, means that too much water on the skin can be irritating with daily use.
Another issue is that the skin’s outermost layer has a lipid barrier, which means that it’s actually designed to repel water. So the performance (often referred to as “active,” although that’s not usually accurate in cosmetics) ingredients in most water-based skincare products might have a hard time actually getting absorbed into the deeper layers of the skin to have any benefit.
Another concern is that the skin’s microbiome–unlike the gut microbiome–requires a slightly acidic pH and lipids to stay healthy and diverse. Too much water on the skin could disrupt the skin’s microbiome, though surfactants pose far more risk.
And the biggest issue with having water in skincare products is that it makes the product susceptible to microbial growth and contamination from bacteria, mold, and yeast. Therefore, these products require the addition of either a natural antimicrobial system, or a standard preservative.
Why do so many skincare products contain water?
From a formulation and manufacturing perspective, there are several reasons to have water in a skincare product. It’s cheap (if not free), it allows for easy spreadability, it offers a pleasant consistency, it brings a cooling and refreshing feel to the skin, and it does bring hydration to the epidermal layers.
You might wonder if drinking lots of water is enough to adequately hydrate the skin from the inside out. However, most water consumed internally does not reach the epidermis. Adequate hydration from within is crucial for skin health, because skin cells form from within. However, we do know that the skin needs to be hydrated on the surface for any sort of topical nutrient absorption to occur.
While having a large amount of water in a skincare product might offer the above-mentioned benefits, that water often blocks absorption. Since the skin is designed mainly to repel water, it is much harder for nutrients to penetrate through and between the epidermal cells (corneocytes) in a water-based formulation. This is why companies who make water-based serums, ampoules, treatment creams, etc. often add penetration enhancing ingredients to the formulation, or use ingredients that have been formulated into synthetic lipid delivery systems. It adds a large amount of functional ingredients to the product, but it does not necessarily improve efficacy.
So what does waterless skincare actually mean?
Waterless skincare can mean a couple of different things–but it does not necessarily mean that the product contains no water.
Truly waterless skincare means that it is anhydrous–meaning it contains no form of water, hydrating, or aqueous ingredients at all. Examples of anhydrous skincare are oil serums, balms, and salves that are made only of natural oils, butters, and waxes. These types of products actually ARE waterless, since they contain only oil-based ingredients.
Anhydrous products have their pros and cons, which you can read more about in this blog post.
However, many products that are labeled as “waterless” in reality are not anhydrous; and therefore are not waterless.
In this case, water might not be listed as an actual ingredient on the ingredient deck (ex. aqua, distilled water). However these “waterless skincare” products are made with water-containing/hydrous/aqueous ingredients such as hydrosols, herbal teas, fermented bio-waters, or aloe vera gel. These ingredients are either made with or naturally contain water (as all plants do!), so skincare products made with them are automatically hydrous, and not waterless.
The idea behind using naturally hydrous ingredients instead of plain old H2O is that they contain water soluble vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, prebiotics, and other skin-nutritious benefits that actually produce a therapeutic effect on the skin. All water does is hydrate and improve the spreadability of the product.
Most naturally hydrous botanical ingredients are also lower in pH than water; and therefore are less disruptive to the skin’s pH balance, microbiome, and acid mantle since they are slightly acidic.
These types of “waterless” skincare products still feel like a hydrating cream, lotion, or gel. However, since they contain actual nutrients, they are more concentrated than a plain old H2O-containing product.
Waterless skincare products like these aren’t perfect
Though these waterless skincare products do bring nutritional value to the skin more than water can, they still present some of the same challenges that water has. As mentioned before, the epidermis is designed to repel water; so hydrous ingredients and water soluble nutrients still are less likely to get absorbed into the skin than lipids and oil soluble nutrients.
Furthermore, hydrous botanical ingredients present an even greater risk of microbial contamination since not only does the water provide a breeding ground for bacteria, mold, and yeast; but the nutrients and natural sugars in the plant matter itself acts as food for the microbes. In addition to that challenge, many botanical ingredients such as aloe vera gel, herbs with demulcent properties, and bio-ferments are humectants.
Humectants attract and bind moisture to themselves, and therefore increase the overall water activity of the product. What this means in plain English is that whatever risk of contamination a plain old water-containing product would have is magnified with the presence of humectants and botanical nutrients. This is why traditionally trained cosmetic chemists have been so resistant to using botanical ingredients in skincare products. They are harder to preserve, and even with a preservative, they have a shorter shelf life than inert synthetics.
The bottom line on waterless skincare
“Waterless skincare”–like many other terms and claims in cosmetics–is a marketing term only, that carries very little meaning. It does not guarantee a better product; though if formulated properly and used in a balanced skincare regimen, it does have the ability to deliver a greater concentration of nutrients to the skin. However, not all waterless skincare is nutritious. There are plenty of products on the market that use the “waterless” claim that contain nothing more than inert synthetics, or fabricated actives (that the skin most likely won’t know what to do with).
If you are a consumer and want to buy a product claiming to be waterless, do a little homework to find out what the brand means by “waterless.”
If you are a formulator who would like to use the term “waterless skincare” in your products and marketing while the term is still hot, I urge you to educate your customers what you mean by the term. If your products are not anhydrous, I especially urge you to make sure you use an adequate preservation system. Don’t fall for the myth that herbs, hydrosols, or essential oils are self-preserving. Make sure the pH is appropriate for the skin, and test your products before you market them.
Do you want to learn more about how to formulate and market top quality herbal skincare products?
I teach you exactly that in my online course, Create Your Skincare Pro. You’ll learn how to make properly balanced herbal (and custom) skincare formulations. You will also learn how to properly preserve them, test them, and market them.
You can start today with a free lesson HERE.