Micellar waters have been used for over 100 years but recently they have gained market interest. The rush for micellar waters and their technologies has been described by mainstream media and blogs as worshipwith followers eagerly accepting new micellar products and companies large and small flooding the space with micellar water. According to Kingpin Market Research, the global micellar water market is expected to reach US$209.3 million by 2026; up from US$147.6 million in 2020, growing at a CAGR of 6.0% between 2021 and 2026.1
Where does this renewed interest in micellar waters come from? And why? The minimalist formulation carried by the clean beauty movement perhaps provides an explanation, as demonstrated by the general simplicity of these formulations. This article explores the long history of micellar waters, their claims and functions, as well as commercial examples. It also attempts to define what they are, in order to understand their recent relevance in the market.
Full of History
Micellar water was described as a resurgence in cleaning practices in France in the early 1900s. As some sources report, in the days before traditional plumbing, local water was harsh on the skin. French pharmacies have therefore developed2 what became known as micellar water for women to use as a gentler cleansing alternative; in particular, the softness aligns with one of the current market trends and is obtained thanks to micelles of surfactants that are less aggressive for the natural lipids of the skin.3-5
Other sources report that water shortages or inaccessibility to tap water6 led to the development of micellar water, but the authors could not find primary documentary sources to support these accounts. However, in a work completed in 1914, the publication of which was delayed until 1919 and 1920 due to World War I, the pioneer of surfactant micelle theory, John McBain, described soaps in terms of ” micelle theory of charged solids”.7, 8 Based on these publications, there may be a grain of truth in the postulated origin of micellar water in Paris in 1918. Decades later, Jean-Noël Thorel, founder of the French pharmaceutical brand Bioderma, was credited as the inventor of micellar water, which the company popularized globally in the 1990s; this claim will be explored in greater depth later.
As noted, France in the 19th and early 20th centuries was characterized by a lack of plumbing and, therefore, a lack of hygiene and cleanliness.9 This was partly due to a lack of privacy, since most houses had no bathroom. As such, bathing meant exposing one’s naked body to others in a shared space, which ran into a taboo regarding morality. These beliefs resulted in a clash between hygiene and decency, which in turn made dirt and body odor virtuous.ten Washing was limited to a quick splash of hands and face about once a week. The idea of daily showers didn’t begin to catch on until the 1970s.
The story of micellar water continues into the 1990s, as it gained popularity among makeup artists who, according to multiple sources, needed to quickly and easily remove makeup from catwalk models repeatedly during fashion shows. Already essential in French pharmacies,11 micellar waters have become known for their powerful cleansing properties without irritating or drying out the skin; one source proclaimed that they melt “cleanly on the skin without irritation, leaving no trace of oil…”.12 This effectiveness, combined with the appeal of French haute couture, could provide another explanation for the market craze for micellar waters.
Claims, Properties and Benefits
Today, micellar water is available worldwide. It is known as a product that looks and feels like water but removes makeup with just a few cotton strokes.12 It is even said to remove the toughest waterproof makeup. Such claims are illustrated by the Kiehl’s brand: “Micellar water is herb infused water (emphasis added) that effectively cleanses the skin and removes make-up without rinsing, rubbing or rubbing that has been used for over a hundred years, first gaining momentum in France, where it was designed to help Parisians avoid d to use the region’s famous hard water on their face.”
By contrast, as noted, Bioderma claims to have invented micellar water in 1995, which is said to have “revolutionized the way people remove makeup and cleanse their skin every day.”13 The present authors have found no patent or patent application to support this invention claim. However, based on its apparent influence in the market, Bioderma’s micellar water deserves closer examination to uncover clues as to its relevance today.
The company reports that its micellar technology is inspired by cellular skin lipids and formulated at a physiological pH of approximately 5.5 with highly purified pharmaceutical water to preserve the skin’s natural protective film.14 The Sensibio H2O product, for example, is said to help prevent pollutants from penetrating the skin and exacerbating sensitivity. It also “respects the biological balance of the skin, essential for maintaining healthy-looking skin”.
