The Beauty Memo

Is the future of beauty waterless?

Water consumption continues to be a crucial part of the sustainability conversation, and beauty is no exception, as FIORELLA VALDESOLO reports


According to the market-research firm Mintel, in the decade to come, water will be considered a luxury. This prediction may sound dramatic, but it underscores the urgency of the global crisis around this diminishing natural resource. It also urges brands to reconsider their dependency on it. And some have already taken note: Unilever has reduced water abstraction related to manufacturing by more than 40 percent, and L’Oréal is aiming to adhere to a 60 percent reduction in water consumption for each finished product by this year. Just as brands are re-evaluating their water dependency, so too should we. As water becomes more of a commodity, the impacts of its scarcity are felt more and more, and so a water-conscious beauty routine may be more important than ever before.

The state of our water and our skin

The past decade has brought a rapid decline in the quality of the water many of us are using and consuming. “Not only have calcium levels risen, but mining and fracking practices have caused increased metal and mineral content in water runoff,” explains New York dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross. Water with high levels of calcium is called hard water, and it can create a host of skin issues. “Hard water causes a chemical reaction with your skin’s natural oils, changing the consistency and, in turn, clogging the pores and leading to acne. It also generates free radicals, causing collagen breakdown.”

While drinking water and consuming water-rich foods may help hydrate us internally, topically, water can actually dry out the skin. “Water alone is not hydrating to the skin because it just evaporates,” explains Dr. Heather D. Rogers, dermatological surgeon and founder of Doctor Rogers Restore. The protective lipids (or natural oils) that line the surface of the skin are designed to act as a barrier to water loss. But prolonged exposure to water, or exposure to water that’s too hot, can strip those oils and allow moisture to escape, explains New York dermatologist and founder of Macrene Actives Dr Macrene Alexiades.

Water and our beauty products

Take a look at many beauty-product labels and you’ll find that water (or “aqua”) is often one of the first ingredients listed and is therefore in the highest concentration (making up as much as 70 percent of a typical water-based product). But much of the time, that water is just serving as a space-filler (it’s a cheap way to add volume, after all) without adding actual substance. Nowadays, effective anhydrous products (products that contain no water) can take many forms, such as cleansing balms, moisturizing oils, body butters, pressed serums and dry masks, says Annee de Mamiel, founder of De Mamiel. Certain formulas actually benefit from having less water in them. “A well-balanced facial oil provides the skin with a mix of ceramides, cholesterol and essential fatty acids, along with plant polyphenols to moisturize dry skin, repair barrier function and balance the oil,” she adds.

Developing a water-conscious routine

While we don’t want to eliminate water from our routines entirely – as skin is both hydrophilic and lipophilic, it is necessary – being more mindful about how we incorporate it can benefit both our complexions and the environment. First, consider what you’re trying to get out of the product. “Waterless products are great for concentrated skin nourishment. Save water-based skincare for treatments with hydrophilic ingredients like fruit acids and water-soluble vitamins,” says Krysia Boinis, cofounder of Vapour Beauty. Second, choose well-formulated products with targeted ingredients, says Gross. “To negate the effects of hard water, look for cleansers with chelators that bind to calcium and prevent it from reacting with skin’s oils, and incorporate antioxidants to protect against free radicals,” he explains. Finally, it’s important to be conscientious about the amount of water you use overall and to be aware that even products like a nourishing cleansing balm or anti-aging face oil have water footprints. Most important, perhaps, is simplifying our routines so that we use fewer products in general: when it comes to water and beauty, less is indeed more.



The model featured in this story is not associated with NET-A-PORTER and does not endorse it or the products shown