When you hear pH you might hark back to middle school science class, and dipping those little litmus test strips into bleach and lemon juice and watching them turn blue or red to determine whether it was an acid or a base. So seeing skin products claiming to be “pH balanced” could cause some confusion. Is our skin acidic like lemon juice or basic like bleach? Keep on reading for a litmus test on your skin’s pH and what exactly that means for its overall health.
WHAT EXACTLY IS PH?
PH stands for potential of hydrogen and is an indicator of the concentration of the hydrogen ion in an aqueous (water-based) solution. Solutions’ pH is measured on a scale of 1 to 14 with 7 being a neutral solution, anything less than seven being acidic, and anything greater than seven being alkaline (also referred to as basic).
WHAT SHOULD YOUR SKIN’S PH BE?
So what does all that science talk have to do with your skin? Our skin has a protective layer known as the acid mantle that works with enzymes, cholesterol, sweat, and oil to lock in moisture, keep skin firm, and protect from external threats that lead to infection and irritation like smoke, water, pollution, and the sun. The combination of free fatty acids from the skin’s sebaceous glands and lactic and amino acids from sweat, yields a pH ranging from 4 to 6 with the ideal being 5.5.
Effects of pH Imbalance
The balance of our skin’s pH is delicate and the slightest change can lead to unfavorable outcomes. If your skin’s pH starts to lean more basic it will get dry, flakey, and red. If it gets too acidic, it can lead to acne, eczema, and other inflammatory skin conditions. Keeping your skin’s pH balance in line can be difficult and distressing when it strays from the ideal and gets too acidic or too basic, but once you find a sensitive skin care routine that works with instead of against your skin’s natural pH, the results will be clear.
WHAT ALTERS SKIN’S PH?
Some factors are out of our control when it comes to skin’s pH balance. With age the acid mantle starts to diminish, making skin more alkaline and therefore, dryer and more prone to wrinkles. These damages are heightened with harsh environmental factors like exposure to smoke, pollution, air, water, and sun. Unfortunately we cannot control the natural process of aging or the environment, however many pH disruptors can be reigned in if you pay attention to the products and ingredients you use on your skin.
For the best results, you want to steer towards products with pH levels closest to that of your skin. Many skin care lines take care in crafting pH balanced products, but there are still ingredients on the market that are either too acidic or too basic for prime skin pH maintenance. Fragrances, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, and drying alcohols are common ingredients found in skin care products that can throw off the acid mantle and pH of skin. So hypoallergenic skin care free of these harmful ingredients is optimal for pH balance.
Let's focus in on the little details that make a big difference on the pH scale.
Bar soaps and foaming cleansers tend to lean basic and can raise skin's pH too high and strip away natural oils leaving skin dry. This can also lead to breakouts because it’s crucial that your skin holds on to it’s acidity in order to fight off acne-causing bacteria. Many cleansers contain sodium lauryl sulfate which has a pH of about 10 — way too high for the skin, so reach for a mild, sulfate-free cleanser which will have a pH closest to that of the skin, and will yield the best results.
A question on every skin maven’s mind is: What is toner for? Toners main purpose is to restore pH balance that is compromised after using a cleanser. When used in conjunction, a toner which leans more acidic can restore the skin’s natural pH that’s ideal for resisting harmful bacteria. However, some toners contain alcohol in order to fight acne, but they also strip skin of moisture. An alcohol-free toner will retain a slightly acidic pH so it can still fight bacteria and acne, but won’t dry out your skin.
The sun is one of our skin’s biggest enemies, and if not adequately protected, it can break down the acid mantle, and cause dryness and wrinkles. Using a natural sunscreen with zinc oxide will protect your acid mantle, keeping your pH in line.
The fine lines between oily and dry, flakey and greasy, wrinkled and smooth, are all dependent on the science of pH. It can get confusing and overwhelming if you don’t have a degree in chemistry, but it can be as simple as sticking to natural, gentle products free of harsh ingredients. There are several factors that affect pH that are uncontrollable, but skin care is not one of them, and can be a useful tool in keeping pH where it needs to be for healthy, radiant skin.