As a dermatologist and self-proclaimed beauty junkie, I'm always trying to keep up with ever-changing beauty trends and stay on top of the conversation. The most recent topic up for debate is water in skin care — to love it or leave it. Who knew H2O could be so controversial? A few months ago everyone was talking about the benefits of beauty water, specifically micellar water and essences. More recently, a friend who just returned from visiting Asia praised the continent's advanced skin care, claiming that the specialized waters in their products did wonders for her skin. But, as I was listening to her rave about water-based cleaners and moisturizers, I was also reading article after article touting the superiority of waterless skin care. What was with all the mixed messages? I had to find out: Is one really better than the other for your skin?
I started looking very closely at the list of ingredients on my products. Most skin-care products are actually a combination of oil and water (and water is rarely not an ingredient unless we're talking about an oil cleanser). There are exceptions, of course. A moisturizer labeled as oil-free, for example, won't have "oil" in it per se, but it might contain dimethicone, which is an oil-soluble ingredient. From a chemistry standpoint, the ingredient behaves like an oil in that it does not easily mix with water. Since oil and water will readily separate when mixed together, an emulsifier — a substance with a hydrophilic (water-loving) side and hydrophobic (oil-loving) side — is required to keep them mixed.
Since the majority of skin-care products are emulsions, it makes sense that they contain both a water-soluble and an oil-soluble component. The reason water is so widely used is obvious: It's super affordable. It's also inactive and well-tolerated in the sense that individuals don't develop allergic or irritant reactions to it, unlike a myriad of other things. When you look at the back of a product bottle the ingredients are listed in descending order, starting with the largest amount, so if water (or aloe vera juice) is listed as the first ingredient, it likely makes up the majority of the product. If it's at the bottom, there's very little water in it and the product might therefore be considered waterless. The other ingredients in your skin-care products include emulsifiers, preservatives, and the active ingredients, which typically make up less than 25% of the product. Don't be alarmed by this: many active ingredients (e.g., antioxidants, peptide, vitamins, etc.) are quite effective in small amounts, so a little goes a long way.
Proponents of water-free products state that water-based products dry the skin out; as the water evaporates, it takes the skin's natural oils with it. This is true for plain water, but remember, your moisturizer isn't just a jar of good ol' H2O. Ingredients, such as humectants and emollients, replace some of the natural oils and lock in moisture to hydrate the skin. If the product contains an emulsifier, then it likely has at least one water-soluble ingredient. These are often extracts and other active ingredients.
Compared to water-based products, however — where water is one of the key ingredients — water-free products tend to have higher percentages of active ingredients, which is one reason that some people have decided they're better. The truth, however, is that active ingredients don't necessarily need to be present in high amounts. Some people may find that waterless products are more hydrating, especially if they are oil-based or contain waxes, while others may find them too heavy or greasy for their skin. So, in the end, it's not really about waterless versus water-based products. One type of product is not superior than the other, since both offer benefits that can vary depending on your skin type. My advice? If your current waterless-based skin routine isn’t working for you, it might be time to give the water-based products a try — and vice versa! Pay attention to your skin's needs and avoid getting caught up in the meaningless debate.