Today a very popular topic is the skin pH: a value related both to our skin and to the products we use for its care. If you suffer from skin problems, balancing your pH levels could be the key to healthy skin.
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What is pH?
The acronym pH means "potential of hydrogen" and refers to the activity of hydrogen ions in a water-based solution. The pH of a solution is indicated by a numerical scale ranging from 0 to 14.
If this value is less than 7 (the value that indicates a neutral pH), the solution is considered acidic, while with a pH higherr than 7 it is considered alkaline. Lemon juice, for example, has a pH of 2 (very acidic), while ammonia has a pH of 12, so it's highly alkaline.
However, we must consider that pH scale is logarithmic, not linear: even if the differences between the pH values may seem small, in actual facts each value on the scale separates the other by 10 times (i.e. the concentration of H+ ions can increase or decrease 10 times going from one value on the scale to another): a solution at pH 5, for example, has 10 times more acidity than one at pH 6.
What is skin pH?
Is your skin surface acidic or alkaline? Research has found that the average pH of the skin is between 4.7 and 5.75 , so human skin is acidic . Men's skin tends to be more acidic than women's skin, and although our skin's pH increases as we age, it remains acidic.
At birth, however, our skin has a neutral pH, which becomes acidic after a couple of weeks. With more acidity the skin can fight harmful microbes and free radicals, which could increase the ageing process.
The pH of the skin also varies according to the area of the body. The less exposed areas – such as the buttocks, armpits and genitals – tend to maintain their natural acidity. The situation is different on the face, chest and hands, which tend to be more alkaline, because they are skin areas more exposed to the elements.
Then there are several factors that can influence the pH of the skin :
- Air pollution
- Antibacterial products
- Changing seasons, with different levels of humidity
- Oil/skin moisture
- Tap water
- Excessive sun exposure
- Too frequent washing of the skin
The acid mantle of the skin: the skin barrier
The skin has a protective film on its surface, known as the acid mantle or skin barrier . The acid mantle plays a vital role by working with the skin's natural ingredients such as ceramides, cholesterol, enzymes, sweat, and even the skin's sebum to protect the surface f the skin and its lower layers from bacteria, allergens and pollution, while retaining moisture.
The acidic pH of the skin also keeps its delicate microbiome balanced. An acidic microbiome makes it more difficult for harmful pathogens to multiply.
pH value scale
How to measure the pH of your skin
- Reactive strips : there are strips to measure the pH of your skin; they are paper strips that are applied to its surface.
- Dermatologist : A dermatologist can do a liquid pH test in his/her office.
- Observation : You can get a general idea of your skin's pH level through careful observation. Skin with a soft texture without blemishes is considered balanced. Irritation, acne, redness and dry areas can be signs of a high and therefore alkaline pH of the skin.
Read also: How to choose your perfect face serum
How to maintain a balanced skin pH and a healthy skin
Why is it necessary to keep your skin pH levels balanced ?
We have seen that the average pH of the skin should lie between 4.7 and 5.75: a balanced pH is a symptom of healthy skin. When it is no longer balanced (maybe using unsuitable products or following an unhealthy diet) is no longer balanced, the skin may become sensitive, inflamed and prone to acne.
A skin with alkaline pH values tends to be drier, more wrinkled and more prone to showing signs of premature ageing (such as deep wrinkles), while a too acidic skin is likely to appear red, irritated and itchy.
How do you keep your skin's pH levels balanced?
The easiest way to keep your skin's pH balanced is to use products that don't alter the pH .
- Micellar water. Hard water is high in mineral composition containing heavy metals such as iron, copper, zinc and nickel, which can cause irritation, inflammation and itching and also contain chlorine that strips the top layer of the skin of its natural oils.
- Cleansers and toners . To maintain a healthy, balanced skin it is preferable to avoid harsh cleansers with an alkaline pH and rather use neutral or slightly acidic ones with alpha or beta hydroxy acids. The more alkaline the facial cleanser is, the more skin irritation you may have.
- Skin oils and moisturizers : With ageing, the amount of sebum naturally produced by the skin decreases, affecting the acid mantle and its ability to protect the skin. Using effective moisturizers helps rebuild this important barrier. The best oils to be used are jojoba oil , coconut oil, argan oil and olive oil.
