Waterless skincare: the beauty firms tapping into ethical cleansing | Skincare

The climate crisis is driving a new trend that will change the look of your bathroom cabinet for ever: waterless skincare.

While wrapping-free, vegan toiletries have long had a place on British high streets, thanks to independent brands such as Lush, the new wave of waterless – or anhydrous – beauty products is driven by a combination of ethical concerns, innovations taken from Korean skincare and new developments in packaging.

Waterless beauty products come as bars, powders, sheets and sticks which either eliminate the need for water or allow you to add the necessary amount at home.

In 2020, almost 12% of global personal care launches in the soap, bath and shower category claimed to be waterless. They now account for 23% of the personal care market in the US and interest is growing in the UK and Europe. According to business analyst Future Market Insights, waterless cosmetics sales are predicted to grow by 13.3% by 2031.

Ben Grace was managing director of British skincare company Bulldog before he set up waterless brand SBTRCT in 2019. “A lot had changed in a short time – awareness of the climate crisis, water waste, overreliance on palm oil,” he said. “That’s what brought me to solid, waterless and zero-waste skincare. Developing a high-performance range that could do this, but without any compromise on efficacy, made perfect sense to me.”

As Grace points out, most traditional skincare formulations contain between 60% and 80% water. “That’s just crazy,” he said. “Consumers should be paying for active ingredients. Condensed and waterless solid formulations give you the best ingredients but without bulking out formulations with water.”

Plastic-free cleansing bars. Photograph: SBTRCT

Ethique is a New Zealand company started by Brianne West with a student loan. The company sells skincare, haircare and has just launched home-compostable lipsticks.

“By removing water, we remove plastic, meaning solid bars are not only saving water and plastic, but also fossil fuel emissions,” West said. “Our bars have an average carbon footprint of just 8% that of bottled products.”

She says she is starting to see real change within the beauty industry. “In the 10 years since Ethique started, we’ve noticed bars going from a hard-to-find, niche concept to an accepted alternative on the shelves in forward-thinking retailers. I have faith that the industry can continue to grow and become the dominant format in time. All we need is for retailers to make the jump – consumers are increasingly used to the idea and willing to give things a go.”

As well as helping the planet, anhydrous products’ innovative designs can be useful for consumers, too. British start-up Plus Body Wash is a just-add-water formula with 100% dissolvable packaging that goes down the plughole while you shower. Its manufacture uses 38% less water than traditional wash and it’s easy to transport on holiday or to the gym.

The luxury market is also converting to waterless products. South Korean beauty regimes have become hugely popular in the west, and many of these products are water-free, less the result of environmental concerns than because removing water means ingredients are more concentrated and need fewer preservatives. Sheet masks are predicted to be a $392m global industry by 2026, for example.

Plus Body Wash dissolvable packaging.
Some firms have introduced dissolvable packaging. Photograph: Plus Body Wash

Stephanie Hannington-Suen grew up helping out in her parents’ acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) clinic. After working as a graphic designer, she set up Homework, a natural skincare range that includes anhydrous products because she wanted to provide a higher concentration of active ingredients.

“As a graphic designer by trade and growing up around TCM, I wanted to create products that apply a modern approach to ancient Chinese philosophy with the guiding principle of living in harmony with nature. So waterless beauty products seemed the obvious choice,” she said.

West encourages consumers to look for social as well as personal benefits to their beauty regime. “Look for products that offer more than just ‘solid’ or ‘waterless’. Products that are vegan, cruelty free or solid are great – but they will offer far more environmental benefits if they offer all three, if they can demonstrate a commitment to their producers – direct trade or fair trade – and employees, and a genuine plan to reduce and offset their carbon production.”

As 844 million people currently lack access to clean water worldwide, any action by the beauty industry to change consumers’ behaviour is positive. “Water scarcity is a very real problem,” Grace said. “To keep using it unnecessarily as the biggest ingredient in skincare formulations just isn’t sustainable. We must tackle it, and when I say we, I mean the whole industry – brands, retailers, manufacturers, raw material producers, everyone. The beauty industry can’t run from that.”