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Are water-free beauty products really clean?

Barely three years ago, water-free beauty products accounted for a tiny market share and did not go beyond bars of soap and a few solid shampoos. These days, the offering brings together a great deal of products – including skincare products – and is invading all distribution circuits. But are these water-free beauty products really clean?
Here’s our demystification of this phenomenon.

The epiphany in the minds of consumers, and their wish to have beauty products that are more responsible as regards the planet, have pushed brands and distributors to enrich the water-free beauty product segment. So is it a fad, or a true grass roots movement? What claims are attached to these beauty products free of H2O, and what are their merits?

Water in beauty products – a really problematic issue

True enough, beauty products are 80% water. If you look at the INCI (ingredients) list of any beauty product, you’ll see that water (aqua) is almost invariably the first ingredient listed. It accounts for around 80% of all body creams and body milks, rising to more than 90% in the case of “rinse-out” products, i.e. shower gels, shampoos and cleansing waters or gels.

Water – a diluting agent

In beauty products, water can be of benefit and have real positive effects if it’s spring water, sea water, glacier water or flower water (hydrolat). Because these are loaded with active substances (minerals, trace elements, vitamins, etc.) and therefore more difficult to incorporate into an emulsion. In most cases, nothing more than regular purified water is used, and plays an essential role as a solvent. It makes it easier to mix active substances together – which in many cases are oils – and reduces the product’s oily and shiny appearance. It also makes formats more lightweight by making them more liquid, and imparts a more fresh and pleasant feel when applied to the skin. Water also makes good business sense for corporations, which make big savings by diluting the amount of active ingredients in finished products. Because these active substances are generally much more costly that tap water.

Water = preservatives

Water is the part of a beauty product that’s most liable to be contaminated by bacteria and other microorganisms. And bacterial contamination of beauty products is a complete no-no, as it could lead to irritation or allergies. That’s why creams, emulsions, cleansing milks, shower gels and shampoos require preservatives, which are essential for maintaining shelf life under normal conditions of use. All the more if the product comes in a pot that you’re going to delve into with your fingers every day, or a bottle that’s going to hang around in the warmth and damp of the shower shelf. “Preservatives” equals “antibacterial ingredients”. But some of them are now on the ingredients blacklist, since they are suspected of being endocrine disruptors, or of setting off unwanted reactions such as irritation and allergies. Because preservatives disrupt the microbiome, which is in large part made up of bacteria that are good for the skin.

Water brings nothing to the skin

Contrary to what you might think, the water contained in beauty products does not hydrate the skin. The water that we drink hydrates us, as do active substances (urea, glycerine and hyaluronic acid) that prevent water from evaporating and allow it to circulate more effectively in the cells.

Production takes a lot of water

The production stages of a beauty product require several thousand litres of water. In this case we call it the finished product’s “virtual water”. For example, the water used in beauty products must be free of any germs, heavy metals, bacteria or limescale, and it must always meet its quality standard. But the water purification process requires four litres of tap water to produce one litre of purified water! And water is an increasingly rare commodity. Science found that almost 1/3 of the world’s population is at risk of drinking water shortage, due to global warming.

Water-free beauty products: back to the way things were

Water-free beauty products have been on-trend lately, but actually they are kind of a return to how things were when it comes to beauty products.

Before emulsion was invented

Creams, serums, liquid shampoos and other water-based beauty products were created in the 20th century. The first cream was invented in 1905 by Guerlain, and the first liquid shampoo in 1927 by Schwarzkopf. The industrialisation of the beauty sector made it possible to introduce emulsion, by blending oil and water together mechanically. But bars of soap have been around for more than 3,000 years, beauty products based on beeswax since ancient times and dry shampoo since the Middle Ages. Today’s water-free beauty products represent a clean, safe, eco-friendly and economical alternative to what you might call conventional beauty products.

Water-free beauty products – more than just solid

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On the face of it it’s obvious that a beauty product “free of H2O” contains no water. While mentioning water-free beauty products immediately brings to mind the solid products that have recently been brought to market, they come in a variety of formats. This umbrella term covers the good old bar of soap and all these products referred to as solid (shampoos, facial cleansers and now creams, conditioners, deodorants, etc..). It also covers powders, from talc to toothpaste powder to exfoliating powders. As well as (and these often get overlooked) all products based on plant oils and butters, like balms and ointments, cleansing oils and body oils.

