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A Deep Dive into Micellar Cleansing Waters

Once upon a time, over a century ago, French women had to wash their now-famously glowing skin with harsh Parisian water. That is, until a British university discovered micelles in 1913. Eventually, these little spheres of oil suspended in water made their way to French pharmacies, who picked up on the cosmetic use of micelles as a way to cleanse — all without the need to rinse with aforementioned harsh Parisian water — and a beauty invention was born.

Since then, French skin care brands like La Roche-Posay and Bioderma have been at the forefront of micellar water technology, the latter perfecting its fatty acid esters to be biologically compatible with the phospholipids of skin cell membranes. And while makeup artists and Parisian models would hoard the la pharmacie staple as their go-to for removing makeup without an oily after-feel, it wasn’t until recently that the rest of the world caught on to the wonder that is micellar water.

Not surprisingly, one of the first to pick up on the magic of micellar water was South Korea.

It makes sense. After all, the French had their glory days as the beauty capital of the world for centuries, from Marie Antoinette’s soaring updo’s and elaborate skin care regimen (think snail mucin is weird? Try pigeon water) to Coco Chanel’s signature fragrance. But now it’s K-beauty’s turn. And micellar water is made for K-beauty. From double cleansing to BB cream to mul-gwang, Korean skin care begins and ends with hydration, hydration, hydration. Long before women in other countries were espousing alcohol-laden toners and harsh chemicals as the preferred method of beautification, women during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (the 13th~18th century) were splashing rice water on their face (full of vitamins, minerals, even the antioxidant ferulic acid) and soaking in mineral hot springs for their glowing complexions.

And like a fairytale, micellar water — in all its simplicity, its genius — works practically like magic.

Micelles are little spheres of oil suspended in water. When they come in contact with your skin, the lipophilic cores draw in oil and dirt, sucking out all the bad stuff from your skin and dissolving them. All they leave behind is soft, hydrated skin without disturbing your skin’s slightly acidic pH, something water doesn’t do (which makes the no rinsing aspect of micellar waters highly attractive).

And lest you be scared off by the word “oil,” don’t worry. Micellar water is suited for all skin types, even oily and acne-prone. In fact, micellar water may be a better option for reactive skin since it won’t strip you of your natural oils (which would otherwise result in your skin overproducing oil). And sure, while oil cleansers don’t strip either, certain oils may not play well with oily skin (wheat germ oil, linseed oil, soybean oil, and the jury is out on coconut oil).

Of course, the beauty industry being what it is, Korean scientists weren’t satisfied with just your basic oil-in-water formula. These days, micellar waters (often called cleansing water in K-beauty) are bolstered with all manner of skin-loving ingredients, from antioxidants to vitamins to even BHA, to go beyond “mere” hydration to fight free radicals, brighten, and exfoliate. Huxley Be Clean, Be Moist Cleansing Water and Dr. Oracle Radical Clear Cleansing Water are two such next-gen micellar waters.


They’ve got the basics covered: They tone skin, hydrate, and remove makeup, excess sebum, and environmental debris. But going one (or five) steps further, Huxley contains its signature Sahara prickly pear seed oil, which are rich in antioxidants, amino acids, gamma tocopherol (which has 400 times the vitamin E of olive oil), omega-6 and -9 fatty acids, linoleic acid, flavonoids, and beta-carotene. It also features sodium hyaluronate to draw water to the skin; AHAs from citrus fruit extracts to gently exfoliate; Centella asiatica extract to boost collagen synthesis; and white birch bud extract to calm troubled skin. Because the cleansing water consists of over 74% prickly pear stem extract instead of purified water, typical in other micellar waters, your skin is hydrated deeper and for longer after use. Best of all, it’s certified Ecocert, ensuring you’re not going to be putting any of the baddies on your face.


Dr. Oracle, in turn, gently exfoliates with willow bark extract (a mild form of salicylic acid) and apple fruit extract; softens with the probiotic fermented soybean extract (not to be confused with the oil); calms inflammation with Centella extract; prevents wrinkles with persimmon leaf extract; and fights oxidation with a whole host of botanical extracts, from pine leaf to oregano. Since it has BHA, this cleansing water might be good for acne-prone skin.


Primary Raw’s DoYou Soy Milk Ferment Cleanse Toner also features salicylic acid to gently exfoliate and lift makeup, with the added benefit of fermented soy bean extract, which nourishes, hydrates, and protects skin. This water-less formulation is fortified with various fruit extracts to brighten.

If you have normal to dry skin, a cleansing water may be all you need in the morning. Just soak a cotton pad and sweep over your face. A great tip for using a cleansing water-soaked cotton pad is to start with the U zone (cheeks), then moving to the T zone (forehead and nose) so that you aren’t transferring grime and sebum from the oilier part of your face to the rest. For a nighttime cleanse, I prefer to use at least two or three soaked pads, one for my face and one for my waterproof eye makeup. (Who wants to wipe their face with a black-stained cotton pad?).

And because double cleansing is so important (and I suffer from an oily T-zone), I always follow up with a foam cleanser. If you really want to be thorough, you may even want to use Huxley Cleansing Water after your foam cleanser for a light exfoliation and to ensure you’ve gotten every last bit of makeup and debris off. (Gently pat — don’t swipe — a soaked pad over face.)

Because there’s no better happily ever after (at least in skin care) than a fresh, clean, hydrated visage after a long day in the office.

Anna M. Park is the editor of beauty and travel blog

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    • AnnaMPark Feb 10, 2017 12:38 pm

      Hi Nani! It's a rather long explanation with lots of science, but my understanding is that as you swipe a cotton pad soaked with micellar water on your face, the lipophilic tails of the micelles grab onto oils and makeup, which is swept away with the cotton pad. Consider a micellar water as the first step in your double cleanse, which I do when I'm wearing light makeup. (I use an oil cleanser on heavier makeup days.) And some people, especially in Korea, like to follow up a double cleanse with a gentle patting of a micellar water with AHAs for an extra clean, especially on days when they're wearing particularly heavy makeup. I don't do this myself, so it's completely optional!

  • zllvs Oct 4, 2016 3:11 pm

    The first micellar water I ever used was by Nuxe and YSL. I loved them. But I am very curious about trying Korean Micellar waters. The packagings are so inviting already!

  • Janice Oct 4, 2016 12:53 am

    Can they all be used on lash extensions? I can use bioderm but it contains no oil as oil runes my lashes

    • The Glow Recipe Team Oct 5, 2016 11:03 am

      Hi Janice! Neither the Huxley Cleansing Water nor the Dr. Oracle Cleansing Water contain oils. Both contain a plethora of botanical extracts as well as skin softening agents that slide makeup off!

  • Ellen Trowell Oct 4, 2016 12:47 am

    Can you please explain scientifically how the "lipophilic cores draw in the oil and dirt" and then dissolve them? Where do they go after dissolving? Because even after dissolving they are still present. Should this replace the first step of the double cleanse? Also why pat on face again after double cleanse..? How can gentle patting with a pad remove any makeup that has been already been removed by double cleanse, which is being touted as the answer to ANY residual makeup?

  • anye76 Oct 3, 2016 10:42 pm

    I will be sure to try the K-Beauty brands of Micellar Water. I'm a huge fan already of the cleansing water. It's fantasic.

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