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What are micellar shampoos and do they work?

Everything you need to know about this latest hair-care trend.

redken micellar shampoo and essano micellar shampoo
Melanie Hearse
Last updated: 23 August 2019

Need to know

  • Micellar shampoos claim to lift dirt, debris and excess oil from your hair, while being gentle enough to use every day
  • Technically, all shampoo is micellar shampoo, because all contain micelles
  • Experts warn that micellar shampoos may also contain ingredients that are harsh on your hair 

Micellar water was the unofficial MVP (most valuable player) of the beauty product world through 2017 and 2018. 

Fans claim it can gently cleanse skin and remove makeup without water, making it perfect for anyone short on time or with sensitive skin.

It's also been profitable. The global market for micellar water has grown from $123m in 2013 to $166m in 2017 and is expected to reach $272m by the end of 2023.

Now it's set to blaze a similar path through the haircare market, with brands including Pantene, Redken, Herbal Essences and Essano releasing micellar shampoo products. 

But can they deliver on their promise of a fuss-free shampoo that's gentle enough to use every day, on any hair type?

person washing their hair with micellar shampoo

Micellar shampoo can range in price from $2.75 per 100ml to $12 per 100ml.

What is micellar shampoo?

Technically, all shampoo is micellar shampoo, as all shampoo contains micelles.

Micelles are clusters of molecules that are formed when surfactants are dispersed in water. They have a 'water-loving head' and a 'water-hating tail' and are claimed to lift dirt, debris and excess oil from your scalp, leaving your hair clean.

And all shampoos contain surfactants – a chemical with both hydrophilic (water-bonding) and lipophilic (oil-bonding) parts – says Megan Yabsley, president of the International Association of Trichologists and Education Manager at De Lorenzo.

"Micelles have been used in shampoo formulations for decades – the focus on them in marketing materials and packaging is the only new thing about them," she says.

Do micellar shampoo products work?

Some of the hype around micellar shampoos, which range in price from $2.75 per 100ml to $12 per 100ml, is true. They do clean your hair, they do contain micelles, and they're gentle on your locks to varying degrees, depending on their formulation. 

That said, the word 'micellar' is pure marketing spin. And according to Yabsley, it's far from the right reason to choose a shampoo.

The inclusion of the word on labelling can also be misleading, says Yabsley. A product only needs to include micelles to use the word – but this doesn't mean there aren't other, harsher ingredients in the formulation.

"We looked at the ingredients in some supermarket-brand micellar products and those in the more expensive professional brands," she says. 

"As expected, the cheaper brand also included cheaper, harsher surfactants in their formulations."

person looking at damaged hair close up

People with damaged hair find the idea of a gentle micellar shampoo appealing.

What the marketers say

Global market research company Mintel has found that micellar shampoos appeal to consumers who may be worried about shampoo damage. 

Also, more and more consumers are leaning towards products that are gentle on the environment, and phase two of micellar hair-care products will see a focus on no-rinse products (some have already landed on our shelves). In short, micellar hair care is a marketing dream. 

Key selling points are that it's free from sulphates, silicone and parabens

Key selling points are that it's free from sulphates, silicone and parabens. And it's marketed as working like a tiny magnet to remove dirt, oils and impurities, according to Mintel's hair-care industry analyst Andrew McDougall.

He says this focus tunes in to the consumer preference for mild products to reduce irritation and flaking, while supposedly leaving hair soft and lightweight. And the sulphate-free claims are attractive to people who colour their hair, as this preserves colour for longer.  

Many micellar shampoos are also marketed as gentle, and therefore suitable for daily use, says MacDougall. 

For example, Redken claims its micellar shampoos gently wash away dirt, grit, pollution, product build-up and excess oils without being too harsh. 

"Unlike a typical clarifying shampoo, micellar shampoos can be used each time you shampoo without harming your hair color or the integrity of your hair."

Another manufacturer, Pantene, also claims its micellar shampoo is "gentle enough on hair for daily use" and that it "removes impurities while helping to protect your natural look".

What the research says

As Yabsley acknowledges, micelles do promote a gentle cleanse that is good for people who want a shampoo they can use every day, and they do protect colour. 

But people need to make sure their shampoo contains only gentle surfactants, or the claims are meaningless.

Research shows that surfactants such as cocamidopropyl betaine and sodium cocoyl isethionate are indeed gentle on the hair, but that sodium lauryl and laureth sulphates are far harsher – and cheaper. 

People need to make sure their shampoo contains only gentle surfactants, or the claims are meaningless

What's more, sulphate, phosphate and paraben-free products are a better choice for coloured hair because their relative gentleness means they don't strip the colour at the same rate. 

That said, just because a micellar shampoo free from these harsher surfactants is a good choice for daily washing doesn't necessarily mean it's going to meet all the needs your hair type and lifestyle.

How to choose the right shampoo

Choosing a shampoo simply because it bears the micellar branding breaks the most important rule of getting the best product for your hair, says Yabsley.

"You should choose a formulation that's designed for your hair type, how frequently you prefer to wash it, and what other products and treatments you use," she advises.

For people with particularly oily or dirty hair, a micellar shampoo generally isn't powerful enough to clean it thoroughly

"Someone with curly hair that likes to wash daily and blow dries it frequently using styling products has different needs to someone with oily, coloured hair that washes as infrequently as possible."

Plus, Yabsley says that for people with particularly oily or dirty hair, a micellar shampoo generally isn't powerful enough to clean it thoroughly. It's also a poor choice for people who use styling products as it won't remove them very well.

Looking for a gentle shampoo?

According to Yabsley, if you want to make sure you're getting a shampoo that's gentle on your hair, check the "support ingredients". 

"Look for ingredients such as cocamidopropyl betaine and sodium cocoyl isethionate – these are surfactants which create micelles," she says. 

"Conversely, products with sodium lauryl and laureth sulphates on the list are going to be harsher." 

Dealing with dandruff

Gentle products are great for irritated or sensitive scalps. But when it comes to dealing with dandruff, they don't treat any dandruff-related yeast on the scalp. 

"You'll need a purpose-made product to treat it – again, professional quality will do the best job," Yabsley says.

If in doubt, ask a professional

If you're not sure what product is best for you, or even what your own hair type is (it's surprising how many people get this wrong), the best person to ask is your hairdresser. 

"They know your hair, can ask about your lifestyle and hair-care habits and what is on the market, and can make suggestions based on your budget," says Yabsley.

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