how to repair your skin's acid mantle and why it matters

“My skin is ALWAYS dry and flaky, no matter what I do.”

“I’m afraid of trying new skincare products. My skin’s so sensitive, it can’t tolerate ANYTHING!”

“Every time I wash my face, my skin feels so tight and dry.”

Sounds familiar? That’s your acid mantle screaming for help.

What Is The Acid Mantle?

Acid mantle is a cute nickname for hydro-liquid film, a protective layer that sits on the top of your skin. Think of it like a wall between you and the world.

It’s called acid because it’s sligtly acidic. It needs to be. That’s what makes your skin inhospitable to fungi and bacteria, so they don’t grow and multiply all over your skin.

Your acid mantle is made up of a mixture of oils and water. Here’s the full list:

  • Amino acids
  • Fatty acids
  • Lactic acid
  • Pyrrolidine carboxylic acid
  • Urocanic acid
  • Water

Put all these ingredients together and they create an acidic environment of around pH 4.5-5.5. That’s the natural pH of your skin.

Related: Why You Should Add Amino Acids To Your Skincare Routine

Struggling to put together a skincare routine that banishes dryness and makes your skin supple and dewy? Download your FREE “Best Skincare Routine For Dry Skin” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):

What The Heck Does The Acid Mantle Do?

Your acid mantle is your first line of the defence against everything that wants to hurt your skin.

It protects it from freezing cold winds, the blistering hot sun, bacteria and germs and all its other enemies. Plus, it keeps your skin soft and supple.

When your acid mantle’s intact, moisture stay in and germs & co stay out. Your skin is healthy, soft and resistant (it tolerates everything).

Problem is, the acid mantle is ALWAYS under attack. A dent here today, a knock there tomorrow and pretty soon your acid mantle breaks down all over the place.

Now moisture escapes through the cracks. Germs & bacteria get a free way in. Your skin gets dry. Red. Flaky. Everything stings and irritates it like crazy. 

Here are just a few things that can damage your acid mantle:

  • Air conditioning
  • Harsh skincare products, like scrubs and soaps
  • Harsh weather
  • Overcleansing
  • Overexfoliating
  • Pollution
  • Skin diseases like eczema
  • Unprotected sun exposure

Related: 5 Skincare Treatments That Can Ruin Your Skin (If You Abuse Them)

cerave hydrating cleanser

How To Repair Your Acid Mantle

First of all, how can you tell your acid mantle is damaged?

Easy. If your skin feels tight after washing, is always dry and everything you put on it irritates it like crazy, the damage’s done. Your acid mantle needs fixing. Here’s how:

Step 1: Switch Cleanser

Bad news: everything you could possibly use to wash your skin can damage your skin’s acid mantle.

Take water, the most natural and innocuous thing on this planet. It has a pH of 7. Wash your face with water alone and you’ll turn your skin’s pH up a notch or two. Acid mantle damaged.

Good news: your skin is perfectly capable of restoring its acidic pH (and restore the acid mantle) on its own. Usually within a few hours.

Problem is, some cleansers are SO harsh, and you use them so often, your skin’s acid mantle can’t repair itself fast enough. Cue dryness, flakiness and irritation.

Soaps and foaming cleansers are the biggest culprits. Switch to gentle, cream or oil-based cleansers enriched with fatty acids, ceramides and other barrier-repairing ingredients that cleanse skin without destroying the acid mantle.

Best Picks:

Related: Why You Should Stop Washing Your Face With Soap

Step 2: Give Exfoliation A Break

I’m all for exfoliation: it brightens up your skin, fades away fine lines and dark spots and makes your skin as soft as a baby’s. But when your acid mantle is damaged, exfoliation is the LAST thing your skin needs.

All those dead cells on the surface of your skin are there for a reason: they protect the raw, newer cells that aren’t ready to come to the surface yet.

Your skin’s very delicate right now and needs all the protection it can get. So give exfoliation a break or, at least, go easier on it.

While we’re on the subject: stop using 3+ exfoliants in your skincare routine (thanks, The Ordinary!). Too much exfoliation disrupts the skin’s acid mantle, too.

Related: Is Exfoliation For Everyone?

the ordinary natural moisturizing factors + ha

Step 3: Go Back To Basics

Stop everything you’re doing with your skin. Give exfoliation a break. Ditch the retinol. Go easy on Vitamin C. I know you want to get rid of wrinkles, but this ain’t no time to think about antiaging.

When your skin’s acid mantle is damaged, fixing it is the priority. And that means getting rid of everything that could possibly irritate it. Like soaps, foaming cleansers and exfoliants. But also powerful antioxidants, fragrances and any other irritants lurking in your lotions and potions.

Instead, go back to basic: a gentle cleanser, plus moisturiser and sunscreen full of soothing and moisturising ingredients that can repair your skin’s barrier and keep its pH back to its optimum level.

The best products are loaded with ceramides, fatty acids and non-fragrant oils (think jojoba instead than geranium). They’re all naturally found in your skin so can help bring it back to health. Fast.

Best picks:

The Bottom Line

If your skin’s dry, irritated and sensitive all the time, your acid mantle is damaged. That’s your cue to go back to basics with your skincare. Throw out anything remotely irritant and moisturise, moisturise, moisturise.