pH and Your Skin
Your skin is pretty amazing. Every single day it takes on the challenge of protecting you against injury, infection, environmental stress and toxins – talk about an overachiever. Thankfully, your skin is naturally designed with defense mechanisms to help handle this responsibility, one of which is an optimized pH level.
If it’s been a while since your last chemistry class, pH – which stands for the potential of hydrogen – is a numerical measurement of how acidic or alkaline something is. Your skin needs to have a specific pH to effectively fight off infections, inflammation and other irritants.
This is why “pH balanced” has become such a popular buzzword in cosmetics and skin care. The idea is that products that are formulated to help balance and maintain a proper pH level are better for the health of your skin. If you’ve been cautious about buying into all the hype, here’s what you need to know about pH and why it’s so important for your skin.
Alkaline or Acidic? What’s the Perfect pH for Your Skin?
The pH scale was developed to refer to the level of acidity or alkalinity of a substance. The pH scale ranges from 1 to 14, with 1 being the most extreme level of acidity and 14 being extremely alkaline, or basic. Water is one of the most neutral substances on earth with a pH of 7.
Most substances however, are not as neutral as water. Even those that are relatively neutral tend to be closer to one end of the pH scale. Your skin is the perfect example of this, with an optimal pH range of 4.5 to 5.5, meaning that healthy skin is mildly acidic.
When we talk about the pH level of the skin, we’re referring to a thin, protective surface layer called the acid mantle. This mantle is composed of a mixture of free fatty acids, also called sebum, that are excreted from the skin’s sebaceous glands. The sebum mixes with amino acids, lactic acid and good old sweat. The purpose of this mixture is to protect the deeper layers of your skin from pollutants, bacteria and other microorganisms. This can only happen with maximum efficiency when the pH level of the acid mantle is in the optimal 4.5 to 5.5 range.
How the Skin’s pH Becomes Unbalanced
There are several things that can influence your skin’s pH, in both good and bad ways. The slightest unbalance in the pH level can cause some major havoc for your skin, which we’ll get into in a minute. But first, let’s take a step back and talk a bit about the most common culprits of unbalanced pH.
Of everything that can disrupt the skin’s pH, harsh cleansers are the most common culprit. If you’ve ever heard the advice that you shouldn’t use ordinary soap, keeping your skin’s pH in balance is the reason why. Most bar soaps are made with an ingredient called lye, which is an incredibly alkaline substance. The addition of lye to bar soaps means that most of them have a pH level that hovers somewhere around 11. You don’t exactly need to be a chemistry major to see that’s way too alkaline for skin that’s supposed to be slightly acidic.
On the opposite end of the spectrum there are more acidic skin care products that can disrupt the natural pH of your skin when used incorrectly or too frequently. Alpha hydroxy acids, retinoic acid, amino fruit acids and beta hydroxy acids all have pH levels that are lower, in the acidic range. When used improperly, they can strip too many natural oils from the skin and disrupt that natural balance. This is why it’s absolutely crucial that you not overuse these products and compliment them with other ingredients or products that help to restore the oils and acid mantle.
It isn’t just the wrong type of skincare products that can disrupt skin pH – how you’re using them matters too. Being too aggressive with scrubbing or using an abrasive washcloth to cleanse the skin can disrupt the acid mantle, as can hot water. Yes, that long, luxurious hot shower that you treat yourself to, even occasionally, is striping oils from your skin and could be causing a pH imbalance. Other irritants, like pollution and excessive sun exposure can also affect pH.
Unfortunately, there’s another factor at play that’s out of our hands – age. As we mature, our skin’s ability to proactively adapt to outside stimulants and balance itself begins to decline. The natural processes occurring within the skin itself can easily tip the pH scale, giving us just one more reason to take extra good care of our skin throughout our entire life.
What Happens When pH Is Unbalanced?
The short answer to this question is pretty much every skin condition imaginable. The longer answer is a bit more complex, and almost all of it starts with inflammation.
As the pH level of your skin passes 5.5 and starts reaching into the more alkaline zone, the lack of protective barrier means that you become more sensitive to just about everything that you put on your face. Inflammation results, and it often expresses itself in the form premature aging, or even skin conditions such as eczema.
Inflammation is the root cause behind the premature breakdown of collagen and its synthesis. Over time, this breakdown leads to the appearance of those first fine lines and deeper set wrinkles. Skin that’s too alkaline is also more prone to sun damage, which only makes matters worse.
