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The Truth About Micellar Water

bottles of micellar water
April 14, 2016 Reviewed by Marta 6 Comments

Around this time last year bloggers started to get extremely excited about water. One writer pronounced it life-changing. Of course, this is no ordinary water, but micellar water. Much more recently, it has hit the drugstores with well-known brands getting their feet wet with this new fad. Well, is it a mere fad and is it even water?

I was taught to pronounce micellar (MY-seller) with a slight New Jersey twang by “Dr. Angie” on the Garnier website. Elsewhere, there are claims that it has been one of those petits secrets that French women are fond of keeping to themselves. In which case the pronunciation would be more like 'me-sellaire'. I tried this out on the women in my French husband’s family only to be greeted with nuanced shrugs and blank stares. Either my pronunciation was lacking or they were keeping their little beauty secret a secret. Or micellar water’s profound French heritage was a myth.

I set about trying to tap into the truth about micellar water. What exactly is it? Everyone agrees that it is a very special kind of cleanser that removes makeup and doesn’t need rinsing off. However, for an actual definition of micellar there are as many answers as there are brands of mineral water on a supermarket shelf.

Garnier says its Micellar Cleansing Water “features micelle cleansing molecules that pull oil and dirt away from the face. Dr Angie helpfully expands saying it comes from France and these molecules are like magnets that attract dirt. Elle magazine says that micellar water is tiny oil molecules suspended in soft water. While Simple (now in just about all drugstores) says it is triple purified water and makes no mention of molecules. They come back into mode though with La Roche Posay as “tiny round balls of cleansing molecules.”

As clear as mud. I was beginning to think my research efforts were all washed up until I decided to come at micellar water from the angle of a micelle — there had to be some connection. Let’s start with some basic chemistry: a micelle is formed when a variety of molecules including soaps and detergents are added to water. Now, I’ll say that again — soap or detergent.

The molecule may be a fatty acid, a salt of a fatty acid (soap), phospholipids, or other similar molecules. It must have a strongly polar "head" and a non-polar hydrocarbon chain "tail." When this type of molecule is added to water, the non-polar tails of the molecules clump into the center of a ball like structure, called a micelle, because they are hydrophobic or "water hating."

At this point we should ponder on the science of face washing. As everyone knows, oil and water don’t mix (which is why water alone doesn’t do a great job getting make up off). Surfactants are at home in both oil and water. This because the polar head of the molecule interacts with the water molecules on the outside of the micelle (source). This basically describes how surfactants — foamy, detergenty, soapy stuff — work.

And this means that micellar water is basically soapy water.

Having cleared all that up, I took a look at some of the popular micellar waters on the market starting with Simple, available at Ulta for $7.99. To be sure there is a common surfactant, peg-6 caprylic/capric glycerides. I must admit that the addition of vitamins C and B notch it above a basic drugstore cleanser. However, the issue with micellar water is that it is not supposed to be rinsed off. So are the remaining ingredients ones that you would want to leave on your skin? The surfactant doesn’t seem too bad, but there can be contamination issues (source). More worrying is DMDM hydantoin, which also acts as a cleanser (as well as being a preservative) and contains formaldehyde. Lodopropynyl butylcarbamate is a preservative typically found in cleansers and listed as a toxin in some countries.

Bioderma, which makes another popular micellar water, says its special molecules are fatty acid esters. Not surprisingly this cleanser also has its dirty little secret, polysorbate 20, a very common surfactant that has been shown by one or more animal studies to cause skin irritation at moderate doses. The surfactants don’t end there. Bioderma has also added polyglyceryl-4 laurate/sebacate, polyglyceryl-6 caprylate/caprate and methyl gluceth-20.

Well so much for soapy water that requires no rinsing. I’ll stick with my regular cleanser.

  • May 1, 2016

    by Sally

    Reading all this about cleansers and anti aging creams containing all these unpronounceable chemicals I must have had an epiphany some months ago when I threw all of them out and now make my own. Atleast I know what's in it. I make myself a cleanser and scrub out of coconut oil add pink Mineral salt and a capful of good lavendar oil and "bobs your uncle" cheap and natural and love how my skin feels after.

  • April 14, 2016

    by Ann

    Thanks, once again, for all your thorough research. I've been waiting for this "review" for about 3 years now....I guess my instinct to use micellar water on a limited basis was a good one .

  • April 14, 2016

    by Sonoko

    Hello Marta,

    You made me laugh with the part where you tried out 'me-sellaire' with your family member. :-) Thanks so much for doing research for us. I've heard about this but glad I don't have to consider this.

  • April 14, 2016

    by lois

    I watched my busy 25 year old daughter's skin progressively develop tiny bumps under the surface. Living in an urban area, she had a habit of wiping her face off frequently with one of these products. When she began rinsing afterwards, the bumps slowly went away. Defeats the purpose of the handy face wipes (which are also not environmentally kind)

  • April 14, 2016

    by Marta

    Thank you Randy. And I appreciate the additional information and correction.

  • April 14, 2016

    by Randy S.

    Good article about a perpetually confusing product form. It seems to me that one thing most micellar waters have in common is that they use non-foaming (or low foaming) non-ionic surfactants. That distinguishes them from other cleansers which generate foam. Non-ionics tend to be milder but as you pointed out with your polysorbate example, that's not always the case.

    One minor correction: DMDM hydantoin is not a cleanser but it is a preservative as you pointed out. It doesn't "contain" formaldehyde but it does release it.

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