We bet you’ve probably seen the term “pH balanced” on a skin care product, but perhaps you haven’t given it much attention or you wondered what it meant. The pH of a product refers to its acidity or alkalinity. Sounds like something you would learn about in a chemistry class, right? So should you even care about pH balanced products? We think so, especially since an out-of-whack skin pH can lead to everything from acne to sensitivity to wrinkles. In this post, we’ll discuss why skin pH really matters, what happens if the skin becomes too acidic or too alkaline, and what to look for in a pH balanced product.
What is the pH of skin?
In chemistry, pH stands for ‘potential hydrogen’ and it refers to the level of acidity or alkalinity in a given solution. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. A pH of 7 is neutral, a pH less than 7 is acidic, and a pH greater than 7 is basic (alkaline).
The skin’s normal pH is slightly acidic, usually about 5.5. This acidity of the skin is termed the “acid mantle” and is maintained by sebaceous glands, sweat glands, and normal skin flora. The acid mantle is made up of sebum (free fatty acids) excreted from the skin’s sebaceous (oil) glands, which mixes with lactic and amino acids from sweat. The acid mantle acts as a barrier, protecting skin from environmental factors such as bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants that might penetrate the skin.
If the skin pH is too acidic (less than 5.5) it can become irritated, red, inflamed, and even painful to touch. Acidic skin can also lead to acne breakouts. This is because when the acid mantle is compromised, it inhibits the skin’s natural exfoliation process. Ultimately, this can lead to a build-up of dead skin cells, which can clog pores and lead to an increase in acne breakouts.
There are both internal and external factors that can disrupt the skin’s acid mantle and lead to acidic skin. For example, the skin becomes more acidic as we age because the internal natural buffering pH capacity decreases, and the body becomes progressively acidic. External factors that contribute to acidic skin include pollution, smoking, air, water, sun, and more. These environmental factors can contribute to the breaking down of the acid mantle, disrupting the skin’s ability to protect itself.
And, of course, some skin care products can cause acidic skin. For example, at-home peels and other acidic products (like AHAs) are intended to have a low pH in order to exfoliate the skin. However, they come with a risk of disrupting the acid mantle if used too often, which can lead to irritation. It’s best to limit the use of these products to once to twice per week and always follow with a moisturizer to help restore the skin barrier.
If the skin pH is too alkaline (greater than 5.5), it can become dry, sensitive, and you may even develop eczema. A skin pH that is too alkaline may also lead to inflammation. Inflammation inhibits the skin’s ability to ward off matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), the enzymes that destroy collagen and cause wrinkles and sagging. A 2010 study published in the British Journal of Dermatology tracked women’s skin over an eight-year period and found that women with an alkaline stratum corneum (the skin’s outermost layer) developed more fine lines and crow’s-feet—and were more prone to sun damage—than those with acidic skin.
As with acidic skin, there are both internal and external factors that can disrupt the skin’s acid mantle and lead to alkaline skin. One of the primary causes is the use of alkaline cleansers. You can tell that the pH of your cleanser is too high if you experience that tight, squeaky-clean feeling after washing your face. Highly alkaline soaps and cleansers strip away sebum and disrupt the acid mantle, and over time can lead to redness, dryness, and inflammation.
pH balanced products
As with most things in life, skin pH is all about balance. This is why it’s important to look for pH balanced skin care products. If a product does not say “pH balanced” on the label, you can verify the pH of the product by using an at-home pH testing kit (available at most drug stores).
You will want to look for skin care products with a pH around 5.5 since this is the skin’s normal pH. But it’s okay if the pH is not exactly 5.5. Most skin care experts agree that the ideal pH range for products is between 4.5 and 7, and the general rule is that slightly acidic products are preferred. Some ingredients, like vitamin C, retinol, AHAs, and BHAs, need to be formulated at a lower pH for them to work effectively.
In case you don’t have the time to test the pH of your skin care products, below we have 3 pH balanced products that will help restore and maintain your skin’s delicate acid mantle.
Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser
Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser is a pH-balanced, creamy gel formula that is made with a blend of five skin conditioners so your face is left feeling healthy and soft, never tight. This cleanser actually uses the same gentle cleaning agents found in contact lens solution, so it’s tough on impurities and still safe to use on your eyes.
Phace Bioactive Detoxifying Gel Cleanser
Phace Bioactive Detoxifying Gel Cleanser is a non-foaming facial wash, free of soaps, detergents and alcohol. It thoroughly removes surface debris and restores pH balance, while gently detoxifying, exfoliating, and conditioning the skin.
Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Cleansing Toner
Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Cleansing Toner has a pH level of 5.5 to effectively balance your skin. In addition to balancing skin pH, this toner helps to brighten skin thanks to a high concentration of licorice water and peony extract. After use, this toner helps skin feel clean and smooth, not dry or tight.
References: Wikipedia “Acid Mantle”, SkinCareRx.com “Balancing Act! pH Balance of Skin”, WomensHealthMag.com “The Key to Great Skin”, Allure.com “Why the pH Balance of Your Skin-Care Products Matters So Much”