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Micelles: why you need them in your skincare routine

January 1 | 5 minute read

Micelles Hero 16x9

Words by Sarah Tarca

Originally published on | June 1

Ever looked at your moisturiser's (or serum's, or toner's) ingredient list and felt engulfed in a wave of confusion?

MECCApedia is here to decode the science, unravel the jargon and give you the knowledge to understand the actives you're slathering on morning and night. Let your skincare education commence!

With its slightly exotic, vaguely French-sounding name, you know that micelles (and micellar water) must do something good for you – but just what kind of good? Well, the cleansing kind, to be more specific. In fact, these clever molecules were responsible for a ‘gentle’ cleansing revolution – one that our faces will be forever thankful for.

Pronounced mi-sel, you’ll no doubt be most familiar with micelles in micellar water: a French pharmacy favourite. Micellar water has risen from relative obscurity to the mainstream in the last decade – and Parisians aren’t its only fans; dermatologists back it too because of its reputation for being effective and suitable for all skin types, including sensitive ones.

Here, we’re demystifying the most popular kid in the cleansing school. Warning: you will want them in your world (and your bathroom cabinet) after reading this.

Micelles 16x9 1

What are micelles?

To understand how micellar water works, you first need to get acquainted with micelles. In simple terms, they’re a cluster of molecules made from mild surfactants – which are the ‘cleansing’ or ‘cleaning’ compounds frequently found in everything from skincare to soap.

How do surfactants work? Their chemical structure has a ‘head’ that is attracted to water (technical term: hydrophilic head) and a ‘tail’ that attracts oil (lipophilic tail) while simultaneously repelling water. This allows cleansing agents like soap to mix with water and whisk away dirt.

How do micelles work?

The reason that micelles are ideal for cleansing is because of their genius structure: the oil-loving tail works like a magnet, attaching to things like sunscreen, makeup, grease and dirt, pulling it from the skin, while the water-loving head helps wash away impurities.
Micelles 3x4 2a
Micelles 3x4 2b

What is micellar water?

Take a guess what the key ingredients in micellar water are? Correct! It’s right there in the name: water (the purified kind) and micelles. Micellar water also includes moisturising agents, such as glycerine, to help it feel soft and comfortable on the skin. This – and the fact that micellar water is also generally alcohol-free – means that it is neither stripping nor irritating to the skin.

What are the benefits of micellar water in your skincare routine?

If you’re not already sold on the magic of micellar water for cleansing, let’s lay it out for you: it’s gentle, which makes it ideal for all skin types (including skin that’s sensitive, sensitised, acne prone or easily irritated); it’s a one-step wonder at removing makeup and cleansing; it can help unclog pores because it’s attracted to (and can remove) oil; and it has hydrating ingredients, so it won’t strip or dry the skin.

Also, water quality around the world is unpredictable at best, with some water being ‘harder’ than others (read: higher in minerals, which is not great for the skin), so purified water is considered superior to what comes out of the tap when it comes to skincare. Fun fact: haircare brands have also jumped aboard the micellar train, so you’ll now see micellar water popping up in shampoos too!

Which micellar water should you use?

Here’s the fun part: choosing which one is right for your skin type. Whilst all micellar waters will likely have common main ingredients (surfactants, purified water), the type of surfactants used and the other ingredients added change from brand to brand.

The best way to choose the right option for you is by identifying your skin type and main skin concern. If your skin is dry, look for hydrating ingredients like rosehip, aloe and hyaluronic acid. If it’s sensitive, opt for calming ones like panthenol, ceramides and cica. Micellar water can even be formulated with salicylic acid and tea tree for blemish-prone skin.

How to use micellar water in your skincare routine

Micellar water is the first step in your skincare routine. If you’re wearing makeup, it will act as a makeup remover. Soak a cotton ball or cotton round in the micellar water solution, then wipe over the skin. The micelle heads stick to the cotton, while the oil-loving tails get to work on your skin, attracting all the makeup, sunscreen, dirt, grime and pollution that’s gathered there over the day.

If your makeup is heavier, you’ll need to use a few cotton rounds, as the layer of oil-attracting micelles is wiped off each time. For eye makeup, press the cotton pad gently onto the eye for a few seconds to help dislodge it, then sweep away. Follow with a second cleanse – maybe with an oil cleanser – if you want to up the ante on your cleanse.

If your makeup is on the lighter side or if you just want to cleanse the day away, you can use micellar water as your sole cleanser. Simply pour, swipe, allow to dry, then follow with your regular skincare routine.

And, because it’s an overachiever, micellar water can also be used as a toner. In this way, it’s best applied after a gentle cleanse by patting onto the skin, then following with your serums and moisturisers.

Micellar water is notoriously gentle, so it plays well with other ingredients; this means you don’t need to worry about which serums or exfoliants you use, as they won’t aggravate each other – or your skin.

Which skin types should use micellar water?

In case you missed the memo (pun intended), micellar water is popular for a reason: it’s friends with everyone and every skin type. Yep, everyone can use it as part of their cleansing routine.

Dry skin types love it for its alcohol-free formula and moisturising agents that keep skin nourished, soft and anything-but-tight. Blemish-prone skin types love its ability to bind to oil and debris in the pores, and clean without over-drying. Everyone else – including those lucky balanced skin types – love it because it’s convenient, easy to use and gives a beautiful, non-messy clean that leaves skin prepped and ready for the next steps in your skincare routine.

Related topics and brand tags

Skin careSunscreenCleanserFacial oilMoisturiser

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