Here’s a question for you. What is the main ingredient used in your beauty products?

With the media full of the horrors of mainstream cosmetics and their evil chemicals, I thought it might be fun to throw it on its head and look at what actually forms the bulk of most conventional personal care products.

A small caveat

Before I continue with this blog post, I’d just like to give you a caveat. I’m no fan of mainstream cosmetics. If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll have picked up on this (read more about me, Lorraine).

In my opinion mainstream cosmetics are developed to maximise profit and frequently the cheapest ingredients are used to manufacture some of the most expensive products in the shops. I think there’s a better way and this is also what my skincare school Formula Botanica teaches.

Nonetheless, all the campaigns, organisations and websites that campaign for better and safer cosmetics tend to gloss over one chemical that is used in virtually every single personal care product sold in the shops.

Aqua, Вода, Eau, Wasser

That’s right – it’s water. If you take a look at random personal care products in the shops, I guarantee most of them will have water (aqua) listed as the first ingredient on the label. In the EU, the ingredients on your cosmetic labels have to be listed in descending order of weight until they reach the ingredients that are present in quantities of 1% or less. That means the first ingredient on the list generally makes up about 30%-100% of the product.

Let me give you some examples of personal care products which consist predominantly of water:

  • Water5Lotions
  • Creams
  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Mascara
  • Foundation
  • Bath foam
  • Make-up remover
  • Hair gel
  • Hair spray
  • Mouth wash
  • Shaving foam
  • Toothpaste
  • Self-tanning lotion
  • Liquid eyeliner
  • Nail polishes (some of them)

Obviously not every single tube of liquid eyeliner nor every single bottle of mouthwash will always consist of mainly water, but when it comes to the mainstream ones that’s generally what you’re going to find in your bathroom. In fact, more than half of your shampoo will consist of water (potentially even up to 90%) and even your expensive anti-ageing serums and lotions may contain up to 70% water.

That doesn’t mean cosmetics companies are simply running the tap to fill up your shampoo bottle. They used distilled water. Distillation removes many of the impurities in water by boiling the water and then condensing the steam into a clean container. If you used tap water, you’d come across all sorts of metals, salts and yes, microorganisms. You don’t want any of these contaminating your final beauty product, so distillation is necessary. Have a read of Susan Barclay-Nichols’ blog on why it’s important to use distilled water.

Nada Vada

Cosmetics Selection Including Lipstick And Eye Shadow On The TableSo which beauty products are generally water-free? It varies but we tend to find that make-up often steers clear of water as it’s so easily washed off the face by the elements. You’re unlikely to find water in lip balm, lip stick, lip gloss, concealer, face powder, blusher and bronzer.

An interesting point to note with some forms of make-up is that they can contain strong preservatives, which tend to be necessary for products that you apply near sensitive areas such as your eyes or mouth as otherwise you might be introducing all sorts of nasty beasties to your face. (As a side note, this is why you’re always advised to THROW AWAY old mascaras and eye pencils – don’t play around with your health, people). However, these same preservatives can be irritants to people with sensitive skin which can cause dry skin and actually encourage the formation of wrinkles. It’s best to source natural, organic brands of make-up for that reason alone.

A source of hydration or a cheap filler?

Water6So what function does water serve in all of these cosmetics? First and foremost, it should be recognised that water does hydrate the skin. As we saw in my recent blog post on which cosmetics can be absorbed into the bloodstream, the outer layer of the skin is pretty effective at keeping water out but that doesn’t mean it’s impermeable. Water in your personal care products will most definitely help with skin hydration. But so, for instance, will flower waters or hydrosols (see my previous post on what is a hydrosol?) so it isn’t necessarily the only ingredient available to the cosmetics industry.

Cosmetic formulators always want to work with ingredients that are standardised as much as possible and react the same way each time. Plants and their extracts don’t always work this way of course, as their potency will vary depending on seasonality, weather, altitude and growing conditions, to name but a few examples. Distilled water fits perfectly in that respect, you always know how it’s going to behave and it doesn’t vary much from bottle to bottle.

It is also painfully obvious that water is very cheap, which I’m sure will be the predominant reason it is so frequently used in personal care products. I can buy 25 litres of distilled water for about £15 ($24) so it’s perfect for keeping costs down and profits up. So forgive the cynic in me when I say that I honestly don’t think skin hydration is always the main driver behind using so much water in your cosmetics.

Water is a completely harmless ingredient and I certainly don’t mind using it on my skin. The various NGOs campaigning for safe cosmetics often make valid points and do important work at trying to bring transparency to an industry that is not sufficiently regulated in certain parts of the world. Nonetheless, I think it’s sometimes important to remember that often the main thing we’re applying to our bodies is in the fact the one chemical that flows freely out of the tap.


How do you feel about paying lots of money to be applying water to your face? Leave a comment below!

tagged in skincare science