Is it a toner? A cleanser? A moisturizer? Micellar water has been touted as the latest all-in-one product that minimizes skin irritation 1, making it a new must-have for those with sensitive skin. The interesting thing is, it’s not new. In fact, micellar water has been around for over a hundred years. Developed in France as a gentle yet powerful alternative to the harsh water supply, it now has a cult following thanks to skincare enthusiasts, makeup artists and bloggers who have discovered it through the beauty grapevine.
But back to basics - is micellar water really your skin’s new best friend? Read on as we expose this well-kept beauty secret to see if it lives up to the hype.
It may look like water and it may have the same viscosity as water, but the texture of the micellar variety is much different. Made up of micelles (more on that later), micellar water draws out skin impurities without drying out the skin. Therefore, it can be used as a light makeup remover and cleanser all in one. It also doesn’t require water to work, nor does it need to be rinsed off afterwards. And because it’s so gentle and hydrating, micellar water seems perfect for those with dry and/or sensitive skin.
Welcome to a world where oil and water mix! It all begins with molecules called surfactants - these are the most important ingredients in your soaps, shampoo and detergents (they’re also responsible for that foaming action). These surfactants have a hydrophilic end that likes water and repels oil, and a lipophilic end that likes oil and repels water 2.
Not all surfactants are created equal though – some are irritants and can wreak havoc on the skin barrier3. When the right kind and right amount of surfactants are added to water, as in the case of micellar water, they assemble themselves into clusters. These clusters are called micelles, which are microscopic molecules that attract dirt, grime, oil and makeup. Because these micelles aren’t bound together in a single molecule, they can rearrange themselves easily4. For example, cotton pads are made of cellulose which are hydrophilic, meaning when micellar water is poured onto a cotton pad, the part of the surfactant that likes water will get attracted to the pad, leaving the other end (that likes oil, makeup, grease and dirt) sitting on the top of the pad, waiting to attract your day’s gunk 5.
Because of its gentle nature, micellar water is a soothing, decongesting, skin perfecting dream. It doesn’t contain any chemicals at all so it won’t strip skin of natural or “good” oils needed to stay hydrated and balanced. In fact, if used properly (and not rinsed off after use), skin won’t be exposed to potentially harsh tap water minerals and trace chemicals that can mess with pH levels6. Although, if you have very sensitive skin we recommend that you rinse off afterwards anyways, as the leftover surfactants may irritate it.
It doesn’t foam - Because micellar water doesn’t contain a high amount of surfactants (compared to traditional soaps and cleansers), there’s no foam. This might lead you to think you’re not getting the “clean” you’re used to, which is quite the contrary. Like we mentioned before, some surfactants (that cause the foam) can aggravate your skin 7, while micellar water gets the job done while doing the opposite.
It doesn’t remove heavier makeup – Micellar water is a powerful product, but it does have its limits. Removing waterproof mascara and heavy foundation may require something with a little more gusto. So starting off with a more powerful makeup remover and following up with micellar water would be the way to go.
It doesn’t need water to work – That’s right, micellar water works all by itself to remove the day’s dirt. In fact, you don’t even have to rinse it off afterwards.
As a makeup remover
Use it like a regular makeup remover by soaking a cotton pad or microfibre cloth and swiping it where you have makeup on - if you’ve got a good face full, you may need to use two pads. However if you are using waterproof mascara or heavy foundation, a heavier makeup remover may be needed first 8.
As a cleanser
In a pinch while on camping or rushing from the gym and not wearing any makeup? Drench a cotton pad in the micellar water and start wiping it all over your face.
That depends. We suggest that when you double cleanse, micellar water should be the first product you use. If you have very sensitive skin it is important to not leave any surfactants left on your skin. Although, if you have any stubborn eye makeup traces leftover after your cleanse, you can wet one end of a cotton swab with micellar water and wipe away the leftovers.
If you’re diligent with your face washing routine (as in, you do it morning and night), you may want to save the double cleanse for evenings and follow up in the morning with just micellar water alone (as you won’t have any harsh makeup to remove).
Finishing off your skin care routine with micellar water can be an excellent alternative to traditional toners. A lot of toners contain harsh ingredients and/or alcohol which can strip the skin and leave it feeling parched9. As we’ve learned, micellar water does the opposite, leaving skin feeling fresh.
Oil-based Makeup Removers
Remember when we discussed removing waterproof mascara and heavy foundation? Many enlist an oil-based makeup remover to help in those cases10. As such, an oil-based makeup remover can be used first, followed up with micellar water (which also helps get rid of the oily film some of these removers can leave behind).
These can be great in a pinch but they tend to push makeup and dirt around without actually lifting it, not to mention their potential to aggravate the skin11. Unlike micellar water, which removes makeup without a trace using just a cotton pad, makeup wipes should be followed up with a full cleanse.
It’s important to remember that not all skin types are created equal so what might work for some might not work for you. The best thing to do is to try micellar water out for yourself or speak with a dermatologist to see if it’s right for you.
- Draelos Z, Hornby S, Walters RM, Appa Y. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2013 Dec;12(4):314-21. doi: 10.1111/jocd.12061. Hydrophobically modified polymers can minimize skin irritation potential caused by surfactant-based cleansers. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24305430
- Allergenic Oxidization Products. Retrieved from:https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:3MTKK9ukS6MJ:https://www.medicaljournals.se/acta/content_files/download.php%3Fdoi%3D10.1080/000155599750208040+&cd=11&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=ca&client=safari
- Walters, Russel M. et al. “Cleansing Formulations That Respect Skin Barrier Integrity.” Dermatology Research and Practice 2012 (2012): 495917. PMC. Web. 16 Aug. 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3425021/
- Kinetic studies of some esters and amides in presence of micelles (chapter 2). Retrieved from: http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/3938/8/08_chapter%202.pdf
- Kulakovskaya E, Kulakovskaya T (2014) Surfactant Action on Skin and Hair: Cleansing and Skin Reactivity Mechanisms. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/critical-micelle-concentration
- H. Lambers, S. Piessens, A. Bloem, H. Pronk, P. Finkel. (2006) Natural skin surface pH is on average below 5, which is beneficial for its resident flora. Retrieved from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-2494.2006.00344.x/full
- Cleansing without compromise: the impact of cleansers on the skin barrier and the technology of mild cleansing. Ananthapadmanabhan KP, Moore DJ, Subramanyan K, Misra M, Meyer F. Dermatol Ther. 2004;17 Suppl 1:16-25. Review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14728695
- Morris Herstein (1993) Eye makeup remover. Retrieved from: https://www.google.com/patents/US5217641
- Thomas Barlage, Susan Griffiths-Brophy, and Erk J. Hasenoehrl. Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures. Retrieved from: https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=__OlCgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA103&dq=micellar+water+vs+facial+toners+&ots=iqI4vxiqLa&sig=XzbJNKxdY1gnmjFvNTXMqHx9T2I#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Morris Herstein (1993) Eye makeup remover. Retrieved from:https://www.google.com/patents/US5217641
- J Allergy (Cairo) (2011). Contact-Allergic Reactions to Cosmetics. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3065000/