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Courtesy of FORGO

The just-add-water skincare of the future is here

Can a new generation of waterless, plastic-free beauty products change the industry?

According to The Jetsons, Futurama and Bowie’s Major Tom, meals of the future were supposed to come in pill form. Well, it’s 2022 and most of us are still consuming our calories in the form of boring old food. Skincare, on the other hand, is evolving. For years, the despair-inducing problem of plastic pollution has been well documented. Meanwhile, most everyday products continue to come in single-use plastic taking centuries to degrade, with the beauty industry producing upwards of 120 billion plastic units per year. While chewable toothpaste tablets and dissolvable cleaning products have taken up residence in some homes, plastic-free, high-performance skincare products have been a bit slower on the uptake.   

Now, a new generation of brands is changing things. Termed ‘Waterless Beauty 2.0’ (version 1.0 being things like soap and solid shampoo bars) or ‘Condensed Beauty’, these formulations remove the aqua – the majority ingredient in many products – thus eliminating the need for plastic packaging and reducing cost and carbon emissions of shipping.

All three factors are wins for award-winning SBTRCT Skincare founder, Ben Grace, who set up the brand after 10 years building a men’s grooming brand with ethical sourcing and sustainability at its core. After selling his old business in 2017, Ben gave himself some time to think. “I looked at the way I was living my life,” he says. “The ‘less is more’ philosophy was important to me in all elements of my life, to the extent I see it as the future of our society.” So, channelling this belief and his industry experience, Grace set out to create high performing solid skincare that addresses what he sees as the three key environmental challenges facing the beauty industry today: plastic pollution, water waste and over-reliance on palm oil.

It took Grace and his team about 18 months to come up with each product; research and development periods he describes as intense. “You need the pay-off to be just right, so when you warm the bar between your hands to then apply to your face, you get just the right amount of coverage; you need it to absorb quickly and leave skin feeling soft, supple and of course, moisturised,” he explains.  

The range now comprises solid cleanser, exfoliator, make-up remover, two moisturisers, and the first solid retinoid – an active particularly hard to find plastic-free. Further actives are on their way, with a solid vitamin C bar launching next month. Encapsulating Grace’s less-is-more philosophy in their design, all products are cute, social media-friendly pastel geometric shapes with a reusable container available to buy separately. Each product is also plastic-free, uses minimal water and no palm oil.   

London-based “green” make-up artist, Crystabel Efemena Riley had already started experimenting with waterless products – but homemade. “I have been interested in using powders and pigments as a way of reducing impact through reducing plastic use and consumption,” she says, giving examples of raw ingredients like clays, plant powders and dried flowers from which she makes hot infusions. She does add a word of caution, however: “I’ve had good and bad experiences – to avoid rubbing powdered silicone over your face, read the ingredients! I use waterless products within ranges that don't necessarily market themselves as that, like Haeckels (who recently released bodywash in pill form) and the Afro Hair and Skin Co.”

“It is not rocket science and could have been done decades ago, but the plastics industry makes money from the things you throw away so they can produce more.” – Allon Liberman, FORGO co-founder

Another waterless brand envisaging a powdered future is FORGO, from Swedish design collective, Form Us With Love. Currently FORGO only offers one product, luxury hand wash in powder form with an elegant, reusable bottle, but the brand promises new active skincare will follow soon including a body wash with added niacinamide and a face cleanser. While many brands are seemingly daunted by the task of reformulating to powder, co-founder, and former industrial designer, Allon Liberman, describes the process as “business as usual”. “It is not rocket science and could have been done decades ago, but the plastics industry makes money from the things you throw away so they can produce more,” he says. “They’ve made it very economical for brands to package with plastic, so entire supply chains are optimised around bottling liquids”.  

Going against the status quo, therefore, takes work. As Liberman says, “to change things, as the small player, takes a lot of convincing manufacturers to join us in disrupting what’s profitable today to what is profitable tomorrow. We currently spend more to produce one powder-to-liquid refill than to manufacture a bottle of liquid soap as the supply chain is still novel, which is challenging”. 

This higher production cost is reflected in the price of the product: £47 for the starter kit with bottle and three refills, then packs of refills working out at around £6 per sachet – undoubtedly higher than a bottle of Carex or bar of soap, although lower than competitors like Aesop. These higher price points can be found across the category. Packs of 16 dissolvable dry sheets from body wash brand Plus, for example, retail for £12 each which works out to 75p per shower. It’s a price worth it for those who can afford it, but not one that will be accessible to all.

Alongside powders and solid bars, dissolvable skincare tablets are making their way into the category thanks to upcoming waterless brand MONO. The brainchild of Laurie Mias, who previously founded a cold-pressed juicery and several “eco-luxury” wellness resorts, MONO was inspired by Mias’s desire to correct the problem of single-use packaging after her experience growing up in the family business of perfume shops and “using and throwing away thousands of skincare bottles in my life”. Launching in February, the brand will offer a range of skincare products – from a gentle cleanser to a hydrating serum – which arrive in the form of dissolvable tablets in order to “stop shipping water around the world when we have it from the tap, and reduce carbon footprints.” I tried some pre-mixed samples that had a more liquid, runny consistency than my regular skincare, finding the serums to be most efficacious. 

The process of getting the final products to market, however, hasn’t been an easy one, with MONO experiencing the difficulties of innovating skincare as a small start-up. “Right now, I’d like to use materials to wrap our refills that are 100 per cent compostable – you literally throw them in your garden and they’ll auto-deteriorate – but my MOQs [minimum order quantities] are too small,” Mias says. MONO is currently raising investment to scale the business and take on new innovations.

Brands like MONO and SBTRCT, as well as haircare brands such as Susteau and Centred, prove that an alternative to plastic waste and single-use packaging is possible. The fact that small, independent brands without corporate backing are trying to innovate this much-needed change in the industry makes you wonder what all the large cosmetic corporations are doing. Big-name behemoths have the scale and buying clout to correct issues in their supply chain, but stay in their plastic-filled lane, leaving it up to independents to try to mitigate the environmental disaster that the beauty industry can be. Or, as Ben Grace of SBTRCT says, “ironically, an industry created to cleanse and care, is making our planet a dirty place”.