Good or Bad: Water in Your Skincare Formula?


By Nyree Bekarian Mack

You might already know that ingredients on a product label are listed in order of most-to-least in the formula. As a result, when some see water listed as the first ingredient on a product label, they might think that the product was watered down on purpose to decrease manufacturing costs and increase revenue for the company. This is sometimes the case, but not always. Sometimes the inclusion of water is critical to attaining a product texture or performance.

Mother Dirt takes water in formulas very seriously, but for a different reason. As a preferred breeding ground for bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and molds, water can have huge impacts for unpreserved, biome-friendly formulations. If you read the list of ingredients on Mother Dirt Cleanser, Shampoo, or the recently launched Body Wash, you’ll see that the first ingredient is water. You might think, ‘What?! I thought you just said that any water increases the risk of contamination! And how can you call some of your formulas ‘concentrated’ if the first ingredient is water?’

Well, the truth is, it’s not all that simple. The internet, media and various experts trying to help consumers navigate the confusing world of deciphering cosmetics regulations and ingredients tend to opt for black-and-white positioning, because it is simpler to follow, remember, and understand. Unfortunately, there is much more gray than black and white. So, let’s take a deeper look at what’s going on with a quick chemistry and regulatory lesson. (We promise to make it more fun than it sounds!)

The Chemistry Lesson: Free Water vs. Bound Water

To really understand what’s going on, we need to talk about the concept of ‘free water’ vs. ‘bound water’. [A1] Free water is available water. To be able to visualize free water, think of a pool of water with a bunch of balls floating around. The balls are the molecules that make up product ingredients. In between the balls is water, which is accessible to the balls and anything else that joins the mix, like pool noodles – or in the case of skin care products, bacteria, fungi, and other potential contaminants.

Bound water is water that is tied up in the chemistry of the product formula. To visualize bound water, think of the same pool and the same balls. But, instead of the balls floating around in the water, the water is now INSIDE each of the balls. The water is still there, but it’s not accessible to anything else that wants to interact with it. So, bacteria, fungi, and other stuff that loves to grow in water is shut out, and we don’t need to add preservatives to prevent unwanted bugs and such from growing.

The Regulatory Lesson: Ingredient Labeling

So, the science (hopefully) sounds pretty straightforward, right? Where it gets really confusing is ingredient labeling. Regulations on labeling ingredients for personal care products are similar in most countries: list ingredients in the product in the order of highest to lowest concentration. Simple, right? Or so it seems.

The regulations are similar, but interpretation and enforcement can vary greatly. Take the EU and the US. The EU typically has more stringent regulations for cosmetics than the US: like a longer list of banned ingredients, requirements around proven ingredient-level and product-level safety, and restrictions for making certain types of claims.

While the requirement that ingredients are listed in descending order is similar in both the US and EU, the EU goes on to say that companies need to list out what individual ingredients are comprised of, as many of them include sub-components like water or other chemicals. (And this has nothing to do with the ‘free’ vs ‘bound’ water concept above.) In the US, how an ingredient is defined is largely left up to interpretation which can lead to mis-representation of ingredients in a product, like not listing water when water, whether it’s bound or free, is present at the highest concentration in the formulation.

To List or Not To List

The EU has regulations that make sure all products that go on the market are properly represented. Because the US is a self-reported market, this goes largely unnoticed. So, products that tend to be water-based, like shampoos and foaming cleansers, might not include water in their list of ingredients because water was not added directly. However, it’s highly likely that water is present at high levels in other ingredients used in those products, like surfactants.     

We take water content disclosure and, really, all ingredient disclosures very seriously, which is why we list all individual ingredients that go into a product even when it causes confusing situations like creating a concentrated body wash that lists water as the first ingredient.

Water in Biome-Friendly Formulations

When we formulate products at Mother Dirt that require the use of water, we opt for formulas where the water is “bound” (inside the balls in the analogy above) versus “free” (floating around the balls). In the case of our Shampoo and Body Wash this is exactly the case - the water is bound within the chemistry of the product. In the case of our foaming cleanser, we would not be able to attain the foaming texture without free water. As a result we have to take steps in other parts of our process to prevent potential issues with contaminants. In the case of our cleanser, we have a specialized manufacturing process and the product itself also has a shorter shelf life upon opening (8 weeks).

The Bottom Line: Water - Is It Good or Bad?

There won’t be a rule of thumb here. We can’t know exactly why all other companies may use it, but water is a necessary ingredient in many cosmetics and personal care formulations for a variety of reasons. We hope that sharing our own approach and views was useful.

Looking into the future we have a few parting thoughts for you to consider: We  believe that as interest in self-preserving systems increases, scrutiny on water and how it is used in a formula will increase. Furthermore, as environmental issues around water and carbon footprint become even more critical, minimizing the use of water to create lighter, more efficient, and eco-conscious formulas will become crucial for cosmetic companies worldwide.