Full disclosure: I actually had to ask my editor “what is micellar water?” when she asked me to write this piece. I’d never heard of it, but she assured me I’d love it.
And hey, I’m always down to try new beauty products (that’s what micellar water is, by the way). I headed over to Gypset and Pearl, a beauty boutique down the street from my house, where owner Brittany Cramer Manning helped me select a micellar water to try out.
I ended up purchasing Eau Thermale Avène Micellar Lotion Cleanser, an affordable French product that’s (thankfully) available in the U.S. I spoke to Manning and other skincare experts to answer all my burning questions about this cult fave product: What is micellar water? Does it really work? Which ones should I buy? and more.
Plus in the name of good journalism, I’ve been using it for the past two weeks so I can personally attest to how micellar water works—and why I think it should become part of your beauty routine ASAP.
So … what is micellar water, really?
The history of micellar water is actually kind of fascinating. Apparently French tap water is sort of le pits. French water, especially in Paris, is extremely hard, meaning it contains large deposits of minerals like magnesium that can wreak havoc on your skin and hair.
So the French figured out a skincare solution for hard water: micellar water.
What is micellar water’s secret?
“Micelles are tiny balls of cleansing oils suspended in water, and the formula is simple but sophisticated,” says Margot White, a health educator and owner of The Choosy Chick, an online boutique and educational source dedicated to non-toxic, green beauty products. “These micelles attract dirt and oil. You need to suspend the liquid on an absorbent material like cotton pads. The cotton pads saturated in micellar water absorb all the grime and makeup, leaving clean, hydrated skin behind.”
Unlike soap, micelles gently remove impurities from the skin without stripping away the natural oils your skin needs, as a toner might.
“Micellar water is gentle and hydrating,” says board-certified Yale-trained dermatologist Rhonda Q. Klein, MD. “It won’t remove heavy makeup (like waterproof mascara), but is great to remove basic makeup, cleanse, and freshen the face without drying, stinging, or leaving behind residue.”
Can I use micellar water every day?
Yes! You can! In fact, Klein says she uses micellar water at night to remove makeup and natural toxins that have accumulated during the day and in the morning to prepare her face for the day. So I did the same.
To get a truly unfiltered experience with the product, I’ve been using micellar water only, even giving up my beloved Pond’s moisturizer in the name of research.
Micellar water is gentle enough to use twice daily (or even more) if you need to wipe down your face after a sweat sesh or a day out in the elements.
In addition to finding out what micellar water is, I also needed to get the lowdown on the best way to use it. It turns out that using micellar water couldn’t be easier.
To use micellar water, simply soak a cotton pad with the water and gently rub your face. If the cotton pad becomes saturated with makeup or dirt, get a clean cotton pad, soak in micellar water, and start the process over. After cleansing with micellar water, your face should feel soft and hydrated.
And if you’re worried about how micellar water will react to your skin type, here’s some good news:
David Lortscher, MD, founder of bespoke skincare company Curology, tells HealthyWay: “Micellar cleansing water can work well for most skin types because it is usually free of harsh ingredients and astringents, meaning it is gentle enough for most skin types. However, there are specific micellar cleansing waters formulated specifically for each skin type, so it can still be a good idea to select the right formulation for your skin.”
So yeah, it’s basically the perfect skincare product.
Million Dollar Question: Does micellar water work?
Once my micellar water research journey was well underway and I had progressed from “what is micellar water?” to “how does micellar water work?” I had to find out if it works. And I read some interesting claims.
I have to admit I was skeptical when I read that micellar water could replace my facial wash, toner, and hydrating cream as an all-in-one cleanser, no rinsing required. Because while any old soap will do for my facial cleanser, I am straight up addicted to my Pond’s dry skin cream. Let’s just say I had some doubts.
So was I able to replace all of my facial cleansers and creams with micellar water?
Short answer: No. I used micellar water as my only facial cleanser and moisturizer for a couple of days, and by day three my eye was swollen shut as a result of clogged eyelid glands. Now, I’m not completely blaming the micellar water. After all, I didn’t clean my makeup brushes as often as I should have, so that could have resulted in an eye infection. But not rinsing my face for three days certainly didn’t help.
Still, I’m a micellar water convert. Now that I’m using it as the first step in my cleansing routine (rather than as the only step), my skin feels softer, my skin tone is more even (especially where I’m prone to dark circles under my eyes), and I haven’t even missed my beloved Pond’s this week!
The best part is that micellar water really does work for most skin types. I was nervous about giving up my face cream for this experiment because I have incredibly dry skin. But because micelles are tiny drops of oil, my face didn’t feel dry, even after rinsing away the micellar water. If you have oily skin, the micelles in micellar water will actually remove the “bad” oils that clog your pores and cause breakouts, leaving soft, clean skin behind.
