Glance at any random skin care product and it’s likely that water (or aqua/eau) is listed as one of the first few ingredients, if not the first. You may not realize it, but water plays a significant part in a lot of our beauty products. (That’s not including the water we use to wet our faces when cleansing.) Some brands have even based entire ranges on the humble ingredient, like the thermal spring water at the heart of all the products by Avène, Vichy and La Roche-Posay. Water, no doubt, provides many benefits for our bodies and skin, but there’s a new crop of water-free skin care products hitting the market.
Why Water Is in Skin Care Products
Let’s start with the basics. If you’re wondering why water is so prevalent in skin care products, it’s not just because it’s a cheap filler, although that can be a reason. To get technical, Dr. Yoon-Soo Cindy Bae, clinical assistant professor, NYU Dermatology and associate at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center New York, explains that active ingredients (e.g., AHAs) require a solvent to dissolve into. Water acts as a type of solvent, hence its popularity.
Our body composition is another reason water formulas have saturated the market. “Humans are water-loving creatures; our bodies contain 60 percent water,” explains Tina Griffin, director and resident skin care expert at Blitz Facial Bar. Water naturally delivers hydration to skin and good old H2O absorbs into skin faster than oil.
Bae adds that water cools skin (think about the effect of a facial mist) and that it often improves a product’s texture so it doesn’t come across as greasy. Not to mention the benefits of “special” waters, such as mineral-rich spring waters, which are touted for their soothing and softening effects and for delivering antioxidants.
The Negatives of Water in Skin Care Products
Despite the many benefits, there are some downsides to water as an ingredient. Formulas with a high concentration of water often require preservatives to prevent microbial growth, says Griffin. The issue with preservatives is that they can be linked to health risks and skin irritation. This is why we’re seeing self-preserving beauty products gaining popularity.
If a product contains a mix of water and oil, Bae says it will need an emulsifier, which could irritate skin. Water can also dilute the active ingredients in a product, rendering it less effective.
The Advantages of Water-Free Skin Care
The advantage of cutting out water is it gives other ingredients room to shine. “The idea behind a water-free product is to create a formula with only pure and potent botanical extracts or oils as a base. In many cases, this will give you a more concentrated, non-diluted formulation packed with actives,” says Sarah Lee, co-CEO and co-founder of Glow Recipe.
In addition to getting a purer formula, many water-free products don’t contain preservatives, which means less chance of irritation, states Bae. What’s more, water-free skin care formulas, like powder cleansers and solids, are beneficial for travelers because there’s no concern about pesky TSA liquid restrictions.
A thing to note about water-free skin care products is that some may need to be applied to wet skin or washed away, especially in the case of cleansers. The distinction is that they don’t have water in their formulas.
The product type will dictate the ingredients but oils, botanical extracts and even alcohol can sometimes be used as solvents in place of water. “We’ve seen botanical extracts and oils, such as aloe, bamboo sap and green tea extract used in a formula in place of water,” says Christine Chang, co-CEO and co-founder of Glow Recipe.
As for why water-free skin care products are taking off now, the experts cite a combination of things, including consumers becoming more conscious of what goes into their beauty products, more knowledge about harsh preservatives, the rise of natural beauty and the desire for portable, hassle-free beauty products.
Griffin reminds us that the ultimate decision should be about choosing what skin needs. “You should not base your decision on water-free versus water-based products. Instead, choose products based on your skin type,” she recommends. “If your skin is dry, a water-free product containing oils, such as vitamin E, will provide more benefits. If your skin produces an abundance of oil, water-based products will prevent clogged pores.”
Ready to give water-free skin care products a try? Click through the gallery to see some solid options.