Ever wondered what pH-balanced means?
Every serum and moisturiser proudly boasts about its pH these days. Is it just another marketing ploy or does your skin’s pH really matter?
A bit of both. Here’s everything you need to know about skin’s pH and which skincare products should (and should NOT) be pH-balanced.
- What Is pH?
- What Does pH Balanced Means?
- What Factors Affect Your Skin pH?
- What Happens When Your Skin’s pH Is Unbalanced?
- How Do You Rebalance Your Skin’s pH?
- Do You Need A Toner To Rebalance Your Skin’s pH?
- Should You Use pH-Balanced Skincare Products?
- 1. (Some) Cleansing Products Tend To Have A Higher pH
- 2. What Active Ingredients Need A Low pH To Work?
- The Bottom Line
What Is pH?
PH stands for “power of hydrogen” and measures the acidity vs alkalinity of a solution of water + something.
PH 7 is the neutral point. Anything below it is an “acid” and anything above it a “base” (or alkaline).
The pH of your skin’s protective barrier (a.k.a. “acid mantle”) is between 4.5 and 5.5 (I know, the name gave it away 😉 ).
When your acid mantle is intact, your skin is moisturised and healthy. But when it starts to crack, your skin becomes dry, sensitive and more prone to irritations.
Related: Acid Mantle: What It Is And How To Repair It
Struggling to create an anti-aging routine that really works? Download the “Best Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” below to get started. It features product recommendations + right application order:
What Does pH Balanced Means?
In skincare, pH balanced means that the pH of a product is close to the skin’s natural pH and doesn’t dramatically alter it.
This matters. When skin is at the right pH, everything works properly:
- Normal barrier function and repair: A number of enzymes, including B-Gluocerebrosidase (the enzyme essential for ceramides production), need a pH of 5.6 to work. Ceramides are a key component of your skin’s protective barrier. They strengthen it when it’s healthy, repair it when it’s broken, and ensure your skin has all the moisture it needs.
- Healthy skin flora: Your skin is home to thousands of bacteria. When the acid mantle has the right pH, the good bacteria thrive. When the pH is too high or too low, the bad ones proliferate and cause all sorts of problems, including acne.
- Reduced risk of sensitivities: An unbalanced pH is linked to acne, dermatitis, and eczema, and irritations. Even common irritants are less likely to trigger a bad reaction.
Related: How To Strengthen Your Skin’s Protective Barrier (And Why It Matters)
What Factors Affect Your Skin pH?
A number of things can affect your skin’s pH level:
- Age: Newborn babies and elderly high have a slightly higher pH
- Cleansing: It raises the skin’s pH for a few hours
- Ethnicity: Darker skin has a lower pH that lighter skin
- Skincare products with a high pH: The higher the pH, the more damaging it is.
- Sweat: When you sweat a lot (think heavy exercise or hot weather), your skin’s pH goes up
- Topical antibacterials
Related: Sweat It Out: Can Sweat Detoxify Your Body?
What Happens When Your Skin’s pH Is Unbalanced?
A balanced pH is essential for healthy skin. Without it, all sorts of bad things start to happen:
- Moisture evaporates, drying out your skin
- Skin feels tight
- Skin can’t protect itself from the environment and becomes more sensitive
- Germs and pollutants get in, irritating skin
- Bacteria proliferate, causing acne and breakouts
- Skin literally burns (if the pH is too close to 0 or 14)
A lot of inflammatory skin conditions have been linked to an unbalanced pH.
Acne patients, for example, have a higher skin pH than people without acne. This is probably because a higher pH provides the perfect environment for P.Acnes to thrive.
Some acne medications (like salicylic acid and erthromycin) decrease the pH. It’ just one of the ways they fight it.
Other skin conditions linked to an unbalanced pH include dermatitis and eczema. Restoring your skin’s pH can help you keep both under control.
Related: Adult Acne: Why It Happens And How To Treat It
How Do You Rebalance Your Skin’s pH?
But, what if your acid mantle is already disrupted? Here’s how to rebalance your skin’s pH:
- Avoid bar soaps and traditional foaming cleansers: They tend to have a high pH that can disrupt the acid mantle and slow down the healing process.
- Avoid long hot baths/showers: Hot water raises the skin’s pH and dries out skin.
- Beware of DIY skincare: A lot of popular DIY recipes use ingredients with a high pH like baking soda and apple cider vinegar. If you really want to make your own skincare products, get a bunch of pH strips to measure the pH. If it’s too high or too low, don’t put it on your skin!
- Moisturise: Always moisturise after cleansing/showering. Moisturisers have a skin-friendly pH that helps brings your skin’s pH back to a healthy level.
Related: Still Washing Your Face With Soap? Here’s Why You Should Stop
Do You Need A Toner To Rebalance Your Skin’s pH?
