Ever looked at a product and wondered why water is listed as a main ingredient? What’s the science behind water in skin care products? Find out below.
The first time I used a toner, I didn’t really get the point of it. The toner I was using just kind of felt like I was dumping water on my face. And, when I reached out to the brand, I was surprised to find out the formula was almost 70% water.
It seemed odd to me, considering the price tag attached to the toner, to be using a formula that had majority water in it. That’s why I became so intrigued with using only skin care products where water wasn’t a main ingredient.
In my mind, it made sense—why would I pay for a special product if the majority of the formula was just water? But some of my absolute favorite products contained high volumes of water, so I knew there had to be advantages to both. I decided to investigate the difference—read below to see what I discovered.
Why waterless skin care can be good:
Let’s start this off with a reminder of how dry my skin is. I’m the kind of person who has to layer on hydration immediately after getting out of the shower if I don’t want my skin to feel like the sweeping dunes of the Sahara. Even after my intensely hydrating morning regimen, I find myself spritzing by noon to keep the dryness at bay. And when I go to bed, I like to layer on the hydration so my face is swaddled with moisture to rejuvenate overnight. So when I heard about waterless skin care, the first thing that popped into my mind was MORE HYDRATION!
See, it may seem counterintuitive, but water can actually be drying for the skin. Think about it this way: when you come up from splashing your skin in the sink, once your skin dries it feels pretty dry, right? This is because when water evaporates off the skin, it can remove surface lipids from your skin which causes your skin to lose moisture. So, increased exposure to water alone really isn’t great for the skin, especially if you struggle with dry skin.
I found myself using products right after washing my face that were also formulated with high concentrations of water—which seemed counterintuitive since I was trying to re-hydrate. So, when I found waterless essences, I was excited, because it meant that right after cleansing and toning, I was going to be putting on a product that didn’t contain additional water.
I fell in love with the Erborian Dongbaek Camellia Essence for that very reason. It’s entirely oil based, without any water in the formula. However, the molecular weight of the oil is such that it is quickly and easily absorbed into the skin. This product feels noticeably more concentrated and powerful than many of the water-filled formulas I had used, and it only took one or two drops to douse my entire face.
On top of the drying nature of water, I was also excited because less water in products could potentially mean higher concentrations of actives, like what’s found in the Cosrx Triple C Lightning Liquid, which contains 20.5% ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and no water. When it comes to hydrating ingredients, higher concentrations mean deeper, more hydrating moisture. With anti-aging products, it means the actives are more potent and powerful, as they aren’t diluted by water. Additionally, it would mean less product was necessary, as a little would go a lot longer way.
Such is the appeal of creams like the Missha Time Revolution Immortal Youth Cream, which is formulated with birch sap rather than water, and brands like Enature that created an entire line of products that focuses on Birch juice as a substitute for water. This provides noticeably more hydration, and allows powerful anti-aging actives—like arbutin and fermented rice extract—to exist in the product in higher concentrations.
Through my research, it seemed like waterless skin care was the way to go. However, I still also had hesitations, seeing as water is still a star ingredient in many successful skin care products.
Why water in skincare is good:
Despite all the benefits I had discovered of waterless skin care, I still wasn’t about to swear off all products that contained water. The truth is that just as there are benefits to having skin care without water, there are also many benefits to using water an ingredient.
For some ingredients, water is a crucial addition to the formula to boost effectiveness and act as a solvent. Certain ingredients are “hydrophilic,” which means they work best with water. This includes tea tree extracts and fruit acids, as well as various other plant-based extracts. With these ingredients, having water in the formula is essential to ensure best delivery to the skin. Active ingredients are extremely potent, so being slightly diluted by water won’t make them less powerful—having water in the formula will actually make them far more effective on the skin.
Here’s an example: The Son & Park Beauty Water uses water as a solvent to deliver willow bark extract, papaya extract, citric acid, and lavender oil to the skin. In this formula, that mix of oils and acids provides incredible moisture and other benefits, thanks in part to the use of water as a solvent.
When used as a solvent, water can also be a great option because it’s suitable for every skin type. Water is water, and in its pure form, it doesn’t contain any ingredients that could irritate even the most sensitive skin. For this reason, it’s an extremely effective solvent as opposed to other, less pure and gentle solvents that would need to be used.
On top of that, it’s an inexpensive option (using only actives and alternative solvents in a formula often makes products much more expensive). So, since in many cases water doesn’t actually make the product less effective, it makes sense to use it as the solvent of choice.
The bottom line:
At the end of the day, it really is a two-sided coin. With some products, not having water is a major selling point. It makes them more potent, effective, and luxurious. However, with some formulas, water is actually a crucial addition.
My advice? Think about what you’re trying to get out of the product. If you’re searching for hydration or wrinkle prevention, look into products that are either waterless, or use water in very low concentrations. As for other actives and treatments, don’t let seeing water on the label scare you away—it’s there for a reason.