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The Making of a Micelle Molecule

Can the shape of a molecule help its functionality?

issue six : the shape of things to come

Natural product formulation is a science – not an experiment

Pedro Catala, Founder of Twelve Beauty

I don’t know if you have noticed, but it seems like just about every brand, untainted or otherwise, now has a micelle a.k.a micellar water (tomato/tomatoe) in its product range. Me being me, and my brain being my brain, a vague description on the bottle is not enough for me. I want to know what micelle water is exactly and investigate more about the shape of the micelle molecule and how it works.

On the surface

To my memory, micelle water became mainstream thanks to the likes of Bioderma. That was certainly the first time I had heard the word thrown about.

 Micellar water is a soap-free, rinse-free cleansing solution that emulsifies impurities on the skin and essentially gobbles up water-resistant makeup particles and pollution debris. 

These waters can be made from any number of differing (from brand to brand) ingredients, so long as the molecular reaction behaves in the manner described below.


Micelle is not a single ingredient that is added to a product (e.g: Vitamin E) that gives a product its bragging rights. It is a coming-together of microscopic surfactant (a substance which reduces the surface tension of a liquid in which it is dissolved) molecules that are dispersed in a mixture. One substance distributes insoluble (think oil in water) particles and suspends them throughout another substance and because of their shape and size, we are unable to see them moving around in the solution with our naked eye.

In laymen’s terms, they are a gang of molecules that huddle together like American football players working out their next play and float around in a water solution. The heads are hydrophilic (water loving) and the tails are hydrophobic (oil loving). When these newly formed molecules hit the surface of our skin, they break open and the hydrophobic ‘tails’ attract the oily and waxy particles  on the skin and, essentially scoff them up off the surface. 

Good work team.

 Artistic representation of micelle molecules suspended in a water solution. Promarkers on watercolour paper by Khandiz.
Artistic representation of micelle molecules suspended in a water solution. Promarkers on watercolour paper by Khandiz.

Opposites attract

A slight deviation from the subject at hand (stick with me though…this is going somewhere) but let’s chat dating for a moment. Whether its a date you have met through their tinder profile, a blind-date that your friends have set you up on or good old school cheesy pick-up line that led you two to sit down and converse. For a date to be successful, there needs to be the right amount of chemistry and enough curiosity into your potential partners opposing qualities for the date to end in fireworks (whatever your definition of fireworks may be). The same goes for the making of a micelle molecule. 

These “huddles” only form when the conditions are absolutely perfect. There is enough of these amphiphilic molecules (a molecule that has both a hydrophilic and hydrophobic part) floating about in close proximity for them to reach a ‘critical mass’ or concentration in the solution (in this case it’s water) do the micelle molecules start forming. They begin to attract like magnets – thanks to their polarised heads – forming new, spherical supermolecules. Another crucial factor in this magnetisation of particles is that external conditions need to be just right. So not only does there need to be an attraction, the temperature needs to be perfect too.

The process is called Micellization. 

Team Work

Once the micellization has happened and the new spherical molecules have formed, these lipid-loving particles work hand-in-hand with its water-carrying solution. The micelle molecules absorb the skins debris and the water follows suit by rinsing any excess dirt off the skin.  Depending on the formulation, the other ingredients in the water can perform a whole host of functions that aid in helping to make for happy skin. All in the swipe of a soaked cotton pad.

Is this the most planet-friendly approach to skin cleansing? Probably not, with the single-use cotton pads required to use the product and all (unless of course you live somewhere with a severe water crisis, then this is the most enviromentally mindful option to clean your skin)… however, it is the most effective and gentle on the skin and suitable for even the most sensitive skins, formulation dependent. These waters are ideal for lazy people that forget – or can’t be bothered – to wash the faces at the end of the day. You can quite literally do it from your bed.

Untainted Alternatives

Gentler, more untainted versions are not in short supply! Here are eight to suit every budget. 

1. Mossa Micellar Water

Triple-action natural and gentle microemulsion with raspberry vitamins and hyaluronic acid, which tones and moisturises the skin in just one step.

2. Sukin Micellar Cleansing Water

A gentle Micellar cleansing water formulated with aloe verato thoroughly removes makeup and impurities whilst soothing the skin.

3. Zao Certified Organic Micellar Water

The formula is based on melisse water, witch hazel and babassu oil, renowned for their beneficial effects on skin, leaving skin soft, purified and toned. 

4. Joik Micellar water

A gentle micellar water with cornflower water, aloe juice, trehalose  and  Sodium PCA to reduce redness and irritations and maintain skins optimum moisture levels.

5. Madara Micellar Water

Balances and hydrates even sensitive skin in one single step. Based on moisturising aloe vera, skin-quenching hyaluronic acid and calming Northern peony. 

6. Absolution Skincare L’Eau Soir et Matin

A formulation of aloe vera, melissa water and witch hazel to sooth and cleanse skin.  


Based on rosewater to gently soothe skin, leaving it glowing and naturally hydrated. Ideal prepare this skin for makeup application or to remove your makeup at the end of the day.


A combination of rosewater, pomegranate fruit extract, aloe juice leaves and hyarulonic acid leaves skin comfortable, clean and hydrated in a single swipe.

untainted |ˌənˈtān(t)əd| adjective
not contaminated, polluted, or tainted: the paper was untainted by age.

UNTAINTED is a directional beauty platform, pushing the boundaries of clean, sustainable beauty. We are inspired and motivated by the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi.

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