Surfactants – Heroes and villains of a skincare routine Part 3: What is micellar cleanser and how it works?

In the previous posts, we discussed the role of surfactants in cosmetic formulations and presented the most common types of surfactants on the skincare market.

In this article, we will focus on micellar cleansers (also sold as micellar waters) as an example of a very beneficial skincare product made using surfactants. Their popularity has been growing in the past several years, but I still come across people who don’t purchase them not knowing how they work.

The formula of micellar cleansers

A few years back, when I bought my very first bottle of a micellar cleanser I thought it must be some super advanced nanotechnology – intelligent molecules “programmed” to gently but efficiently clean the skin pores. In fact, that was written on the bottle! When we take a closer look on the micellar cleansers, their formula isn’t either complicated or super innovative.  We can distinguish here three groups of ingredients:

1. Solvent, water for micellar cleansers

2. Gentle surfactants

3. Extra Additives – fragrances, preservatives, conditioning and beautifying substances such as vitamins, plant extracts, PH level enhancers, etc.

All about the Ratio

Ok, but does it mean that if I add a surfactant to the water will I get the micellar cleanser? Technically yes and…no.  “Micellar” means build with micelles – spherical arrangements of surfactant molecules. Micelles form when a particular concentration of surfactant in a solvent is attained.  This ratio is called Critical Micelle Concentration (CMC).

Digging deeper – the water “hating” tail of the surfactant molecule tries to keep away from water as much as possible by gathering on the surface of the liquid. When the entire surface of the water is covered in surfactant molecules, and there is no more room left for another one, the remaining “trapped” ones try to find the way to protect repelling tails from water by sticking together and directing them inwards.

As a result, they organize themselves into spherically shaped micelles. There are some additional conditions involved as characteristic of surfactant molecule, but this more advanced chemistry.


Gentle but mighty  

When the surfactant level passes the point of the Critical Micelle Concentration, the liquid attains brand new properties by becoming a solution saturated with micelles acting as “magnet” capsules. When applying the micellar water with a cotton pad hydrophilic part of micelles attaches to do water-soluble particles of dirt and makeup while the hydrophobic traps the greasy ones.

Those tiny magnets are strong enough to deal with  the grease and makeup but don’t strip off the protective layer of sebum naturally produced by the skin. That’s why they are good for sensitive and dry/dehydrated skin. The quality micellar water shouldn’t leave any greasy residue after application or make your skin uncomfortably tight. Micellar cleansers enhance the rubbing motion (remember not to rub too hard! Hard rubbing can damage the skin), but If you prefer strong waterproof makeup, not every micellar water will be able to remove it. Oil or oil-based makeup remover could be a better option for you.

All about the surfactants

It also matters what type of surfactant was used. The majority of micellar cleansers are composed with the following gentle surfactants: Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside, Cetrimonium Chloride, PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides, Decyl Glucoside, Lauryl Glucoside, Disodium Cocoamphodiacetate, Polyglyceryl-4 Laurate/Sebacate, Polyglyceryl-4 Caprylate/Caprate.

Not all of those surfactants will work well for a very sensitive skin type. Don’t get discouraged if your skin doesn’t get along with one particular product. Besides the other ingredients might also be responsible – especially fragrances which are known to be common sensitizers.  Switch to the micellar cleanser containing a different surfactant or fewer ingredients.

Other advantages

An amazing fact – Micellar waters can completely replace tap water and harsh cleansers. If your skin is prone to breakouts or dryness when using a cleansing product containing SLS/SLES or living in the location of a hard tap water, switch to a micellar cleanser.  Your skin may see dramatic improvement as happened to this Reddit user.

Additional benefit –  majority of micellar waters are enriched with substances which not only improve hydration and help to soothe irritated skin but also can keep the balance of the natural acidic skin mantle and protect the skin from breakouts.  Micellar cleansers have a light formula. The lack of heavy, thick, creamy ingredients dramatically reduces the risk of clogging the pores and causing breakouts.  In summary, micellar waters work as powerful but light cleansing serum, ideal for all skin types.

If you have never used the micellar water, go and get yourself a bottle. Your skin will highly appreciate it!


References: Date Accessed, September 3rd, 2017 Date Accessed, September 5th, 2017 Date Accessed, September 8th, 2017 Date Accessed, September 8th, 2017

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In the Part 1 of the surfactant series, we have focused…