The merits of water-free beauty products

This form of beauty product, free of H2O, is in line with what today’s consumers want.

Pared-down formulations

The “water-free“ trend is part of that towards pared-down products, like “gluten free” food products. No water also means no preservatives, since the more water there is in a product, the more diluted it is, the more preservatives have to be added. Without water, there’s almost zero risk of microbial contamination. As for oils and butters, they only need antioxidants to prevent them from going rank. As for powders, they often contain no more than about ten ingredients, including clay and plant extracts or pure vitamin C.

More active formulations

Purified water, the main ingredient in conventional formulations, is inert. Accordingly, most products are made up of only 10% truly active ingredients. As for solid products, or those in powder form, they contain only those ingredients necessary for their action and effectiveness. As regards oils and butters, on condition that they are of plant-based origin, they have more of an affinity with the skin’s hydrolipidic film. It absorbs them perfectly, and they supply essential fatty acids to it. Lastly, certain active substances that are very instable in water-based solutions – like vitamin C and retinol – behave much better in formulations free of H2O, such as powder formulations. However, beware of real soaps, which have come back into favour thanks to this trend. The saponification method used to make them leaves them with a very high pH (alkaline, often higher than 9) whereas the skin’s pH is 5.5. So these soaps are not all that good for the skin, contrary to what you often hear. Favour instead solid shower gels or cleansers, which are closer to oil-rich bars, as they are known.

Products that are zero waste, easy to use on the go and economical

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The final, obvious merit of solid or powder products: since they are sold loose or in minimal packaging, they rein in overpackaging, wastefulness and plastic pollution. Far removed from the millions of shampoo and shower gel bottles that get thrown away every year, they are simply packaged in recycled, recyclable cardboard or in a re-usable tin. And even if they do need a plastic or glass container – as do deodorants and oils and balms – their small capacity reduces both the quantity of material used and the carbon footprint. In this way, it takes 20 times less energy to produce a solid cleanser than a conventional shower gel or shampoo. Another significant plus point is that they also free up space in the bathroom and toiletry bag. They are the ultimate products for use on the go (when travelling or in the sports locker room).

Moreover, their concentrated formulations give them plus points economically. For example, a solid shower gel contains the equivalent of three conventional 250 ml bottles. A toothpaste bar contains the equivalent of two tubes.

The disingenuous claims attached to water-free beauty products

Water-free beauty products are not always the answer to everything.

Sometimes neither minimalist nor natural

You might think – and some brands make a strong marketing argument of it – that these products stripped of their water are also stripped of any superfluous ingredients, and “minimalist”. While it’s the case for some of them, you’ll also find balms or solid products with super-long INCI lists, with up to some 40 ingredients. By the same token, being water free does not mean that these products are always natural or organic. You’ll find body butters containing paraffin, oils containing silicon or mineral oil and solid products containing hydrogenated oil… So it’s essential to look at the ingredients list (INCI) of water-free products, especially if you are looking for clean beauty products, which are certified natural or organic.

Solid beauty products containing water?

When you look closely at the ingredients of solid shampoos and other cleansers, you’ll notice that the vast majority still contain water. It sometimes appears at the bottom of the INCI list, often as the last or second-to-last ingredient – especially for products sold in mass retail – even though the proportion is still small (10-20% rather than 80% in a conventional beauty product).

Fake solid products

What’s the latest trend? Water-free shower gel in stick, tablet or pellet form that is to be dissolved upon first use, meaning that tap water has to be added to it! Certainly since water is only involved at the end of the process, the transport-related carbon footprint is much reduced. These products are purportedly eco-friendly since they come in plastic-free reusable bottles. However, they are glass bottles, so they are extremely fragile. In this case, the water-free beauty product epithet is a misleading one.

Water-free beauty products, and particularly solid beauty products, are very much on trend under the guises of ecology and naturalness. True enough, they make it possible to save a lot of water, cut down on packaging and replace plastic with paper, cardboard or glass. They also drastically reduce the transport-related footprint (and even free up space on shelves and in the bathroom). Nevertheless, they don’t always hit the mark in terms of appealing to the senses (and the haircare result yielded). In some cases, more is made of the storytelling than the quality of the formulation. But we are probably only just at the beginning of what will be a long story.

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