Did you notice I didn’t say to use a toner to rebalance your skin’s ph? It wasn’t an oversight…
Toners were originally created to rebalance your skin’s pH after cleansing. Back when bar soap was all you had to wash your face.
Bar soaps have super high pHs that disrupt the skin’s acid mantle. Your skin needs all the help you can get after that!
But, times have changed. These days, most cleansers are pH-balanced. If you use those (more on them below), you don’t need a toner.
Related: Do You Really Need A Toner? (The Answer May Surprise You)
Should You Use pH-Balanced Skincare Products?
Did you notice I didn’t say to use ph-balanced skincare products to rebalance your skin’s ph, either? Here’s why: you’re already doing it!
99% of skincare products, whether they boast about it on the packaging or not, are already pH-balanced. They have to be or they won’t work. Worse, they’ll damage your skin. Who wants to use a moisturiser that makes things worse?
This is why it bothers me when a brand claims their moisturisers or serums are pH-balanced. Duh! That’s a like a student boasting they got C- minus on a paper. How is doing the very minimum impressive?!
There are only two cases when the pH of skincare products isn’t balanced:
- Cleansing products
- The active ingredients have to be a certain pH to work
Let’s take a look at each of them:
Related: The Top 7 Misleading Skincare Claims (And What They Really Mean)
1. (Some) Cleansing Products Tend To Have A Higher pH
If there’s a skincare product likely to have a high, skin-disrupting pH, it’s cleanser. Why?
Cleansing itself changes the ph of your skin. Even normal tap water alone is enough to do the trick. A 1999 study compared the cleansing powers of tap water, liquid soaps, and bar soaps and found that they all influence the skin surface and raise its pH.
Bar soaps and anything with surfactants (think Sodium Lauryl Sulfate) are the worst offenders. They usually have the highest pHs and, with regular use, they can damage the skin’s acid mantle.
Cream and oil-based cleansers, on the other hand, are usually safe. They tend to have lower, skin-friendly pHs that make them a better choice for most skin types, especially sensitive and dry.
So, how do you cleanse your skin without disrupting its acid mantle?
Look for a cleanser with a pH below 7.
The bad news: most brands never disclose the pH of their cleansers. Unless you get a bunch of pH strips, there’s no way of figuring it out.
The good news: most brands know the importance of pH and are formulating their cleansers (even foaming, surfactants-based cleansers) at a skin-friendly pH. Because, if a cleanser damages your skin, you won’t buy it again. That’s bad for their bottom line.
Unless your skin constantly feels dry and tight after cleansing, don’t worry about the pH of your cleanser. It’s low enough not to do it any harm.
- Corsx low PH Good Morning Gel Cleanser ($11.00): ph 5.5. Available at Sokoglam and YesStyle.
- Neutrogena Fresh Foaming Cleanser ($6.99): ph 6.2. Available at Ulta.
- Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Oil-Reducing Cleanser ($18.00): ph 5.5. Available at Dermstore, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice.
*I’m only including foaming cleansers because they tend to have the highest pHs.
Related: Why You Should Switch To A Low pH Cleanser ASAP
2. What Active Ingredients Need A Low pH To Work?
Some active ingredients are pH sensitive. If the pH is too high or too low they won’t work.
- AHAs: Alpha Hydroxy Acids are a family of exfoliants that includes Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid. They exfoliate and hydrate skin at the same time. But the higher the pH, the less acid can get through the skin and do its job. Glycolic Acid works best at a 3.83 pH while Lactic Acid a slightly higher one, 3.86.
- BHA: Beta Hydroxy Acid (or Salicylic Acid) is an exfoliant on steroids. It gets rid of dead skin cells, unclogs pores to treat acne, and even soothes irritations. The lower the pH, the better it works. For example, if you use 2% BHA at a 2 pH, that entire 2% can work its magic. Raise the pH to 7 (which is too high for skin anyway!) and only 20% of that initial 2% will exfoliate skin!
- L-Ascorbic Acid: It’s the pure form of Vitamin C. It fights free radicals, boosts collagen production and brightens skin. But it needs a pH of 3.5 or lower to penetrate skin and work its magic.
FYI, skincare products rarely go below a ph of 2.8 – even if it means the active ingredient works better. Why?
Low pH = higher irritation. Totally defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
- Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum ($80.00/£67.00): available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK
- Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): available at Dermstore, Feel Unique, Paula’s Choice and Selfridges
- The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution (£6.80): available at Beauty Bay and Cult Beauty
The Bottom Line
When your skin is pH-balanced, it’s healthier, clearer, and better able to protect you from bacteria and irritations. But you don’t need special pH-balanced products to rebalance your skin’s pH. 99% of skincare products are ALREADY pH-balanced. Unless you experience tightness/irritation after using them, there’s nothing to worry about.