Resurgent Skin Care: Micellar Water History, Claims, Functions, Ingredients and Market Relevance

This article explores the long history of micellar waters, their claims and functions, ingredients and commercial examples. It also attempts to dene what they are, in order to understand their recent market relevance.
This article explores the long history of micellar waters, their claims and functions, ingredients and commercial examples. It also attempts to dene what they are, in order to understand their recent market relevance.

Read the full article in the March 2022 digital edition. . .

Micellar waters have been used for more than 100 years but recently, they have piqued market interest. The rush to follow micellar waters and their technologies has been described by consumer media and blogs as cult, with disciples eagerly accepting new micellar-based products and companies large and small flooding the micellar water space. According to Kingpin Market Research, the global market for micellar water is projected 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 did this surge in interest for micellar waters come from? And why? Minimalist formulating driven by the clean beauty movement perhaps provides one explanation, as the general simplicity of these formulations demonstrates. The present article explores the long history of micellar waters, their claims and functions, and commercial examples. It also attempts to define what they are, in order to understand their recent market relevance.

Saturated in History

Micellar water has been described as a resurgence of cleansing practices from France in the early 1900s. As some sources report, in the days before traditional plumbing, the local water was harsh to the skin. French pharmacies therefore developed2 what became known as micellar water for women to use as a milder cleansing alternative; notably, mildness aligns with one of today’s market trends and it is achieved thanks to surfactant micelles that are less aggressive on natural skin lipids.3-5

Other sources report that water shortages or inaccessibility to tap water6 led to micelle water’s development but the authors were unable to find primary literature sources to support these accounts. However, in work that was completed in 1914, with publication delayed until 1919 and 1920 due to the First World War, the pioneer of surfactant micelle theory, John McBain, described soaps in terms of a “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 nineteenth and early twentieth century was characterized by a lack of plumbing and, in turn, a lack of hygiene and cleanliness.9 This was due in part to a lack of privacy, since most homes had no bathroom. As such, bathing meant exposing one’s naked body to others in a shared space, which confronted a taboo concerning morality. These beliefs resulted in a clash between hygiene and decency, which in turn rendered dirt and body odor as virtuous.10 Washing became confined to a quick splash of the hands and face about once a week. The idea of daily showers did not begin to penetrate the populous until the 1970s.

The micellar water story continues into the 1990s, as it gained popularity among makeup artists who, according to several sources, needed to quickly and easily remove makeup from runway models multiple times during fashion shows. Already a staple in French pharmacies,11 micellar waters became known for their powerful cleansing properties without causing irritation or drying the skin; one source proclaimed they melt “cleanly off skin with zero irritation, leaving no oil behind...”12 This efficacy, paired with the appeal of French high fashion, could provide another explanation for the market’s embrace of micelle waters.

Claims, Properties and Benefits

Today, micellar water is available globally. It is known as a product that looks and feels like water but removes makeup with just a few swipes of a cotton ball.12 It is even said to remove the toughest waterproof makeup. Such claims are exemplified by the brand Kiehl’s: “Micellar water is herbal-infused water (emphasis added) that effectively cleanses skin and removes makeup without rinsing, rubbing or scrubbing that has been used for over a hundred years, first gaining momentum in France, where it was designed to help Parisians avoid using the region’s famously harsh water on their face.”

In 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 did not find a patent or patent application to substantiate this claim of invention. However, based on its apparent market influence, Bioderma’s micelle water deserves a closer look to uncover clues to its relevance today.

The company reports its micellar technology is inspired by the cellular lipids in skin and formulated at the physiological pH of around 5.5 with highly purified pharmaceutical water to preserve the natural protective film of the skin.14 The Sensibio H2O product, for example, is said to help prevent pollutants from penetrating the skin and exacerbating sensitivity. It also, “respects the skin’s biological balance, which is essential to maintain healthy-looking skin.”

A recent study upholds these claims for the Sensibio product. It reports that approximately 30% of the French population complains at least once daily of unpleasant skin sensations including itching, tingling or burning. The use of Sensibio H2O on especially sensitive skin, however, along with guidance from health professionals, i.e., dermatologists and pharmacists, was found to help reduce the impact of these unpleasant sensations by as early as the second day of use.15 Notably, skin sensitivity is another concern among today’s consumers.

In terms of the micelle water’s functions, Bioderma explains:16

A surfactant has two different poles: a hydrophilic one (which means that it is soluble in water) and a lipophilic one (which captures fat particles, the latter being incompatible with water). Whenever the surfactant is aggregated, it shapes into what is called a "micelle," a structure that has the form of an invisible microsphere.

Water alone cannot cleanse away all the dirt particles that accumulate on the skin every day, especially the fatty ones. That is the reason why most skin care products contain cleansing agents called surfactants. … [A] large array of surfactants [is] used in cosmetics, and some of them can turn out to be unsuitable or too aggressive for the skin. During clean-up, they interact with the diverse components of the skin. Too much cleansing, particularly with abrasive products, is often as noxious as no cleansing at all.

All of Bioderma's micellar waters … use only [a] single surfactant that is nonionic and soft to the skin—a glycerol ester—whose structure is inspired from the lipids already present in the skin. Thus, the skin's natural barrier is delicately cleansed, in a non-aggressive way.

. . .Read more in the March 2022 digital edition. . .


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  12. Angelle, A., Calaor, J.M. and Robi, M. (2020, Nov 14). 13 micellar waters that remove your makeup in one simple step. Available at
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  14. Bioderma (2020). Sensibio H2O micellar water. Available at
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