“My daughters swear by it," says Paris-based communications professional Gail Chapin. Chapin’s daughters Segolene (18) and Victoire (22) use micellar water for their early morning face-cleansing and skin prep, and late-evening make-up removal. They are doing what French women have been doing for two generations.

Micellar water was invented in France decades ago as a no-rinse cleansing option to beat the local hard water that made rinsing off difficult and left an icky build-up on the skin. French backstage make-up artists used it because it was convenient—it became popular with models and has since been “discovered" by the rest of the world.

Now micellar water has become the darling of millennials and has been trending on social media for some time. When Korean girls, famous for their evolved skincare regime, start using it, you know it has the highest seal of approval.

A French pharmacy product, micellar water is a simple chemist’s solution using principles of electromagnetic attraction to tackle cleansing without water.

Micelles, or tiny globules of oil, are suspended in soft water. When swiped across the face with a cotton pad (never scrubbed or rubbed), they attract and lift off dirt, oil and grime from skin without too much surface friction, and without skewing the pH balance. There are cleansing oils like Shu Uemura’s Cult Cleansing Oil, Lancôme’s oil and water hybrid Bi Facil and Estée Lauder’s balm-to-oil cleanser, that promise similar benefits but need to be rinsed off and may not work on oily skin.

The USP of micellar water is that it is a no-soap, no-rinse product that can work as cleanser and make-up remover. Less water also makes it less dehydrating—yes, water on skin can be dehydrating.

Now Korean beauty brands, such as Dr. Jart+ Micro Water, Innisfree’s Green Tea Cleansing Water, TonyMoly Pure Eco Bamboo cleansing water, and Son & Park’s popular Beauty Water, have joined the bandwagon. So have big American brands like Clinique, though French pharmacy brands remain at the forefront. The oldest brand and the one that began it all is Bioderma’s Créaline H2O. Launched in the 1970s, it is a pharmacy brand available in supermarkets.

Luxury brand consultant Catherine Marisa, who started using Bioderma’s Créaline H2O micellar water as a teenager 20 years ago, says she found cleansing milks and lotions too heavy and irritating on her skin; Bioderma’s water was soothing. She continues to use it. This is the brand Chapin’s daughters use as well.

Micellar waters by different brands.
Micellar waters by different brands.

Like many other categories, micellar waters now come in many avatars. They may have added ingredients like hibiscus, lavender or vitamins C and E, alcohol for tougher cleansing or exfoliators. Some with skin softeners seem to be moving into the category of skin essences and tonics. There are variants positioned for oily skin, dry skin and sensitive skin. When I did a quick market scan, I also saw wipes and presoaked pads with micellar water.

I have tried and used several micellar waters and I find they don’t really work on heavy eye make-up or heavy-duty mascara. I assumed this is because Indian women use heavier eye make-up and also use the waterline, i.e., the inner part of the lower eyelids, where we apply the kohl pencil, instead of outside. But Segolene concurs she would never use micellar water alone for eye make-up, though it works well for blush and foundation.

Multiple cotton pads and many swipes can do the job too, but may lead to friction and irritation.

Besides everyday use, micellar water is perhaps most useful when travelling, for the first swipe to take off the night’s build-up on the face, to remove daytime make-up, and as a last swipe if you double-cleanse like the Koreans. Micellar waters don’t fall into the “natural and organic" category, so do the usual checks for hypoallergenic-, paraben- and alcohol-free labels.

I would pick Sephora’s Triple Action Cleansing Water with calendula for its handy size and easy-to-swipe product, which does not leave behind an oily sheen or sticky feel. Garnier has variants of micellar water under its Pure Active range and its hypoallergenic Skin Naturals range to cater to specific needs. La Roche-Posay’s Micellar Water Ultra is paraben-free and oil-free, with poloxamer cleansers or micelles instead of oil for sensitive skin. I also like Dior’s Hydra Life Micellar Water no-rinse cleanser, for its promise of being tougher on make-up while leaving skin extra-hydrated, and the brand’s Unisex Cleansing Water with lily extracts.

To create your own version, take some pure rose water (better still, make your own) and add a few drops of rose essential oil. Shake well. Not technically micellar but it should work just as well.

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