Suddenly, understanding skincare requires a chemistry degree. (Or, at least understanding what ‘pH-balanced’ is and why it is important.)
If you think back to that high school chemistry class, you are likely to remember the pH (potential of hydrogen) scale, a system for measuring acidity to alkalinity. Any water-based substance can be assessed in terms of pH — including our skin. And when it is at its optimum, it is healthy and glowing.
Read on for expert opinion on how you can keep your skin’s pH in check.
What’s a healthy pH for the skin?
The pH scale is an indicator of acidity or alkalinity that ranges from 0-14, with zero being very acidic to seven being neutral and 14 being very alkaline. pH levels vary across the body and aren’t set in stone, instead of fluctuating within a healthy range.
“The body works very hard to maintain equilibrium and in general, changes in the pH of the skin (or other body systems) are fairly quickly returned to normal,” says California-based Dermatologist Anna Guanche M.D.
While 5.5 is considered the optimum pH of the skin, it can oscillate both higher and lower.
“Blood pH is generally 7.4, and skin pH is usually 5.5, or slightly acidic,” she adds. And while 5.5 is considered the optimum pH of the skin, it can oscillate both higher and lower with Guanche defining 4.5 to 6.5 as a “normal range.”
But how does it stay in this range? The acid mantle: a very fine film on the surface of the skin. “The combination of skin oils, sweat glands and normal skin bacterial activity works to maintain the skin at this pH range,” she says.
How can the skin’s pH balance be disrupted?
Despite the body’s impressive efforts to maintain the correct pH level, a number of skincare culprits can mess up this balance. “Harsh alkaline soaps can interfere with the pH and excessively acidic topical treatments can also change the surface and disturb the cell-to-cell connections in the skin,” Guanche warns. If the skin is dry and dull it is likely to be more alkaline, while if it is oily and red this is a sign it is more acidic.
Unhappy skin is a tell-tale sign that the pH level might be off. “When the pH is out of balance, the skin can become compromised, leading to drying, flaking and irritation such as redness and inflammation,” Guanche highlights. This may also manifest as conditions such as eczema, psoriasis or rosacea, which can be intensified when the pH level of the skin is out of balance.
An out-of-balance pH can also lead to breakouts. “Sometimes when the pH balance is disturbed, the normal flora on the skin surface are also disturbed, which upsets the delicate balance of bacterial organisms living on the skin, leading to spots.”
What’s the best way to balance your skin?
Guanche advises to use products that are within the 4.0-6.0 pH range. “pH balanced” is therefore a good label to look out for when shopping for beauty. And while skincare is an obvious one, make sure to check your body and hair products too, as they can often end up on your face while in the shower.
She also cautions against over-cleansing, which can disrupt the delicate acid mantle. Harsh bar soaps, cleansing more than twice a day and excessively hot water are all out. “This can strip skin of normal skin oils like sebum that are fundamental in the maintenance of the acid mantle of the skin,” says Guanche.
Instead, choose gentle nourishing cleansers and keep the water temperature tepid. Products that bolster the skin barrier — such as those containing ceramides — can help maintain a healthy pH balance, too. Found naturally in the skin, ceramides are likened to the building blocks of the skin barrier and help lock in moisture and protect against environmental aggressors. SPF is a no-brainer, too, as UV rays can affect the skin in a plethora of ways, including messing up the acid mantle.
Embrace the right kind of acid
Don’t be put off by liquid exfoliators such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). While these products may temporarily alter the pH of your skin, it will return to its normal level on its own pretty quickly. However, if your skin is feeling sensitive or prone to irritation, always introduce new acid-based products slowly into your routine, say a few times a week before building up to once a day. And don’t overdo it. Harsh scrubs, highly concentrated chemical exfoliants (above 10 percent for an AHAs or above 2 percent for BHAs), or a combination of the two can cause damage to the acid mantle and affect the pH level of your skin.