It all started in the aisles of Parisian pharmacies, with low-key French girls snapping up bottles of liquid facial cleanser that required little more than a sweep across the face to remove makeup. As the rest of the world caught on to the soft power of the best micellar water, few could resist its ease of use. It employs balls of oil, or micelles, to sweep dirt and makeup away without scrubbing, stinging the eyes or stripping the skin’s natural oils.
Now, scoring our own bottles of Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micellar Water
(a French pharmacy original that finally launched in the US in 2015), has become as easy as making a drugstore run. What’s more, just about every beauty brand has gotten in on the action. But can a no-rinse, no-foam cleansing solution really clean pores to a dermatologist’s standards?
Kind of, sort of, says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a New York-based dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. To start, micellar water pulls off a pretty cool trick: Inside the liquid solution are balls of oil, or micelles, which act as magnets to attract and pull away dirt and soil when it comes in contact with the skin. Better yet, these micelles are selective in how they cleanse, making for a more skin-nurturing experience.
“Because micelles are surfactant molecules, they really only target surface impurities such as makeup and dirt,” notes Dr. Catherine Chang, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon based in Beverly Hills. “It’s gentle and not strong enough to strip away the skin’s natural oils.”
That means, unlike cleansers that employ stronger surfactants (such as foaming agents), micellar water’s gentle approach isn’t designed to rob the skin barrier of its natural moisture or cause irritation. It’s an effect that particularly benefits dry and sensitive skin types (including those with rosacea), but as Dr. Zeichner points out, micellar’s ability to baby the skin barrier is considered a win for just about anyone.
“The goal of cleansing is to remove dirt from the skin without compromising the integrity of the skin barrier,” he says. “Harsh cleansers can disrupt the outer skin layer, leading to irritation and inflammation. While all cleansers, including micellar water, may remove natural oils from the skin to some degree, the micellar water technology is so mild, that it doesn’t have a significant impact on the outer skin layer—yet it’s still strong enough to remove makeup in a non-irritating way.”
What’s more, many micellar water products contain the same types of hydrating ingredients found in traditional moisturizers—like glycerin and aloe vera—to further aid skin barrier health.
But before you go tossing your traditional cleansing gels, oils and foams, know this: micellar water’s cleaning power has its limits. “Despite claims that it is enough to be used solo to dissolve makeup, I think most people will find that the micellar water is good as a first step followed by a gentle facial cleanser,” says Dr. Chang. Those who wear sunscreens (which should be all of us, really) and/or full-beat makeup will likely need to take several passes over the skin with micellar water to remove these products. Plus, as Dr. Zeichner notes, “many people with oily skin may not find them to be powerful enough to fully remove excess sebum from the skin.”
To this end, Dr. Chang suggests users, regardless of skin type, rinse micellar water products with water (even if it’s designed to be a no-rinse product), then follow its use with a typical facial cleanser to sufficiently cleanse the skin.
While micellar water isn’t the swipe-and-go, total cleansing solution we may have envisioned in our effortless French girl fantasies, the method does prove a Godsend for cleansing skin without obliterating the skin barrier or irritating eyes. Ahead, find 10 ways to remove makeup and dirt—without the burn.
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Odacité Blue Aura Cleansing Water
This formula uses plant-based micelles (made from castor oil) in aloe vera juice to cleanse while simultaneously delivering vitamins and antioxidants to the skin thanks to a host of Ayurvedic herbs inside. But what makes this cleanser worth the splurge is its ability to address oily skin with the help of grapefruit zest and salicylic acid.
Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water with Rose Water
Proof you don’t have to spend a gob of money to get a gentle micellar water that erases makeup in a heartbeat? This vegan formula that’s free of alcohol and added fragrance. After holding a cotton pad saturated with this formula over no-budge mascara and eyeliner designed for 36-hour wear, one swipe erased nearly all our makeup with zero eye irritation whatsoever.
Mary Kay Micellar Water
This no-nonsense micellar water elegantly sweeps makeup and debris away without dehydrating skin, thanks to a dose of glycerin inside. Your skin has never felt softer.
Payot Crème N°2 Eau Lactée Micellaire
This milky take on micellar, created with microbiome-balancing probiotics by a heritage French brand, makes face cleansing quintessentially French experience (as in, practically effortless). It’s all thanks to a no-mess pump dispenser and fragrance-free formula that amazingly picked up undetectable traces of dirt that lingered on our neck and decolletage after a sweaty hike.
Náu Age Control Micellar Water
More cleanser than makeup remover (this formula is not intended for use around the eyes), this liquid managed to lift mineral SPF from our skin and kick out a refreshing cherry scent as well, thanks to sour cherry seed oil inside.
IT Cosmetics Miracle Water Micellar Cleanser
Part micellar water, part essence, part skin brightener, this multitasking liquid is the ultimate lazy person product. It contains a laundry list of power ingredients usually reserved for serums and essences, including peptides, hydrolyzed collagen, licorice root, vitamin C, diamond powder and a cocktail of fermented ingredients. Despite being pumped with so many actives, the formula proved non-irritating on our skin and managed to pick up trace amounts of makeup we thought had long worn off.
Drunk Elephant E-Rase Milki Micellar Water
With ceramides, fatty acids, vitamin E, and a host of plant-derived oils, the ingredient list of this micellar water reads more like that of a rich moisturizer than a cleanser. The result: a milky, lotion-like cleanser that sweeps away eye makeup and mineral sunscreen, but also leaves skin feeling plump and hydrated.
Bioderma Sensibio H2O
The French pharmacy staple is still one of the best because it sweeps away makeup without irritating skin—or breaking the bank.
Almay Biodegradable Oil Free Micellar Eye Makeup Remover Pads
Mild surfactants join aloe leaf, camellia and cucumber extracts in a travel-friendly wipe that erased mascara, eyeliner and eyeshadow without irritating our eyes. (Though those with a sensitivity to isopropyl alcohol may want to opt for another formulation.)
Youngblood Micellar Water with Colloidal Silver
This micellar water contains common players (aloe, glycerin and a plant-derived emulsifier) plus a hydrating fatty alcohol for cleansing, as well as colloidal silver for its anti-inflammatory properties.