Some people may be able to use micellar water as an all-in-one cleanser, and that’s fantastic. But most people will want to use micellar water as a great addition to a skincare routine, perhaps replacing a harsher toner. Micellar water is perfect for removing makeup and other gunk from your face, but it’s still a good idea to wash your face with your favorite cleanser afterward.
Doesn’t micellar water contain surfactants? I thought those were a skincare no-no.
One caveat (hey, nothing’s perfect!): Micellar water contains surfactants, or surface active ingredients, which may irritate sensitive skin.
One common surfactant found in micellar water and other cleansers is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Although SLS has been linked to some scary-sounding research, there’s no definitive proof that SLS causes cancer or other diseases, and the Environmental Working Group lists SLS as a low-hazard chemical. Still, micellar water that contains surfactants could irritate sensitive skin. When purchasing micellar water, always read the label first to see if it’s an SLS-free product.
If you find your skin is red or irritated after using micellar water (SLS-free or not), be sure to use a second cleanser to rinse it off after use. If the problem persists, micellar water (and surfactants in general) may not be for you.
Should I splurge on micellar water?
There’s no need to spend mega bucks on micellar water.
Here’s a rundown of the top micellar waters that dermatologists recommend. They’re all priced right around $20, so you can get that chic French girl glow for trés cheap.
“Many of the mainstream micellar products contain additives like ‘fragrance,’ so we recommend using an organic option,” says White. One micellar water she recommends is INIKA’s Organic Micellar Cleansing Rosewater. It’s certified organic, cruelty-free, vegan, and halal, so it’s a product that fits almost any lifestyle. Plus, just as White said, it doesn’t contain chemical fragrance, so if you smell anything, it’ll just be a delicate floral hint of rosehip.
“Bioderma has long been the micellar water gold standard,” says Klein. What’s nice about Bioderma products is that you can shop for a micellar water based on your skin’s specific needs. So if your skin is ultra dry like mine, Bioderma’s hydrating micellar water contains ingredients designed to combat the effects of dry skin. If you have different skin issues, like acne or sun damage, they’ve got a micellar water for that too.
“I recommend Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water because it is a generally affordable brand while also still being an effective product. Furthermore, Garnier carries micellar cleansing water for most all skin types,” says Lortscher. Garnier’s mattifying micellar water is ideal if your skin tends to be oily. And if you’re addicted to your waterproof liner and mascara, Garnier has a micellar water specially formulated to remove stubborn makeup. They even come in cute travel sizes, perfect for when you’re on the go.
There’s a reason Simple’s Micellar Cleansing Water has legions of fans. It’s inexpensive, it’s SLS-free, and it’s won a ton of skincare awards, including a 2016 Allure Magazine Best in Beauty award. Simple’s micellar water is designed to leave sensitive skin clean and hydrated, and it’s perfect for all skin types.
Can I make my own micellar water?
Ready to play scientist? With just a few supplies, you actually can make your own micellar water at home. Rebekah Epling, an herbalist who creates her own botanical products, shares her favorite micellar water recipe.
“The key to craft homemade micellar water is using a good quality water, an alcohol-free astringent, a humectant, and an oil,” says Epling. “The good thing about this homemade micellar water is that there is room to make it your own and tailor it to your own skin needs.”
When shopping for a water to use, Epling says that she prefers hydrosols, which are the byproduct of stream distilling plant matter for essential oils, but if you don’t like floral scents that come from products like rose water, you can use plain distilled water as well.
In this recipe, witch hazel is the astringent ingredient. The witch hazel that is sold in most grocery stores and pharmacies can contain up to 50 percent alcohol. If you have sensitive skin, you’ll want to purchase witch hazel that doesn’t contain any alcohol, like this one from the Homestead Company. If you do purchase an alcohol-free witch hazel, it won’t be as shelf stable, says Epling, so you’ll need to store it in the fridge.
To make your own micellar water, simply combine the following ingredients and gently shake in container to mix:
For a one-ounce bottle:
- 3 tablespoons rose hydrosol (or rose water)
- 2 tsp. witch hazel
- 1 tsp. vegetable glycerine
- 3 drops jojoba oil
“You can also mix this up fairly quickly, so small batches are easy to make, especially if you’re concerned about shelf-life. …Drops or emptied pills of vitamin E also prolong the freshness of your product. You can even make a large batch, freeze it in ice cube trays, and thaw as needed, says Epling.
And there you have it, folks: If you’ve been wondering “What is micellar water?”, the answer is that it’s the beauty product you didn’t know you needed in your life.