When you think of treat-yourself, extravagant ingredients, water might not be the first one that comes to mind. Which is why you might be surprised to learn global market research firm, Mintel, has named it as “the new luxury” ingredient. “Water is set to be a precious commodity as consumption outstrips supply,” the brand’s Global Beauty and Personal Care Analyst explained.
Growing world population, economic development and increased consumption – the average person in the western world consumes 140 litres a day – has led to the global demand for water increasing by a rate of about 1 percent per year, according to the UN. But, with climate change making drier regions drier, roughly two thirds of the world’s population are already experiencing water scarcity at least one month out of the year, with that figure only set to grow.
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While agriculture is the main culprit for water usage (taking up about 70%), the boom in the personal care and cosmetics industry is a growing contributor. One that’s simply not sustainable. And, the more consumers are becoming aware of the impact, the more pressure is being placed on beauty brands to create sustainable solutions.
Already, leading beauty companies are taking up the challenge. L’Oreal pledged to reduce its water consumption by a whopping 60% (per finished product unit) by next year and Unilever has set goals to half the environmental impact (including water usage) of the making and use of its products by 2030.
This is big news, given water makes up the vast majority of our skincare and cosmetics. Take a look at the ingredients list of your favourite cleansers, shampoos, conditioners and foundations and you’ll notice the first (and therefore, most abundant) ingredient listed is often “Aqua” or “Eau” – i.e. water.
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"Historically, water has been used as a filler in products," Linda Treska, founder and CEO of waterless cosmetic company Pinch of Colour, told trend forecasters WGSN in their Waterless Beauty report. "You’ll often see it listed as the first ingredient in a formula because it acts as a base," making up around 70 to 80 percent of formulas. "The price point of water is much lower than other ingredients, making the final product more profitable to produce. Unfortunately, this view of water as 'cheap' contributes to the belief that water is an expendable and limitless resource."
So what’s the solution? For starters, solid beauty bars are gaining momentum. “They are more concentrated, so on a cost per use basis you get a lot more,” explains Brianne West, founder of sustainable plastic-free and water-free beauty company, Ethique. “You’re not paying for water which cosmetics companies are effectively putting in their products for free.” Instead, they’ll lather up using the water you would use to shower in anyway.
And, they benefit from further sustainable side effects. The container for a big liquid shampoo, for instance, is going to use far more plastic than a concentrated shampoo bar. “You can pack a water-free cosmetic in compostable materials or even make it naked,” says Brianne, who wraps her solid bars in biodegradable cardboard. What’s more, “your products will have a much lower carbon footprint. Products that have no water weigh a lot less,” explains Brianne, so the impact to transport them around the world is far less.
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Similarly, powder products are taking off. Powder cleansers, exfoliators and face masks nix the need for water in the product (thereby reducing weight and waste), and crucially, they provide important skincare benefits too. Many active ingredients, like vitamin C deteriorate overtime when mixed with water. Maintaining them in powder form preserves their purity ensuring you get a fresh hit of the ingredients each time you activate them with water at home. Add to this the fact that water-free products don’t require preservatives – which are one of the main causes of skin irritation – and the result is a cleaner, more active and less irritating formula. Bonus: if you’re off on your travels, neither beauty bars, nor powders will count towards your airport liquids.
Last of all are oils. While water has been added to our products for years under the guide of helping to hydrate, the minerals and metals in water can actually strip skin when used often. Rather than a filler, nourishing oils can provide benefits to skin while adding the slip necessary to help them apply seamlessly. In place of water, soothing botanicals, natural oils, fruit waters and butters, like those used in Pinch of Colour’s waterless cosmetics, ensure beautifully blendable, highly-pigmented formulas packed with skin benefits.
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We’re so used to seeing water come out of our taps, but its position as an undervalued and overused resource is shifting. With luxe, innovative and effective alternatives emerging every day, it’s only a matter of time until we pull the plug on water waste.