What is Micellar Water?

Elana44 asks…Lately i see a lot of brands coming out with something called micellar water. What are they, what do they do to skin? How are they different from regular water or a toner we all are used to see around? What do they put in there that makes it micellar?

The Right Brain responds:

Wow, we thought we’d seen it all when it came to Marketing co-opting technical terms to make products sound differentiated, but this is a new one! In reality, any product that contains a detergent (aka surfactant) can said to be “micellar water.”

What are micelles?

Micelles are the structures that surfactants form when they reach a certain concentration in water. Think of it this way: Surfactants are little chemical bridges with one end that loves water (hydrophilic) and one end that loves oil (lipophilic). Here’s an actual electron micrograph of a surfactant molecule:

Sarah Bellum says this picture reminds her of something else but I have no idea what she’s talking about. Anyway, when you dump a bunch of these molecules in water, the oil loving parts want to be close together to get away from the water. So, surfactant molecules spontaneously form these spherical blobs where the oily ends all point toward the middle of the sphere and the water loving ends all point to the outside of the sphere where the rest of the water is. That’s why surfactants are so good at dispersing oil: oil droplets can “hide” from the water in the middle of the micelle so they can be suspended or washed away. And here’s a real picture of a micelle:

Once again, I point out that ANY product with surfactants will do this. It doesn’t have to be called a fancy name like “micellar water.”

Is there ANYTHING different about micellar water?

Faithful forum member Alchemist did a quick breakdown on the ingredients in these products. They typically contain the following:

  • Water
  • A Glycol (eg Hexylene Glycol, Pentylene Glycol) – acting both as a humectant and hydotrope (improves solubulity of the the makeup in the surfactant)
  • Solubiliser (eg Polysorbate 20) – the surfactant that does the cleansing
  • Preservative
  • Fairy Dust
Based on the examples we’ve seen it looks like most of these products use non-ionic surfactants which are very low foaming. So they’re kind of like cleansers that don’t feel like traditional cleansers. Non-ionic materials also tend to be milder than their anionic cousins which include SLS, SLES, etc. So perhaps the “hook” for these products is that they look and act more like water than a traditional high-foaming cleanser.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

If you’re looking for a mild, low-foam face wash, micellar water may be just the thing for you. But don’t be tricked into spending a ton of money just because of the micelles.

Image credit: http://www.texample.net/media/tikz/examples/PNG/electric-dipole.png (It’s either a water molecule or a sillouete of Mickey Mouse.)

If you’re compelled to spend more money on micelles, please buy Nuxe Micellar Cleansing Water through our link and help support the Beauty Brains.