What kind of impact does water have on the skin?
We often think water and hydration are synonymous, but that’s not necessarily the case. Water alone is not hydrating. And prolonged water exposure is actually drying. Our skin’s surface has lipids (our skin’s natural oils) that prevent the evaporation of water from our skin. Long exposure to water removes the surface lipids, which in turn allows the water and moisturizing oils of our skin to leak out and cause dryness. So although initially water does moisturize, when the skin’s lipids are gone, it will dry out our skin. To keep the moisture in place, you have to moisturize immediately after patting your skin dry post shower or bath.
How is water used in many beauty products and why is it often the first ingredient listed?
Water when mixed with oil does provide moisturizer for the skin. Our skin is both hydrophilic and lipophilic (hydrophobic) so having a mixture with both water and oil can penetrate deeper into the skin. Water is also a very important ingredient in making products have smooth, lovely texture. Without the water, products are often thick and occlusive or in a solid state like bar soap or powders.
Why does using water in a product require preservatives?
Almost all organisms need water to survive. No water, no need for preservations to prevent the unwanted growth of organisms but once water is introduced, something must be added to prevent this growth.
What kinds of products can be effective in anhydrous form? Why does each benefit from less water in their formulas and what do they do for the skin?
Oils alone do not hydrate the skin as well as oil and water. Depending on the size of the oil molecule, they sit on the top of the skin preventing evaporation but not truly hydrating – or they penetrate superficially but do not truly hydrate because they do not provide water. The same holds true with masks. If you want water free products to hydrate your skin, they must include a humectant that attracts water like glycerin and hyaluronic acid. This is why RESTORE Healing Balm works so well but is still anhydrous, the glycerin is a very powerful humectant.
What are the best ways to reduce water in your beauty routine?
Much of the drying of skin is the hot water from bathing and over washing that strip away your natural oil. You should limit your showers and moisturize when you get out. If you have dry skin, only wash your face at night. And both your AM and PM steps should include a moisturizer to help trap water in your skin.
Are there any truly waterless products? Does less water always mean a higher concentration of active ingredients?
Very few skin care products are truly waterless. Pure oils are, by definition, waterless and many ointments are also waterless. Bar soaps and powders are also free of water but require water to use. Yes, if there is less water, there is more room for more active ingredients but too high of a concentration is not a good thing. Even ingredients proven to benefit the skin, such as Vitamin C, will irritate when at too high of a concentration.
Are there certain skin types who wouldn’t benefit from a routine with products with less water?
If you have sensitive skin, water followed by a hypoallergenic moisturizer is your friend. You need to get the dirt, make up and possible irritants off your face and water does that better than anything else. Even the gentlest wipes leave a residue on your skin.
How can water, and excess exposure to water, impact the skin barrier?
Water slowly removes the skin’s oils that are part of the ‘mortar’ that holds our skin cells together. Prolonged water exposure or exposure to harsh cleansers or other chemicals like chlorine will make the loss of these oils more significant, breaking down the skin barrier.
Has the quality of the water we’re using on our skin changed in the past decade? What about something like the presence of heavy metals?
Our skin is a very effective barrier so bathing in hard water with trace elements is not a significant factor. However, radioactive water or polluted water is a different story. That being said, the negative effects of these are much more pronounced when ingested compared to when used for bathing. Nonetheless, neither are recommended.
For those who, say, just wash their face with water, what can happen to the skin?
If you are only using tepid water and no cleanser, not a lot can happen to the skin. Dirt and grime, both of which are typically hypophilic, will be removed. Anything oil loving will require a cleanser. Cold water closes pores and blood vessels, warm waters opens pores and blood vessels.
Is there a benefit to tissuing off cleanser versus removing with water? I keep thinking of my grandma and her cold cream ritual...
The benefit of a heavy face cream before bed is to prevent water evaporation from the skin while you sleep. The risk of an unwanted reaction is increased when cleansers and cleaning wipes are left on your skin because they typically use surfactants that can be irritating with prolonged exposure.
Are there other ways/types of products to cleanse without water, and what are the benefits to the skin of each?
In case it was not clear, I am not a fan of using a cleanser without water. After you wash your face with a gentle cleanser and rinse with water your skin is the most receptive to whatever you are putting on your skin next. Your antioxidant, peptide or retinol will be better able to get to where it needs to go to make a difference if it is NOT wading through left over cleanser. When in a pinch, I will actually use a face cream as a cleanser and then gently wipe it off. It does a surprisingly great job of pulling off makeup, sweat and grime.
The inclusion of water in a product requires the use of a preservative (and that safe and natural ones abound!), but does the lack of water in a product always mean that a preservative isn’t necessary?
There are no absolutes but yes, no water, no preservative is a well-established rule. Yet, all skin care should go through a challenge test where bacteria and fungus are introduced into the product to see if they can grow. Any formula must inhibit their growth if it is to be brought to market because as soon as they go into use, they get contaminated. Our hand and bodies are covered with organisms.
If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram at @doctor.rogers. Here’s to taking good care of ourselves!
Meet the author: Board-certified and practicing dermatologist, Dr. Heather D. Rogers, MD, is the founder of Doctor Rogers Skin Care and Modern Dermatology in Seattle, Washington. She studied at Stanford, University of Washington School of Medicine and Columbia University Medical Center. She lectures nationally, is well published, and an active member of the American Academy of Dermatology. Highly respected among the skin care community, Dr. Rogers has been annually named “Top 1% of Most Honored Doctors in the US” by Castle Connolly.