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Why micellar water could be ruining your skin - and how to fix it

Wait, what?

21 Jul 2019

Micellar waters: a backstage must-have at fashion weeks around the globe, a quick and easy way to remove makeup without using a (gasp) wipe, and a staple of our daily beauty routines. We use them, we love them, we don’t think we can cleanse without them, but it turns out they may actually be doing our skin more harm than good. Gutted.

Firstly, what is a micellar water, anyway? “Micellar water is essentially a cleansing solution that’s swiped over the surface of the skin, much like traditional toners,” Cosmetic Dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting tells us.

“While it has a liquid base, it contains grime traps known as micelles which remove impurities from the skin.”

So far so good. But the problem isn’t so much the micellar water itself, but more the way that it stays on the skin, as they’re generally designed to be leave-on formulas.

“Micelles are essentially surfactants or oil-in-water molecules,” explains Dr Bunting. “Now, whilst a lot of people may tolerate a small amount of surfactant being left behind on skin after the swipe (assuming they’re the gentle kind), some people with sensitive skin won’t.”

Surfactants are generally regarded as fairly harmless in beauty, but they’re best avoided if you have dry or sensitive skin - common ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) are often highlighted as something to watch out for. When it comes to micellar waters, the potential for them to be bad for your skin lies not only in the fact surfactants are left behind, but that they could block the next step of your routine - making your serums and moisturisers less effective, and even causing breakouts.

Dr Bunting has a simple workaround though - just wash your face afterwards. “I always recommend rinsing with water to remove any residue,” she says.

It seems any potential problems can be undone by making sure your micellar water isn’t left on (despite what the label may tell you), but it’s also worth noting that they’re not necessarily going to cleanse the skin thoroughly enough - which can cause issues in any skin type.

A deep cleanse is essential to any beauty routine in order to keep pores clean and oils in balance; micellar water tends to only reach the surface (and then stays there), unlike other types of face washes which arguably do a better job. So if you do want to use a micellar (we’re with you, it’s a tough habit to break) it’s best to do it as part of a multi-step cleansing regime.

Consultant Dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto agrees. “As a general rule, micellar water can be part of a double cleansing routine,” she tells us. “This is particularly helpful for the evening cleanse when you want to remove makeup, dirt, sweat, and pollution from the skin surface. A second cleanse with a foaming or cream wash ensures the skin surface is thoroughly clean before other active agents, e.g retinols, are applied before bed.”

If you are going to keep a micellar water in your bathroom cabinet, it’s worth thinking about the rest of the ingredients list too - the fewer, the better. “I prefer those which are free of ingredients like fragrance and essential oils,” says Dr Bunting. “So ironically the cheaper and simpler, often the better.” Her favourite? “Personally, I choose Bioderma Sensibio, £10.80, every time.”

Dr Mahto is a fan of Bioderma too (and it’s a firm favourite at those backstage shows we mentioned), as well as A’Kin’s Micellar Water, £12.50,Garnier’s, £5.99, and La Roche-Posay’s Sensitive Micellar Water, £12.

The bottom line? We’re still into it - but if you’re going to cleanse, cleanse properly…