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Micellar Water Cancer: Research, Alternatives & More

Jun 25, 2023

Micellar water is a skin care product that has grown in popularity in recent years — it's a face cleanser and moisturizer that's also used to remove makeup and promote hydration.

Micellar water has also garnered attention because of the ingredient polyhexamethylene biguanide (PHMB), present in many brands of micellar water and suspected of causing cancer.

One of the most popular brands, Garnier's Micellar Water, contains PHMB and has been the target of considerable media attention. Garnier currently insists that its product is safe given the high water content of its micellar water.

But the scientific evidence to date is inconclusive.

Read on to learn about:

Most of the ingredients in micellar water are safe and found in numerous other skin care products. But a few ingredients in some micellar water products are associated with health risks.

PHMB is an ingredient in many types of cleaning products beyond cosmetic use. It's found in first aid products to clean wounds as well as industrial cleaners for swimming pools and hard surfaces.

Reviews of its safety are mixed.

A 2014 study examined whether PHMB could impact epigenetics in rodents, or how the environments and behaviors of rodents could affect how their genes worked. The study found that the epigenetic effects of PHMB may be mild, but researchers could not otherwise explain the formation of liver tumors in rodents given high doses of PHMB.

The researchers also note that the exact mechanisms that cause PHMB to result in liver tumors in rodents is unclear.

A definitive link between PHMB and human health can't be determined until further research is conducted. Mouse data cannot be extended to humans.

A 2018 study of PHMB administered to rodents in drinking water suggests the compound does increase the incidence of liver tumors in rats. But the mechanism linking PHMB to liver tumors here is explored in more detail.

Since the rats ate and drank less due to the poor taste of PHMB in their water, the researchers suggested that the stress caused by a lack of food and water led to the development of liver tumors — not the PHMB itself.

This finding was strengthened by the fact that rats that received the highest levels of PHMB in their food didn't develop tumors. The researchers also noted that a similar cancer risk to humans was unlikely.

PAPB and PHMB are chemically very similar and may have similar effects.

A 2016 study conducted by the Institute of Organic Chemistry at Leibniz University of Hannover in Germany found that PAPB may be less toxic than PHMB to humans but also less effective at protecting against microbes.

Poloxamers are a type of surfactant used in micellar water and other cosmetics.

Poloxamer 184 is one of many types of surfactants used in these products. This substance is thought to be associated with moderate toxicity of non-reproductive organs, but little research suggests that it has any effect beyond mild skin irritation.

A 2008 safety assessment in the International Journal of Toxicology found that Poloxamer 184 in concentrations of up to 5 percent in skin products resulted in some skin redness and inflammation when tested on rabbits. But researchers saw no other systemic effects aside from these skin symptoms.

Most of the other common ingredients in micellar water are harmless.

Micellar water is made up mostly of purified water. The other key ingredients are surfactants. These are chemicals that keep oil and water from separating.

When surfactants are added to water, they form tiny clusters called micelles. These help remove oil from the skin (and give micellar water its name).

Micellar water also contains a variety of ingredients common to other skin care products, such as:

There are no definitive studies linking PHMB in skin cleansers to cancer in humans.

But this chemical is an area of active study. Most reported side effects of micellar water are related to surfactants left on the skin after use that may cause breakouts or at least make moisturizers less effective.

Micellar water is a widely used skin care product that is generally safe for all types of skin. Suspect ingredients, such as PHMB, can be found in some, but not all, micellar waters.

Most of the studies that suggest PHMB is a carcinogen have been done on rats, who were given much higher concentrations of PHMB in their drinking water than would ever be absorbed by the body as a skin cleanser.

In small concentrations, PHMB is likely safe for cosmetic use.

A 2017 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology notes that micellar water is a good choice for individuals with sensitive skin, as it is unlikely to irritate the skin and helps improve its ability to moisturize.

Keep in mind that some regulatory bodies have issued more stringent warnings about possible carcinogens like PHMB in micellar water.

A 2015 report by the European Union's Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) states that PHMB is not safe for use in cosmetic products at concentrations beyond 0.3 percent (the maximum concentration in skin care products.

But in 2016, the SCCS revised its opinion, stating that in cosmetic products PHMB is safe up to 0.1 percent concentrations.

Many micellar waters containing PHMB don't list the actual concentration used in the product. As a precaution, it may be best to avoid buying micellar water that lists PHMB at all if you’re concerned about the risks.

As concerns about PHMB's safety have gotten more attention in recent years, some cosmetic companies are removing the ingredient from their micellar water products.

But some micellar waters have never contained this suspect compound. When shopping for micellar water, check the ingredients if you want to avoid PHMB or PAPB.

Some micellar waters that do not contain PHMB or PAPB include:

You can also find a wide array of skin care products that can help clean and moisturize just as effectively as micellar water. Micellar water is popular simply because it's considered safe and effective for all skin types and generally does what can usually require two or three separate products.

Here are some alternatives if you want to remove micellar water from your skin care routine.

Look for gentle, non-abrasive cleansers that can be used twice daily, such as:

Remember that an oil-based makeup remover can leave an oily residue on the skin if it's not washed off, while alcohol-based makeup removers can dry out the skin:

Choose a lightweight face cream and a thicker cream for your body:

There's no shortage of micellar water brands. Many are marketed as "natural" alternatives to other products that contain more chemical ingredients, such as PHMB.

Whenever there is conflicting information about product safety, it's always best to shop around and look for brands that don't contain these ingredients of concern.

Researching studies on your own can also help you decide what's appropriate for you. And it never hurts to consult with a dermatologist about the right skin care products for your skin type.