"It's surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth."
- Sir David Attenborough
One of the first things we learn about water is that it’s vital for humans, biodiversity and entire ecosystem. Yet we have forgotten the importance of water in our life. By 2025, over a fifth of world’s population could live in extreme water stress as per report by UN. In 2018, Niti Aayog’s reported that India is facing the worst water crisis in its history. Water is becoming a luxury day by day and it is about time that personal care industry adopts water sustainability in manufacturing and use. It is quite apparent that personal care industry depends on water. Now, with increasing emphasis on sustainability, the focus on water conservation is of utmost importance.
Water Conscious Brand
Pick any personal care product that you use daily. Every label will read Aqua or Water on it. It is usually used as a base or filler in the product. Our daily essentials like hand wash, shampoo, body wash, toilet cleaner or even the newly introduced product, vegetable & fruit wash, use substantial amount of water in its formulation as an ingredient. Most of these products also require abundant water to use the product as well. Water is the most used and often over used resource in personal care sector. It is usually a primary ingredient which on an average accounts for about 70% of the total formula volume. It is used in almost all products to increase its volume as it is cheaper than other ingredients and easily available. But now, water is termed as “the new luxury” by Mintel as part of their key beauty trends for 2025. Brands must now innovate and reimagine the formulae to reduce the dependency on water.
Many brands are now working on water less and concentrated products. A shampoo or a face wash is usually in liquid form. The key ingredient used to liquefy it is water. Water adds no active value to the product. The product will essentially give same or maybe better results without the water content. What if we remove water from the formulation completely? It results in a highly concentrated product. The consumer will get more value for money as they not paying for water, number of containers per person will reduce, the overall carbon footprint and water footprint of transporting the product from manufacturer to end consumer is also reduced. Some products like hand wash or laundry liquid can actually be liquefied at consumer end. According to Ellen McArthur Foundation states that concentrated products reduce transportation cost, packaging cost & water footprint of the product.
Consumers derive more value from the concentrated or water less products. A product with little to no water makes space for more ‘active’ ingredient in the formulation such as essential oil or herbs or extracts. It also saves on transportation cost and most importantly reduces the plastic waste. Another added benefit of removing water from formulation, is its reduced dependency on preservatives. Water is the primary breeding ground for microbes & bacteria and if the product is water free then little preservative provides effective protection and enhanced shelf life. Innovations like shampoo bars, waterless serums, solid deodorants are already quite popular in market. It also gives an opportunity for old school products like bathing soap, tooth powder and multi utility products to make a comeback.
This gives brands a chance to optimize their water use during manufacturing and make processes water efficient. If the product itself contains little to no water, the total water consumption during manufacturing also remains low. Water conservation is equally important during the manufacturing process to be truly sustainable. Product innovation must also reduce the virtual water (water use during manufacturing), water in formulation, water required to use the product and impact of rinsed off water on the ecosystem. It is essential to identify the how much water is required/consumed to rinse off or use a product and reduce its impact on the environment by choosing sustainable & bio-degradable ingredients (detailed discussion in next section). A truly water conscious product must address these parameters. Formulating water conscious products is challenging and complicated but with better innovation, research and development in ingredients gives brands scope to innovate and bring on one of the biggest shift in personal care industry.
Water Conscious Consumer
A product is not truly sustainable if it remains in the environment after use and creates a dent in ecology during use. One of the most neglected aspects of a personal care product is how much water it consumes to actually use the product. Every summer, most cities face water shortages and have to make decisions whether or not to wash hair or wash that extra load of clothes that particular day. A water efficient product is one that requires less water to rinse off without affecting the performance. This enables shorter showers, less rinse off water from dish washing or laundries. And if the product is bio-degradable, the rinsed off water can be more often reused for secondary purpose like washing floors, vehicles or sometimes even for gardening.
Even if the reuse is not possible, the rinsed off water will not add any harmful pollutants to sewage. If the product contains toxic chemicals, then the rinsed off water will add harmful contaminants to the wastewater. At least 80% of the water we use daily is let out into the drainage as wastewater. In India, less than 70% of the sewage generated is ever treated. Both treated and untreated sewage is let out in to the water bodies causing severe pollution. Toxic foam is now becoming a common sight in every city one by one. Starting from lakes of Bengaluru, River Yamuna and most recent case in Madhurai, the menace of rising pollution is affecting every one of us. Even though industrial sector is major contributor to this, households are only second to them.
Every product that we apply on our body like lotion or shampoo or products that we use to maintain household hygiene, adds to the problem of water pollution. There are many studies claiming how sunscreens cause coral bleaching. Our everyday essentials are like detergents, hand washes, toilet cleaner add many toxic pollutants to the water. These pollutants from personal care products are new age emerging pollutants which are extremely toxic, stays in environment for long time and eventually enter back into our homes through water or food. Some of the common pollutants include sulphates, phosphates, chlorine, acid, bleach, enzymes and foam boosters.
These not only add high environmental cost to the personal care products, but also increase the financial burden for treating the wastewater. The traditional sewage treatment plants are not designed or equipped to treat these pollutants. It requires a membrane technology to effectively remove these pollutants which incurs high energy, operations & maintenance cost. Thus, it makes it even more expensive to remove them effectively from the water. These untreated contaminants affect the aquatic life, the ecosystem dependent on that water source and eventually back to humans. Although the consequences of these pollutants are uncertain, the numbers of contaminants are rising and their interactions with one another are still unknown.
It follows the same rationale as microbeads which were a commonly used ingredient in many cleansers like toothpaste. Although the individual toxicity of the microbeads was unknown, it added micro plastic to the ecosystem which still exists somewhere. In 2016, Government of United Kingdom banned use of microbeads successfully. It is especially important because microbeads could be easily replaced by choice of natural ingredients like apricot shell powder. With this foundation in mind, many commonly used ingredients can be replaced with a natural alternative readily without hampering effectiveness of the product.
To sum up, a water conscious product must fulfill these parameters:
1. Waterless or concentrated formula;
2. Water conscious manufacturing process;
3. Water Efficient use: require less water to rinse off / quick rinse off;
4. Bio-degradable: does not add toxic pollutants to the wastewater (Marine safe).
Fulfilling at least one of these parameters or all of them will only create a positive impact. Water sustainability offers broad range of opportunities for innovation not only for brands and manufacturers but also for customers to demand a better product. With increasing importance and awareness about sustainability, more so since the pandemic, water sustainability is as essential as getting rid of the single use plastic. The concept of sustainable beauty is incomplete without incorporating water sustainability. It is utmost essential to achieve Sustainable Development.
1. EMF. 2019. Reuse - Rethinking Packaging. EMF website: 1–43. Retrieved from https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/reuse
2. NITI AAYOG. 2018. Composite Water Management Index. Retrieved from http://niti.gov.in/writereaddata/files/document_publication/WMI-Document.pdf
3. Natasha Spencer. 2017. Water conservation in beauty. Retrieved May 3, 2021 from https://www.cosmeticsdesign-asia.com/Article/2017/01/04/Water-conservation-in-beauty
4. UN. 2014. By 2025, over 70% of the world’s population could live in extreme water stress as per report by UN. Retrieved May 2, 2021 from https://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml