Beauty enthusiasts love micellar water. It’s supposed to be good for cleansing and makeup removal. What is micellar water? Why is it any different than regular water? Is micellar even a word or did some cosmetics company make it up?
Micelles and polymers
Merriam-Webster defines “micelle” as “a unit of structure built up from polymeric molecules or ions.” It gives two examples: “an ordered region in a fiber,” which I guess is like the repeating pattern you see in manmade fibers, or a colloidal particle.
And for those of us have not thought about this stuff since high school chemistry class, M-W says that “polymerization” means that “two or more molecules combine to form larger molecules that contain repeating structural units.”
OK, so regular water is not polymerized. Which means micellar water would be water that is clumped up into giant molecules in a repeating pattern? Why and how would you do that?
If you Google “micellar,” you get a bunch of beauty articles. So I started looking at those to understand what micellar water is.
According to this HuffPost article, micellar water isn’t water that has been somehow polymerized. It’s water with micelles of oil suspended in it. Aha! Oil is an ingredient in makeup removers. Now this makes a lot more sense. If it’s just water and oil then micellar water doesn’t have alcohol or alkalines, which makes it gentler on your face than soap and other face washes, right?
This Allure article says that micellar water consists of “purified water; hydrating ingredients, such as glycerin; and low concentrations of extremely mild surfactants.” Back to M-W: a surfactant is a “a surface-active substance (such as a detergent).”
Dermatology Times (written by an actual doctor, but I’m not sure where funding comes from) clarifies: “Micellar water cleansers are made mostly of water, offering a very high profit margin for manufacturers. In addition, micellar water contains a very mild dilute surfactant in solution. A micelle is a molecular cluster with a hydrophilic and a hydrophobic end, in this case dissolved in a water solution. The hydrophobic end attaches to the skin soils, dissolving the soil in water through the hydrophilic end, and allowing water rinsing to cleanse the face.”
And then there’s this article from Dermatology Research and Practice, written by scientists who work for Johnson & Johnson and Neutrogena. It says that surfactants usually penetrate the skin, which is bad, but when they are gathered into large polymers they stay on the skin’s surface, resulting in gentler cleansing.
So “micellar water” isn’t a made-up thing. It actually makes sense, if you believe the articles written above. It’s basically a very diluted cleanser, with the cleansing ingredients clumped into large polymers so they don’t penetrate your skin.
I think the name is misleading. It sounds like something pure – water – but actually it’s water mixed with stuff, just like any face wash. And you don’t necessarily know what that stuff is. Some micellar waters could have harsher ingredients than others, and there’s no guarantee of what ingredients are in there. It sounds like micellar water actually is great for cleansing, but I wonder if it’s better than just heavily diluting your normal cleanser.