Skin care

Micellar Water: The Truth

Hailed as a the ultimate one-stop practical cleanser that’s readily available everywhere, micellar water is seemingly a god-send for many…But if we press pause for a minute and actually think about it, do we really know what it’s made from and how it works? And more importantly, the effect it’s prolonged use can have on our skin (if any)? So you can make up your own mind, here I am to help you understand the science behind this apparent ‘must-have’ beauty product…

This week I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the wonderful Cristina Mitre for her podcast where I had the opportunity to touch on the problems that arise when creating micellar water, and why this product can mean bad news for some. However, before I go on to explain things in more detail, I would just like to point out that it is not my intention to bad-mouth this type of cleanser. It is after all the consumer who must ultimately decide which products are right for them. My aim is simply to give an informed opinion on some challenges formulators face.

What the heck is micellar water anyway?

Micellar water is made up of tiny surfactant molecules suspended in soft water. Yes, that’s right. It’s just a mixture of soap and water with a fancy name! On the face of it the concept is a wonderful one, as we associate water with something delicate and pure, yet the word micellar sounds like something technological, advanced and innovative. (Jargon alert!) In fact, in cosmetic chemistry surfactants or surface-active agents form clusters when in water, forming spheres called micelles, hence the name: Micellar Water.

The good, the bad and the ugly…

In the classes I teach at the University of Siena (Italy) I quite often set my students the challenge of creating a ‘good’ micellar water. Not so much of a challenge but more of a walk in the park, right? Not so, in fact it’s a task surprisingly fraught with difficulties. On the one hand, the formula must obviously do the job it’s designed for: Remove stubborn makeup, dirt and pollution. Yet on the other, it must do this job delicately, especially as it’s a product applied not only to the face but also around the sensitive eye area. And this is where the first problem comes about, its pH value. Whereas most skincare products mimic our skin’s natural pH value (around pH 5), micellar waters must be formulated at a pH value similar to that of our tears (pH 7.4) so as not to irritate our eyes. So, what’s the problem, I hear you ask…Well, studies show that using products with a higher pH (read, more alkaline) on our skin can affect its ability to both retain moisture and elasticity! Moreover, with a higher pH than normal finding a natural preservative that is efficient at that value is practically impossible, making preserving natural micellar water somewhat problematic!

Further problems arise when it comes to choosing which surfactant (soap) to use and at what dosage, as remember that the formula needs to be efficient and non-irritating at the same time. Although of there are many surfactant options on the market – From traditional ingredients to both natural amino acid and sugar-based derivatives – The bad news is that regardless of origin, they can all potentially cause irritation. Another option would be to use a solubilizer (something that helps make soluble an ingredient which is otherwise insoluble), and whilst these work well at removing makeup and don’t cause so much irritation, they leave an unpleasant residue on our skin.

So, there you have it. The lowdown on micellar water and why they can be problematic. But don’t worry if you happen to have found a micellar water brand that meets your needs and agrees with your skin…I promise you won’t catch me sneaking into your bathroom to toss it in the bin! (But I do recommend that you ALWAYS rinse your face always after using it!)

Here’s the link for those Spanish speakers who fancy listening to my interview over on Cristina Mitre’s podcast:


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