The Future Of Sustainable Beauty Looks Waterless — Or Is It All Marketing?

Unpacking the waterless beauty trend and its environmental impact.

waterless beauty bars

It’s no secret that the beauty sector is one of the world’s least sustainable industries, with an estimated 120 billion units of packaging produced each year (less than 10% of which actually gets recycled), sizable carbon footprints, complex supply chains, and a culture of rampant consumption that will soon see consumers drowning in a sea of beauty products. There’s no doubt the industry has a lot of work to do. Greenwashing is more widespread than ever, with buzzwords being freely used to appeal to consumers’ eco-conscious values, and brands are seeing opportunity in environmental warnings. However, there are movements within the industry, like carbon-neutral and waterless beauty, that promise to reshape the future of product sustainability.

Water scarcity is a topic that everyone understands, and experts say it’s through water that most of us will feel the effects of climate change first. Water use has been growing globally at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, according to UN Water, and an increasing number of regions are reaching the limit at which water services can be sustainably delivered. There’s no denying that demand for water is outstripping supply, and the WHO predicts that half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2025.

Unsurprisingly, the beauty industry has zeroed in on water, flooding the market with a surge of products formulated without it, coined waterless beauty. While the trend that originated in Korea initially touted products as being more concentrated — and as a result of greater benefit to the skin — the message behind the term has since changed. Now, waterless beauty positions itself as being better for the environment, but how much of an impact is it really having? And can a beauty product ever truly be waterless?


A New Wave Of Waterless Formulations

“There is not a global water shortage at the moment,” says Lorraine Dallmeier, biologist, chartered environmentalist and award-winning CEO of online organic cosmetic formulation school Formula Botanica, “but we’re seeing more water scarcity in multiple regions around the world. For that reason, it makes sense to ensure that water consumption for the cosmetics industry is undertaken at a sustainable rate, and wherever possible, uses circular principles,” adds Dallmeier.

A typical bottle of shampoo can contain as much as 90% water in the formulation. Likewise, an expensive anti-aging serum can contain up to 70% water. Look at the ingredients on most labels and chances are “aqua” will top the list. As superfluous as it seems to be spending money on products that are almost entirely water, it’s no wonder beauty brands are discovering ways to innovate, developing a new wave of waterless, or ‘anhydrous’ products that are reimagining conventional water-based formulas.

Hair care has been in the spotlight in the recent surge of waterless beauty products, with concentrates of the active ingredients in products like shampoo and conditioner taking the form of bars, pastes, and powders, which are then activated by the water already being used in the shower.

Waterless Beauty Still Has A Water Footprint

But make no mistake; just because a product was formulated without water, doesn’t mean water wasn’t used to create it. “Every single consumer product has a water footprint,” notes Dallmeier. “Water will be involved throughout every single step of the process.”

Consider the ingredients used in beauty products and the water needed to grow and harvest them. According to a recent study, 70% of the world’s water is used for agricultural crops. “The largest part of your beauty balm’s water footprint will come from the ingredients contained within it,” says Dallmeier, adding “this is despite none of these ingredients actually containing water.”

There’s also the sizable water footprint involved in getting ingredients from point A to point B. Think about the shea butter that consumers have come to covet for its rich moisturizing properties. It has to be transported by plane from Ghana, and that requires water. Research has shown that even when using biofuel, a plane transporting shea butter from Ghana to the UK may still use as much as 136 liters of water per passenger kilometer.

And let’s not forget packaging. The production of plastic is very water intensive, and according to Dallmeier at least 75 billion tonnes of plastic packaging is produced globally each year for the beauty industry, requiring billions of cubic meters of water.

Dallmeier believes that the term ‘waterless’ glosses over the fact that a beauty balm or shampoo bar still required the use of fresh water to get it into the hands of its final user. “Waterless beauty will never be truly waterless, and its contribution to the sustainability discussion has very little to do with water,” she says.


An Opportunity To Reduce Packaging

“While solid or anhydrous formulations are fantastic beauty products, they don’t necessarily play a significant role in terms of reducing water consumption worldwide,” notes Dallmeier, who goes on to point out that where they do play a role is in reducing packaging and lasting longer for the consumer.

Many next-gen brands are seizing the opportunity to ditch the oversized, heavy plastic packaging in favor of something concentrated that is a fraction of the size. “Why ship a heavy plastic bottle filled with mostly water around the world when you’re already showering in water?” asks Jayme Jenkins, co-founder of Everist, whose anhydrous pastes earned a position on TIME’s Best Inventions of 2021 list. “The environmental benefit of waterless beauty is the carbon impact of shipping smaller, lighter products as well as the smaller packaging needed, reducing waste,” says Jenkins. “In our case, a 100ml aluminum tube versus a 300ml bottle of traditional shampoo,” she adds. Similarly, powder-to-liquid hair care brand Susteau packs the equivalent of four 8oz liquid shampoo bottles into a single 2oz bottle of their Moondust Hair Wash.

Dr. Conny Wittke, Co-founder of Superzero, a hair care brand with a lineup of small yet mighty shampoo and conditioner bars, emphasizes that it’s the presence of water in liquid formulations that necessitates the need for plastic to package the products. “This has a massive negative impact not only on water use but also on greenhouse gas emissions, microplastic creation, and of course plastic pollution,” says Wittke. She adds that by eliminating water and plastic, the weight and volume of their bars is reduced by up to 90% compared to liquid formulas. That means less carbon emissions and energy use of products during transportation.

“The beauty industry is obsessed with plastic,” says Wittke, highlighting that in the U.S. alone, almost 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic are created just for beauty and personal care products, and 552 million plastic shampoo bottles are being sold each year. According to Wittke, a major reason for the excessive use of plastic, water, and energy for the creation of oversized packaging is the fight for shelf space, and the fact that the industry has led consumers to believe that bigger is better.

More and more brands are asking the important questions and challenging the status quo, reimagining conventional formulas for the sake of the planet. Kailey Bradt, Founder of Susteau, notes that it was her background in chemical engineering that allowed her to take a different approach to product development and solving the problems in the beauty industry. “Engineering teaches you how to think, how to analyze, how to problem solve. In considering the primary purpose of a shampoo, while taking into account the needs of the consumer, it was pretty obvious that there was no need for all that water,” she says.


The Bottom Line On Waterless Beauty

“Anhydrous formulations can be amazing, however, we need to stop declaring waterless beauty is going to solve the industry’s massive sustainability issues,” says Dallmeier. “It is literally a drop in the ocean.” Instead, she reinforces the importance for beauty brands to embrace circular beauty, where natural resource use is minimized and effectively kept in a loop. The water used in growing beauty crops, synthesizing beauty ingredients, formulating, manufacturing, and then shipping beauty products should be reduced to a minimal level and used in a circular fashion wherever possible so it could then be used again for the same purpose.

In considering the future outlook for the beauty industry in 2022 and beyond, Dallmeier is predicting a drive towards solid formulations and formulating longer-lasting products that require little to no packaging. “Rampant cosmetic consumerism, in the form currently touted by the mainstream beauty industry, will have to come to a grinding halt,” says Dallmeier. “If it doesn’t, we will eventually be drowning in a sea of beauty products and plastic, diverting valuable natural resources to producing endless products to satisfy consumers’ insatiable desire for cosmetics,” she adds. For that reason, Dallmeier believes refillable, solid, and low-consumption beauty will have to become the norm — for our benefit and that of the planet.