Let’s go back to high school chemistry for a second. Remember when you dipped little pH testing sticks into all kinds of household liquids to determine where they fell on a scale from basic to acidic? You might have thought those days were behind you, but if you’re a skincare junkie, you’ve probably noticed plenty of brands conjuring the spirit of Chem 101, claiming that their cream, serum, or peel helps balance your skin’s pH.
While it may seem strange, your skin does in fact have an optimal pH. It’s all thanks to something called the acid mantle—a thin layer of acids and oil on the surface of your skin that protects it from irritation and environmental aggressors. The optimal pH for your acid mantle is just slightly acidic--around 5.5. If your acid mantle becomes too acidic, your skin gets red, acne-prone and angry. Too basic or alkaline, and you might notice dryness and irritation. So how do you make sure your skin’s pH is floating near the 5.5 sweet spot? Read on for a few tips!
One of the big culprits of pH disruption is cleanser. Harsh foaming cleansers do a great job of emulsifying and rinsing away skin oils, but they can also leave your acid mantle completely depleted of the oils it depends on to protect your skin. Many detergents, including sodium lauryl sulfate, tend more toward the alkaline side of things, which can disrupt your pH balance. To combat this trend, look for gentle oil or cream cleansers that are sulfate-free.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: scrubs aren’t the way to exfoliate. Sure, they get rid of pesky dry spots, but they also create tiny tears in the skin and disrupt that protective acid mantle we’ve been talking about. If physical exfoliation is your thing, try a less abrasive technique like dermaplaning to speed cell turnover without messing with your pH.
If you just can’t quit the stripping cleansers, you need to add a toner to your routine. Toners are pH balanced to replenish your skin after you cleanse. Just reach for a mild, alcohol-free version and swipe it on with a cotton pad before you apply your serums.
It may seem counterintuitive, but at-home peels can actually help balance your skin pH. Balanced peels like my TCA Multi-Acid Face Peel combine hydrating acids with exfoliating acids so that your acid mantle stays intact. They are an especially helpful reset tool if your skin tends toward the alkaline and you regularly experience dryness, tightness, dullness, and irritation.