- Use only pH balanced skin care products.
- Use warm water to rinse your face.
Switching to natural products and organic cosmetics is the easiest way to make sure you are not using chemicals that may lead to skin pH imbalances.
Most cleansers tend to be too alkaline for the skin hence stripping away natural oils and causing dryness and irritation. A too alkaline skin may be more susceptible to acne as a certain level of acidity is required to inhibit bacterial growth on the skin.
Noadays, many cleansers and shampoos no longer contain sodium laurensulphate, which has an alkaline pH level of around 10 and can be very irritating to the skin. Choosing gentle, slightly acidic facial cleansers and toners (close to 5) will allow all skin types to properly maintain their acid mantle.
Antioxidants and sunscreens play a pivotal role in maintaining the pH balance of the skin. Topical antioxidants (vitamin A, vitamin c, vitamin E and green tea) are important to preserve the acid skin mantle in two ways:
- they fortify cells so as to make them function optimally
- and protect cells from environmental stress and oxidation.
Vitamin C, in the form of L-ascorbic acid, is acidic in nature and has a low pH so, although not considered a pH balancing antioxidant, vitamin C formulations can be used safely and beneficially on the skin as long as they are not are used simultaneously with other acidic products.
Daily use of sunscreen defends the acid mantle by both protecting skin cells from sun damage and increasing the skin's ability to protect itself.
What are the causes of an unbalanced skin pH?
Everything that comes into contact with the skin – even plain tap water – has either a positive or a negative effect on the pH, for a number of hours. Over this period of time the skin is more vulnerable to environmental stressors, bacteria and other threats.
Chemicals and toxins
Often found in cleansers, chemical emulsifiers are a real threat because they can completely deplete skin of its natural oils that have a protective function.
Surfactants (detergents and foaming agents) threaten the pH balance: among the worst is sodium lauryl sulfate, which is alkaline. Other surfactants such as ethanolamine (DEA, MEA and TEA) are incredibly destructive, leading to skin toxicity and even hormonal disruptions. These surfactants are found in detergents, laundry detergents, make-up, dry cleaning solvents and many others.
Hormones can negatively affect the pH levels of the skin. Fluctuations in sex hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, lead to excess oil production.
Moreover, towards the age of 50 or around the time of menopause for women, skin pH levels begin to change, becoming more and more neutral. As the skin loses its acidity, it becomes more susceptible to environmental pollutants, free radicals and bacterial growth.
Skin products with unbalanced pH
Did you know that most skincare products are not pH balanced?
Be careful with soaps, detergents and shampoos, as they are often too alkaline, but also with products that are too acidic, including those that contain boric acid (a common preservative).
To make sure you are using a product with an unbalanced pH you should test it with inexpensive pH strips. Alternatively, if you feel that your face is too dry after using a product, it means that the product has affected the skin's acid mantle.
The importance of pH for body skin
The skin is made up of several layers that provide the body with a natural protective barrier. Skin protects us from germs, infections and other environmental stresses that can be harmful.
The surface of the skin contains a layer called the acid mantle. The acid mantle is made up of sebum (fatty acids) secreted by the sebaceous glands in the skin. Sebum mixes with lactic acid and amino acids produced by sweating to form a pH level that, for normal healthy skin, should be slightly acidic, at around 5.5 on the scale. Throughout our lives, and especially as we age, the skin's pH balance tends to change becoming more or less acidic.
How does the pH value affect skin health?
As the skin is the body's first line of defense against bacteria, if there is an imbalance in the skin's pH values, the bacteria can attack the skin, causing acne for example.
It is true that we usually talk about juvenile acne, that is a rash that occurs during adolescence with the onset of puberty, but acne can also develop in people who have slightly higher alkaline levels in the body.
Furthermore, the so-called acid mantle has the function to keep the skin soft and supple by inducing adequate levels of hydration.In addition to keeping our skin safe from bacteria, unbalanced pH values can therefore lead to dry, cracked skin and, in more serious cases, eczema (atopic dermatitis).