bottles of micellar water

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.