Micellar Water: How does it work?

MWater (1)The hype of micellar waters seems to have trickled down from its prime position in a make-up artist’s kit and backstage at Fashion Week to us folk in the real world. In a big way. In fact, calling them the next big thing may be somewhat overdue: these microscopic micellar make-up removers are already the big thing, according to half of the internet. A hoard of excited beauty bloggers tell us that once you’ve introduced a micellar water into your regime, there’s no going back.

But what on earth are they?!

The logic: We’ll start with the basics. Micellar waters contain tiny molecules called micelles which form when placed in water. If we look at these a bit closer, micelles are made up of surfactants. In terms of structure, surfactants look like a bead stuck to the top of a long chain, forming its head and tail respectively.

But when it comes to mixing with water, these heads and tails behave very differently: the tail is what we call hydrophobic (water-hating), while the head is hydrophilic, (water-loving)This means that when we place them in water, the tails of surfactants are desperate to get away from it, so huddle together facing inwards to form a cluster, while the heads are keen to stay in contact with the water, and stick with the outside instead. The result? A micelle:


This is all well and good, but how do these miniscule molecules actually help your skin?  Well, oil and water don’t mix. This is why washing your face with water alone will never do much good: the water can’t do a lot to break down the oils on your face, regardless of whether its sebum, the oil produced naturally by our skin and hair, or the last hangers-on of make-up after a long day.

What does this have to do with micelles? When we’re thinking about oils, or lipids, our heads and tails switch roles: heads are lipophobic (oil-hating) and tails are lipophilic (you’ve guessed it, oil-loving). For this reason, when we pop some of this “magic” water onto a good old cotton pad and rub into our skin, these oil-grabbing tails can catch onto and trap any of the unwanted oils on our face, which are then washed away leaving sweaky-clean skin.

In theory, this all sounds great. How have we lasted so long without them, you might wonder? Simply put, we haven’t. Micelles are found all over the place: this is how all soap works, so is there really any need to spend a small fortune on something just because it has fancy name (and an even fancier price tag)? Micelles play a really important role in a number of processes – not just hygiene-related applications either, but in drug delivery too; they’re certainly nothing new. However, these waters are not entirely redundant, as micellar waters are notoriously mild and gentle: soaps can often be a touch too stringent for those of us with more sensitive skin: surfactants are documented as having the ability to induce irritant dermatitis, a skin reaction which occurs in response to allergen exposure.

All in all, I think it’s really interesting to see how micelles have applications spilling over into all kinds of industries and markets. However, I can’t say I approve of what seems to be the capitalization of ideas which are not only simple, but incredibly common too.


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