Understanding the skin’s potential hydrogen (abbreviated as pH) is crucial to overall skin health and is often overlooked. Turns out, pH has a lot to do with your skin: an unbalanced skin pH can lead to a panoply of problems including inflammation, eczema, breakouts, psoriasis, and more. Being mindful of your skin’s pH also means being able to prevent throwing it out of whack.
The pH scale ranges from 1 to 14: the lower numbers are considered acidic (think lemon juice), the higher numbers are considered alkaline or basic (think bleach), and 7 (water) is considered neutral. The skin on your face sits at a pH between 5 and 6, meaning it leans more towards the acidic side; this allows for your skin to combat harmful microbes and free radical damage.
The pH of our skin is known to slightly increase with age. When we are born, our skin starts off as neutral but slowly progresses to acidic. It is also interesting to note that men’s skin tends to be more acidic than women’s skin.
WHAT DOES pH HAVE TO DO WITH SKIN HEALTH?
The surface of our skin is protected by a “film” known as the acid mantle. This barrier protects the skin from external threats and works side by side with the naturally occurring ingredients on our skin, including ceramides, cholesterol, enzymes, sweat, and sebum.
Research has shown that mild disruptions in skin’s pH can weaken the acid mantle, and a weakened skin barrier leaves you vulnerable to redness, irritation, breakouts, eczema, and more. This understanding has led many brands to create pH-balance products, which means they won’t disrupt the skin barrier.
However: using products that aren’t pH balanced (as most are) isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, using an AHA/BHA or applying mineral sunscreen will temporarily unbalance your skin’s pH––except within the following hour, the skin will typically equalize itself. As we know, such products stimulate the skin to produce key substances it needs to look smooth, supple, and hydrated.
CHOOSING YOUR PRODUCTS CORRECTLY
Regardless of whether you are using a specially formulated face wash or prioritize plant-based ones, any product that you put on your face will momentarily disrupt your skin’s pH.
Acidic (low pH) cleansers are known to better protect the acid mantle and help those who are prone to dry skin. “At the lower pH, the lipids within the skin are preserved, which is better for those who are prone to eczema or dryness,” explains Dr. Palep, board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Spring Street Dermatology in New York City.
Cleansers that lay on the alkaline side are likely to cause irritation––therefore those with sensitive skin should make a point to stay away. However, they can be a great solution for those who suffer from acne. Oily skin which can withstand dehydration of a cleanser,” Dr. Palep also adds. “In oily skin, where sebum re-establishes itself within 20 minutes of cleansing, high pH cleansers are acceptable.”
BE MINDFUL OF THE ORDER OF YOUR ROUTINE
The order in which you apply your products is also important to maintaining a healthy pH level (and therefore, a happy and glowing skin barrier!). Depending on the concentration of ingredients, the brands, and their formulations, most of the following products lie between the ranges below:
- Cleansers: pH 4.5–7
- Toners: pH 5–7
- Serums: pH 4–6
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid): pH 2.6–3.2
- AHA and BHA exfoliants: pH 3.2–3.9
- Retinols: pH 4–6.6
- Moisturizers: pH 5–7
- Sunscreens: pH 5–7.5
This is the exact reason why the entirety of your skincare routine’s order is so important. Applying a toner after cleansing will rebalance the skin’s pH. Following up with a serum or another active treatment will bring the pH down again, which is why using a toner beforehand will allow for better absorption.
“Moisturizer then rebalances the skin’s pH, and the sunscreen you apply after should have a pH of approximately 5.5: making your whole routine perfectly pH balanced. The way you use different products prepares your skin for heightened absorption of the next steps,” explains Mike Vivier, co-president of Vivier Skin.
“This is part of the reason why we make specialized skincare kits,” he adds. The intradermal system Vivier uses to formulate its products allows the glycols that coat active ingredients to break apart and take their designated pH inside the skin as opposed to sitting on top: which yields better, more visible results.
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The devil is in the details. While you are not obliged to use solely pH-balanced products (especially if you are trying to target certain concerns such as hyperpigmentation or textured skin), it is incredibly important to be mindful of the quality of your products and the way you apply them.
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Until next time,