Why beauty products are going waterless

Water (aqua) is usually at the top of most ingredient lists - and for good reason. It’s an effective and inexpensive solvent. Still, waterless beauty products are gaining traction as both brands and consumers are looking to reduce their “water footprint”.

Positives of waterless beauty:

Water-based formulas need preservative systems in order to inhibit bacterial growth. Waterless products can often be formulated without cosmetic preservatives or with more “natural” preservative systems. Less water also means reduced shipping weight, less packaging waste and less risk of packaging failures (ie spills and leaks). 

Negatives of waterless products:

It’s important to note that while the finished product may be waterless, water was inevitably used in the lifecycle of the product. Farming and harvesting of ingredients, manufacturing, shipping and of course using the product (many waterless products still need to be rinsed or use water to activate) all require water.


While waterless products aren’t truly waterless and are not a sustainability “cure-all”, they do provide tangible benefits. Also, unique formats help create differentiation in the extremely mature beauty and personal care market. As formulators, it’s important to be aware of beauty trends, particularly as both brands and consumers are looking to be more water-conscious. Here are some formats and ingredients to consider as you look to enter the world of waterless beauty.


This format can be used for oil absorbing products like dry shampoo as well as cleansing products. For oil absorption you’ll typically use talc or starch. Given that talc has fallen out of favor with consumers most dry shampoos or other oil absorbing formats use corn or rice starch. Cellulose is another common secondary ingredient. For cleansing products, you’ll want to use powdered anionic surfactants such as Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate. 

A good example is this Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant product.


Of course, bar soaps are the original solid format but now solid shampoos, conditioners and moisturizers are flooding the market. Solid products also tout limited packaging which helps support their sustainability story. Solid/bar products usually contain a wax like carnauba (hard wax) or an emulsifying wax like Cetyl Phosphate depending on your product and how rigid you want the formula to be. Emollients like shea or cocoa butter are often used for moisturizing/conditioning and for cleansing products you’ll want to use a mild surfactant like Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate.

For example, this Eco Friendly Solid Shampoo


Oils have long been used to nourish hair and skin but oils are also growing in popularity as a way to cleanse skin. Cleansing oils can remove makeup and impurities from skin (like attracts like) without drying skin due to the use of detergents. Certainly, there are limitless plant and botanical oils such as coconut oil, macadamia nut oil, grapeseed oil etc that can fit the bill here. Still, you’ll generally need to add other emollients and emollient esters to improve spreadability and product aesthetics. Caprylic/capric triglyceride and Isohexadecane are just a few examples.

You can see something like that in this Biossance Squalane formula.


Balms are a bit of a hybrid between solids and oils. Typically these products are solid at room temperature but will “melt” into liquids once rubbed into the skin. Similar to oils, balms have gained popularity as gentle cleansers as well as being popular moisturizing formats. Ingredients are also similar to oils - you’ll typically find a host of plant/botanical oils in balms as well as emollients such as caprylic/capric triglyceride or ethylhexyl palmitate. Butters, waxes and polymers are also often used to create that perfect “balm” texture.

Look at the ingredient list of this Drunk Elephant product for more an example


The K-beauty phenomenon spurred the growth of sheet masks worldwide with the US being no exception. Improving non-woven technology has made sheet masks both affordable and effective. Sustainable materials have also improved the eco-friendly credentials of sheet masks. Non-woven substrates range from lyocell (ie Tencel) to bamboo/wood/fruits and are infused with emollients such as plant oils, botanicals and vitamins.

This Charlotte Tilbury product is a good example.

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How Shampoos Are Made

Shampoos are cleaning formulations made up primarily of chemicals called surfactants that have the ability to surround oily materials on surfaces and allow them to be rinsed away by water. While there are numerous types of shampoos the majority are low viscosity, solution formulas delivered from a plastic bottle. Often they are marketed towards different hair types or conditions.

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