What is pH?
pH is one of those familiar terms you probably remember from high-school chemistry class (when you paid attention anyway!). The abbreviation for “potential hydrogen,” pH refers to the balance of acids in substances. pH levels range from 0 to 14, with 0 being the most acidic, 14 being alkaline and 7 being neutral.
If science wasn’t your favorite subject, then you may’ve found the basics of pH boring back in school. However, if your skin is dry, acne-prone, wrinkled, or generally lackluster, then it’s time to learn about pH balances and their effects on your face. Of particular importance is the skin’s acid mantle, a natural thin, acidic barrier. The acid mantle is your skin’s built-in defense system against bacteria, pollution and sebum (a.k.a. oil) that leads to acne, wrinkles, and pigmentation. Maintaining pH balance helps to keep your acid mantle in check, all while preventing common skincare issues.
Although 7 is considered a neutral pH level, your ideal skin balance should be more acidic. In fact, a pH level of 5.5 is perfect because this allows some acids on your skin to naturally fight off bacteria that can lead to breakouts. If your skin is overly neutralized by acid-zapping skincare products, you may notice even more of those annoying clogged pores and zits. Once the acid mantle is disturbed, an off-balance can disrupt this natural process.
On the flip side, making the skin too alkaline can also bring about a slew of issues. A skin pH that is too high can immediately result in dryness. If you thought you had problems with fine lines and wrinkles before, then you will likely see these signs of aging heightened when the acid mantle is disrupted. At the same time, your pores will respond to this excessive dryness in a panic by producing even more sebum. This is one of the reasons why you may get pimples despite having dry skin.
Best Products for Balance
pH levels vary by individual. However, did you know that what you put on your skin on a daily basis significantly affects your pH balance? Cleansing is important to remove excess dirt and oil, but choosing a product that is too acidic or alkaline can throw off your pH level. Look for mild cleansers free of harsh acids, alcohols and sodium laureth sulfate—all of which can wreak havoc on the acid mantle. Choose products that are “pH-balanced.”
Cleansing morning and night is essential, but you still need a balancing solution. This is when toner becomes your best friend. Toners not only remove dirt and oil your cleanser may’ve missed, but they also help to balance out your pH levels afterward. If your cleanser is more acidic, then you need a toner that is alkaline with oils and extracts. On the flip side, alkaline cleansers go well with more acidic toners.
No matter what your skin type, a moisturizer is the key to proper hydration. Face lotions restore hydration and help balance the skin’s acid mantle. The right moisturizer depends on your skin type. If your skin feels oily after cleansing, then you should choose a water-based moisturizer to avoid breakouts. Dry and aging skin most often benefits from oils to help restore youthful luster. Look for lotions that contain coconut, jojoba and argan oil extracts. For the daytime, choose a moisturizer with a sunscreen to give the acid mantle an additional layer of protection.
For professional treatments, such as chemical peels, pH is an important determining factor of the effectiveness of the product—more so than the percentage of active ingredients. For example, a product with 50% lactic acid at a pH of 5 is far less effective than a 30% lactic acid at a pH of 2.
There are plenty of “peels” available for home use that provide very superficial exfoliation and can help you maintain even-toned, healthy skin. But don’t be fooled by the marketing of the high percentage of active ingredients, as the effectiveness truly lies in the pH level. Chemical peels performed by estheticians or dermatologists have a lower pH than home-use products so that they can penetrate much deeper into the skin.
Eating for Skin Health
The saying “you are what you eat” couldn’t be truer when it comes to skin health. Getting the right skincare products is just half of the battle in the quest for optimal pH. It is also important to eat the right foods to balance your acid mantle. All foods and drinks have different levels in terms of acidity and alkalinity. This doesn’t mean you have to give up citrus fruits, wine, coffee, and tea altogether, but you should consider balancing out these daily choices with less acidic ones. Examples of alkaline food choices include leafy green vegetables, rice, berries, melons, green tea and beans.
Spring water has a neutral pH of 7; it’s no wonder why skincare health professionals always advise you to drink more water! Keep in mind that purified and carbonated waters are both significantly more acidic. If spring water isn’t an option, choose filtered tap water for the best neutralizing benefits.
Healthy eating does the body good, and your skin will thank you for it for years to come! If your skin lacks luster and breaks out despite using quality skincare products and eating well, talk to your skincare professional for some guidance!