A recent study confirms these claims for the Sensibio product. She reports that about 30% of the French population complains at least once a day of unpleasant skin sensations such as itching, tingling or burning. However, the use of Sensibio H2O on particularly sensitive skin, as well as the advice of health professionals, i.e. dermatologists and pharmacists, has made it possible to reduce the impact of these unpleasant sensations from the second day of use.15 Notably, skin sensitivity is another concern among today’s consumers.
Regarding the functions of micellar water, Bioderma explains:16
A The surfactant has two different poles: a hydrophilic (which means that it is soluble in water) and a lipophilic (which captures the particles of fat, the latter being incompatible with water). Each time the surfactant is aggregated, it forms what is called a “micelle”, a structure that has the shape of an invisible microsphere.
OWater alone cannot remove all the dirt particles that accumulate on the skin every day, especially grease. This is the reason why most skin care products contain cleansing agents called surfactants. … [A] wide range of surfactants [is] used in cosmetics, and some of them may prove to be unsuitable or too aggressive for the skin. During cleansing, they interact with the various components of the skin. Too much cleaning, especially with abrasives, is often as harmful as no cleaning at all.
AAll Bioderma micellar waters … use only [a] unique non-ionic, skin-friendly surfactant – a glycerol ester – whose structure is inspired by the lipids already present in the skin. Thus, the natural barrier of the skin is gently cleansed, in a non-aggressive way.
- Kingpin Market Research (2020, August 14). Global Micellar Water Market Report, History and Forecast 2015-2026, Breakdown Data by Manufacturers, Key Regions, Types and Applications. Available at https://www.kingpinmarketresearch.com/global-micellar-water-market-16127273
- Batty, J. (2022). Ultimate Guide To Micellar Water (What It Is, What’s In It, How To Use It. Available at https://jaelbatty.com/micellar/
- Bisharat, V. (2019, September 23). Le 101 on micellar water, the skin secret of French women. Available at https://nakedpoppy.com/blog/the-101-on-micellar-water-french-womens-skin-secret
- Oliver, D. (2016, December 14). What is micellar water and why should you use it? Available at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/micellar-water-skincare_n_55a66a22e4b0896514cfd3c9
- Mitzeliotis, K. (2019, June 15). Micellar water is the facial cleanser you didn’t know you needed. Available at https://www.womenshealthmag.com/beauty/a28071265/micellar-water-1/
- Chen, R. (2020, November 4), What is micellar water and how do I use it? https://www.chatelaine.com/style/beauty/what-is-micellar-water/
- McBain, JW, Laing, ME and Titley, AF (1919). CXIX Colloidal electrolytes; Soap solutions as a type. J Chem Soc Transactions 122 1279-1300.
- McBain, JW and Salmon, CS (1920). Colloidal electrolytes. Soap solutions and their composition. J Amer Chem Soc 42(3) 426-460.
- Zdatny, S. (2012). The French hygiene offensive of the 1950s: a critical moment in the history of morals. J modern history 84(4); available at https://www-journals-uchicago-edu.lynx.lib.usm.edu/doi/full/10.1086/667596#xref_fn18
- Weber, E. (1983). The End of Terroirs: The Modernization of Rural France: 1870-1914. Fayard, Paris.
- Heiser, C. (2021, October 21). These 11 micellar waters make cleaning easier. Available at https://www.byrdie.com/best-micellar-waters-4770736
- Angelle, A., Calaor, JM and Robi, M. (2020, November 14). 13 micellar waters that remove make-up in a single step. Available at https://www.allure.com/gallery/best-micellar-waters
- Bioderma (2020). All about micellar water: how to gently cleanse sensitive skin without overtreating it. Available at https://www.bioderma.sg/your-skin/skin-cleansing/all-about-micellar-water-cleanse-skin-without-overtreating-it
- Bioderma (2020). Sensibio H2O micellar water. Available at https://www.bioderma.us/all-products/sensibio/H20-micellar-water.
- Taieb, C., Gayraud, F., Dinet, D. and Sayag, M. (2021). Interest of the micellar solution to reduce unpleasant cutaneous sensations. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol 14 1017-1022.
- Bioderma (accessed February 7, 2022). All about micellar waters. Available at https://www.bioderma.us/your-skin/skin-cleansing/all-there-know-about-micellar-waters