Sustainability rates high on the beauty industry agenda, with packaging waste getting a major share of attention. This is understandable, given the horrifying images of oceans choked with plastic. But the environmental impact on what the plastic’s found floating in is often overlooked.
While water appears plentiful—oceans cover 71% of the globe—less than 3% of the total available supply is freshwater. And most of that is captured in glaciers, snow packs and icecaps. The reality is that less than 0.4% of all the water on earth is available to fuel, clean and feed 6.8 billion people. It is in short supply and increasingly polluted.
If current business-as-usual continues, two-thirds of the globe will be under significant water stress by 2025. This would lead to usage being strictly rationed for all but the most basic human needs.
Public awareness of water scarcity is growing. In the last couple of years, there has been increasing buzz about so-called waterless beauty, typically featuring labels without aqua as the first item (~70-80% of the product).
However, while waterless talk is entirely admirable, it’s a bit of a contradiction in terms. Everything manufactured has a water footprint embedded in its lifecycle that spans further than just what’s in the bottle. This includes everything from ingredient production to packaging to manufacture to transport to usage and (hopefully) recycling.
Tackling beauty’s contribution to water scarcity requires brands to look at the issue in a truly holistic way from formulation design to packaging to the actual usage of the product. All three aspects mutually impact and enhance each other to reduce beauty’s overall water footprint.
1. Reducing Water Use in Formulations
Having water as a main beauty ingredient has several downsides: the need for antibacterial preservatives, emulsifiers and additives, and less room for active ingredients. Dry formulations such as powders, sheet masks and dry shampoos reduce water and are at optimal freshness when used. Solid formats like waxes and balms and highly concentrated oil formulations similarly offer fantastic results. Companies focusing in on this as a brand promise are coming to the fore, all the while preserving the sensorial aspects of the beauty regime.
East London indie brand Guy Morgan’s face masks use “sun-dried clays, minerals and powdered plant extracts, such as marshmallow root” and come in powder form. Users manually mix the powder with minimal water to be applied topically.
PUR Attitude claims to be the world’s “first and only, safest waterless technology” using a patented Hyaluronix hyaluronic molecule as the liquid base for its skin care products. Pinch of Colour asserts similar, using nut and seed oils for its solid lip, cheek and face colour cosmetics range, as does Vapour Organic Beauty.
However, brands seeking to achieve water optimality need to view things in the round. Not everything is as green as it first appears, and ingredients’ water footprints vary widely.
Coconut and palm oils are far less water-intensive than sunflower and olive oil, even though olive trees require minimal water to cultivate; almond oil is famously water-intensive.
Wild harvested crops and crops grown in their indigenous regions tend to use less water and preserve biodiversity. Some indigenous crops even actively help conserve water. For instance, vetiver grass maintains water quality and regulates soil moisture. Brands like LOLI Beauty, Girl Undiscovered, Rahua, Natura Siberica and Neal’s Yard all take this approach, and ingredient manufacturers like Firmenich and IFF also increasingly look to ensure environmentally and socially sustainable—and therefore secure—supply chains.
Another brilliant way to reduce water in formulations is to use upcycled, or waste, materials from other manufacturing streams that would otherwise go to landfill. Le Prunier uses discarded plum pits from the family’s organic prune manufacturing business to make its hero facial oil. Fruu..’s lip products’ ingredients are from a by product of processed fruit waste.
Other brands include Marks & Spencer’s Pure skin care range, which uses the grapes made from its winemaking, and UpCircle, which utilises used coffee grounds from local cafés, saving on beans specially grown and ground for the purpose.
2. Reduce Water Use in Packaging
Water-optimizing the formula often means reducing the water consumption needed to produce its accompanying packaging. A 100 gram soap bar will do the same job as a 500 ml bottle of shower gel, but requires a lot less (plastic) packaging, space/weight to transport and carbon emissions, as well as using less water in the formula itself.
Waterless product formats often don’t require plastic’s water-resistant and strength properties, and so less water and carbon-intensive formats can be used to house products. Think sheet masks, papers and flake formats in flat cardboard packs, like makeup artist Mai Train’s beautifully packaged Mai Couture biodegradable blotting papers infused with skin care ingredients and colour pigments (like bronzers and foundations) that just press onto the skin. The same is true for products placed in glass jars like Graydon Skincare’s Superfood Mask + Scrub, 2-in-1 single-use dissolvable capsules.
As always, Lush takes it a step further, pushing ahead with solid formats and zero packaging, as with its solid shampoo bottles and Slap Stick foundation, which is housed in a waxy, peelable shell. Ethique, a New Zealand luxury solid beauty bar brand, even manages a self-tanning bar that lasts six times longer than its liquid equivalents.
Brands can optimize their water usage by increasing consumers’ recycling rates and by using recycled materials in packaging, as seen with P&G’s work with Terracycle or Unilever’s with Veolia. These initiatives generate less water use and pollution than making a new bottle from scratch.
The increasing acceptance of refillability could also prove a great way for brands to engage with consumers while reducing their environmental footprint. L’Occitane’s flexible pouches, Dior’s Capture Totale cream pots and Guerlain’s refillable lipstick cases all mean less packaging production and therefore less water. It also encourages repeat purchase.
3. Reduce Water Consumption in Usage
Optimised formulations and packaging address just a fraction of total water usage. The ugly truth about beauty’s drinking habit is that 85-95% of the water consumed in any beauty product lifecycle is lost during consumer usage.
According to Unilever, cutting shower times by one minute a day for 200 million U.S. households alone would save 26 billion gallons of water every year. As a result, beauty giants like Henkel, L’Oréal, P&G and Unilever have focused on formulation R&D to reduce shower times.
In November 2018, after many years of announcements, L’Oréal finally revealed its partnership with tech company Gjosa, which pairs a revolutionary shampoo with a high performance shower head. Combined, the system reduces water usage by 70%, reducing consumption from 8 litres for a conventional product to just 1.5 litres.
Tackling water usage requires fundamentally changing consumer behaviour to use fewer products less frequently. This goes firmly against the grain of mass market beauty brands, whose mantra has long been to create more needs, more stages, more, well everything!
Traditionally, products like leave in conditioners, dry shampoos and waterless sanitisers have been seen as quick-fix solutions only, and certainly nothing to desire on a regular basis.
But this too is changing with indie products like Ouai’s hair wipes and dry shampoos, Recess’ dry wipes, and German brand Stop The Water While Using Me! elevating the water-free washing experience and changing consumer habits in the process.
Big brands can take the lead on the water-reduction movement, engaging the consumer and putting conservation at the forefront of the user experience. Why not provide free shower timers, campaigns to share showers with a special friend or even embrace gamification via water-saving apps that earn points to use against more products?
Water-optimal beauty is a win for the environment, a win for the consumer and a win for brands. There can never be one silver bullet that can solve the global water scarcity crisis, but being smart on all three fronts—formulations, packaging and consumer habits—can make a huge dent in the problem. Critically, it can also help engage consumers by enabling them to make a difference.
Nick Vaus, partner + creative director, published in Global Cosmetic Industry