While overly alkaline skin is the most common, skin can also become over acidic. This most often manifests itself in red inflamed, painful conditions including chronic acne and rosacea. It might seem counterintuitive that excessively oily skin and acne are precursors to premature aging, but the inflammation behind them is what starts to break down the support structures that keep your skin healthy, supple and glowing.
Telltale Signs That Your Skin’s pH Is Off
While we’ve talked about some of the consequences of unbalanced pH, not all of them are instantly noticeable. For example, although it might seem like fine lines appear overnight, there’s a lot that has been going on before the surface long before they first became visible. To prevent long-term damage caused by an unbalanced pH, it’s important to be able to recognize the first signs that something might be off. Here are just a few of the signs that should grab your attention.
First signs that your skin’s pH level is too low/acidic:
- All skin types can benefit from the appropriate moisturizer, but if you feel that your skin is too oily to handle even the most mildly moisturizing product, your pH level is probably too low.
- Your skin is still excessively oily, even after washing.
- Your skin’s texture is uneven with patches of oiliness and dryness.
- You seem to have a reaction to every product you put on your face, no matter how gentle.
- You’ve noticed that you’re more prone to breakouts than usual.
First signs that that your skin’s pH is too high/alkaline:
- Your skin feels tight and dry right after washing.
- You’ve noticed red, dry, rough patches or flaky skin.
- Your skin feels inflamed or irritated after cleansing or using certain skin care products.
- Your skin seems to lack any glow and looks dull, or even grayish, in the morning.
Keeping pH In Perfect Balance
Achieving and maintaining healthy skin is a process that involves two major components – what you do on the outside, and how you nourish your body on the inside. It’s all about balance, and to illustrate this point, let’s start by looking at the optimal healthy pH for your body.
Just like the skin, the human body is designed to work best when maintaining a certain pH. What’s interesting here is the contradiction between what’s defined as optimal for the outside of the body compared to what’s going on inside.
While the skin’s pH should be somewhat acidic, the opposite is true for your body in general – more specifically, the pH of your blood. Human blood pH should be more alkaline than the skin, at 7.35. Unlike the acid mantle which has more room for fluctuation, the pH of your blood has a very narrow window of 7.35-7.45. As you can see, there isn’t much wiggle room there at all.
While unbalanced skin pH is visible, and sometimes uncomfortable, it’s not nearly as disastrous as what happens inside the body when the blood pH is off. Too much of a fluctuation is a major, potentially deadly problem. But, even minor unbalance can leave you prone to chronic inflammatory health conditions, including cancer. While there are certain medical conditions that can influence pH, many times it can be brought into proper balance with nutrition.
The paradox is that your slightly acidic skin depends upon the neutral, slightly more alkaline pH of your body to stay balanced. This means that your number one defense for healthy, pH balanced skin starts with diet. Your body needs plenty of colorful vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Foods like red meats, saturated fats, sugar and some dairy are more acidic in nature and can contribute to inflammation and make the skin more susceptible to a pH unbalance of its own. Yes, it’s best to avoid acidic foods to maintain the acid mantle of your skin. In a strange way, it makes sense.
The second approach to beautiful pH balanced skin is all about how you take care of it. It’s important to listen to the age-old advice of never using soap on your skin and choosing cleansers that have been formulated to keep the delicate pH balance in check. Cleansers, moisturizers and other skin care products should be formulated with a pH level that falls somewhere between 5-7.
Although pH strips are available at most pharmacies, it’s the rare person that carries them or around or has a stockpile of them in their home. Since you’re probably not going to be testing the pH of your skin care products yourself, it’s best to invest in skin care that you know is committed to using gentle, natural ingredients that are pH balanced.
Finally, remember moderation in all things. A facial peel or exfoliating treatment feels amazing, and it’s good for your skin, but only if you don’t overdo it. The quality of your skin care products can only do so much to protect the delicate pH levels if you’re not using them properly. Take the time to learn about what you’re using on your skin, and how to use it properly. When in doubt, ask a dermatologist for their advice and recommendations.
The Good News
Even if your skin’s pH is currently unbalanced, all is not lost. In fact, the skin’s acid mantle is resilient and usually can bounce back pretty easily from an unbalance when left and alone and treated with care. Always remember to treat your skin with respect and care because it’s doing some amazing things everyday and it deserves to be beautiful.