The Waterless Skincare Routine

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For everyone who has attempted the 30 Day Water Challenge (drink one gallon of water a day for 30 days; learn the secrets of the universe) hoping that it might revive your skin, here's something that's just counterintuitive enough to work: “Waterless” skincare is a big deal in Korea. Go figure.

But there's an explanation here, don't worry. If you take a look at the ingredient list on any of your skincare products, the majority of them will list water as the first and foremost ingredient. Water makes up about 70 percent of your usual lotions and creams, leaving very little room for the real (i.e., useful) stuff. You know, the hero ingredients like hyaluronic acid, any of your good-for-you oils, clay, etc.

So the idea behind something that's “waterless' is to create a product with only pure and potent botanical extracts or oils as a base. This will give you a formula that's non-diluted and, most importantly, non-drying, as water tends to do that. So instead of what is essentially filler, you've got things likealoe vera, olive, and chrysanthemum sinense flower, packed with vitamins and antioxidants, that work to repair and revitalize your complexion.

Noori Han and Hyunjoo Yoo, chemists at organic Korean skincare brand, Whamisa, put it simply for me: “Think of it this way—the best, most authentic rice wines are made with only the purest and most concentrated ingredients to preserve quality, taste, and freshness. Skincare products should be treated in the same, artisanal way. Of course, some water is required in the actual extraction process of the plants or herbs, but water itself is not included as an ingredient in the product.” And it all makes sense. There is a huge distinction between aloe vera leaf juice and aloe vera leaf extract—the latter is 10 times more concentrated, and therefore much more effective in skin hydration. “Korean women are really honing in on the ingredients nowadays,” Han says. As are all women who follow beauty innovation religiously, so here are some of the favorites of the waterless regimen (all products are, by the way, readily available in the US):

Toner

For a little background rundown, Whamisa is a 95-percent-organic, 100-percent-natural Korean skincare brand that utilizes a natural fermentation process to distill and preserve the potency of natural ingredients (think kimchi, that delicious Korean fermented spicy cabbage that helps boost immunity and digestive health).

Whamisa’s Organic Flowers Deep Rich Essence Toner has to be the most moisturizing toner I’ve ever come across (it was fate, actually). It almost feels like you’re wearing a calming, hydrating sheet mask when you first pat it onto your face (note: gently patting toners and essences onto your skin with your hands can help boost absorption, and if done consistently, help increase the elasticity and firmness of your skin). And if you were wondering, the first ingredient in this particular product is aloe leaf extract. It’s essentially a toner and essence in one, and it smells like pretty pink flowers and citrus fruits bloomed all at once under your nose. Within the myriad flowery, fruity extracts and oils listed in the ingredients, spotted is a familiar friend, natto gum (mmm, can really use some kimchi and natto right about now).

Essence

Another one of your not-so-typical essences is Raw Sauce by another Korean brand called May Coop. The “May” part of the name is taken from the actual month of May, which is the only time of the year when product developers at May Coop harvest acer mono sap (acer mono is maple’s cousin), the first ingredient listed in the formula. This maple sap is said to be the most potent and effective in their “raw sauce” formulation when harvested during this season. “Sounds a little gross, but I like the smell,” says ITG Associate Editor, Emily Ferber, summing up every single person's reaction to the stuff. The Raw Sauce is essentially a toner/essence, as well, so if you’re in need of an all-around product to relieve your sunburn or dryness, give this one a go. (Recommended only for those that don’t mind a little bit of artificial fragrance.)

Moisturizing Cream

Another one of Whamisa’s fermented products, the Organic Flowers Water Cream is perfect for a summer routine, subbing for water are organic rice and aloe vera extracts, olive oil, and natto gum. The consistency of this very lightweight-yet-hydrating cream is like that of whipped butter—again, gently pat onto the skin for best results.

A little goes a long way with these products—the formulas are so concentrated that very small amounts spread easily over your whole face, like butter on warm bread.

There has been some debate on whether this distilled water does any good for your skin. According to Sarah Lee, industry veteran and co-founder of K-beauty curation website, Glow Recipe, water-based skincare products“can actually take hydration away from your skin.” The skin naturally holds onto hydrating and nourishing oils to protect itself from free radicals and other toxic substances, and as water and oil are repellent to one another, water can alter the optimal level of natural oils on the skin and hence affect moisture levels (makes sense, right?). On the contrary, some believe that at least some of the water in our skincare products permeate through the skin and help with hydration one way or another. Fact of the matter is, whether or not your favorite product is formulated with water, you’ll use it because it makes your skin feel comfortable—just make sure to stay away from oil-based products if you have acne-prone skin.

Of course, drinking more at least 2 liters of water is the best way to stay generally hydrated throughout the day, but for the sake of skin revitalization, I'll most likely stick to my waterless regimen for now and avoid all the side-eye that ensues when I get up to use the ladies room for the 30th time. Really though, kudos to all that have succeeded at the Challenge. Cheers to beautiful skin.

—Stella Kim

Illustration by Lucy Han. Sub in waterless skincare to the 10-Step Korean Skincare Routine.