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Water in your skincare: what it really means


I feel like anyone who hails from Southeast Asia has this inborn penchant for super watery skincare products. I don’t even know why – there’s just something about a sleek bottle of SK-II Essence or Beauty Water that makes us dive straight for the counter, wallet in hand. My flatmate bff and I share beauty products, and we have almost 20 bottles of essences, lotions and toners between us. Yes, just us.

Okay, so maybe we’re just crazy skincare junkies. However, one thing’s for certain: we’re not alone in the number of water-filled products we own. Don’t believe me? Go to your beauty cabinet and grab all the products that you use on the daily. Turn ’em around, read the ingredients’ list and tell us this: is aqua the top ingredient? Chances are, most of them do – and there’s the crunch.

Why are so many beauty products made up of just water? It felt wrong, considering I’m not the type to pay more than a pound for a bottle of water, yet never hesitated in buying a £100 bottle of essence. At the same time, however, some of the top performing beauty products on the market contain tons of water. Something isn’t quite adding up here – so I decided to do a bit of research on the topic. Read on to see what I discovered.

Why waterless skincare?

Water is used in abundance in skincare and is often the most used ingredient in any single product (tip: if it’s first on the ingredient list then it means it’s used in the highest quantity, with everything that follows being in descending order). It’s mainly used as either a solvent to dissolve other ingredients or to create emulsions, which achieves the cream-like consistency of your moisturiser.

What’s wrong with that?

Truthfully, having water in your products holds very little benefit for the skin. Here are three reasons why:

1 – water is cheap, it’s easy to get and consumers are none the wiser. No surprise then that water’s mainly used to pad out products. All the active ingredients inside the product end up watered down or lowered in quantity, meaning you get less of the good stuff. Now that really sucks when you know it’s the active ingredients that you need to make a difference to your skin and hair. It only makes sense that we should get them in the highest quantities as possible, unadulterated by any sort of thinner. Beware of brands that cut corners by padding out with water and skimping on everything else: you want to ensure that your products are at the optimum possible potency.

2 – the more water, the more preservatives are needed to ensure a long shelf life. Ever sniffed a bottle of old water? Yup, it’s unpleasant – and that’s because bacteria grows where water is present. In products, water will always come with an entourage of preservatives to stop it going rancid. Even if you’re nonchalant about preservatives, you should be bothered by the fact that strong preservatives lessen the potency of the actual active ingredients you’re paying for.

3 – water spells hell for dry and dehydrated skin. In both cases, we need to retain as much moisture as possible, but the presence of water in your ‘hydrating’ products might be doing just the opposite. Ever felt how dry your skin is after a shower? Water often strips moisture away from your skin when it evaporates, leaving you in a worse state than before. No surprise then, that oils would be a better choice here: they create a thin film over your skin, which locks moisture in and prevents any from escaping.

Wait. So you’re expecting me to just chuck all my HG products away?

Easy, tiger: no need to get all protective over your beauty cabinet just yet. Although water does come with its downsides, there are still cases in which it actually needs to be in your skincare (lemme hear all my fellow essence-lovers say woop!)

Remember when we said water can act as a solvent? Well, as it turns out, some ingredients are hydrophilic, which means they need or prefer to be suspended in water to ensure effective delivery to the skin. Examples include extracts from plants, fruits or flowers, like tea tree, lavender, green tea and papaya. Although they do end up diluted, I’m sure you’ll agree that this is definitely better than if we couldn’t use these active ingredients at all!

Also, water is sometimes the better choice when it comes to formulating for sensitive skin. Certain oils (especially essential oils) can be quite potent and may trigger reactions in people with allergies or easily irritated skin. As water rarely causes reactions, the use of water as a solvent means anyone and everyone can reap the benefits of the ingredients, including those with sensitive skin.


Water as a top ingredient can mean less bang for your buck, mainly because active ingredients end up smothered by tons of preservatives. However, note that some ingredients need water as a carrier to be delivered to the skin when you apply it.

Our verdict

Things like essences, lotions and toners get the green light from us, since the presence of water in them allows quick absorption of the good stuff. With other products, like hydrating serums or moisturisers, we think it’s better to go waterless, especially since we know the presence of oils help to balance the skin and water can be drying anyway.

– Jennie Lim