Does pH Really Matter in Skin Care? Dermatologists Weigh In
You might remember the term “pH” from your high school science class and may even recall that it’s the measurement of how acidic or basic a water-based solution is. Now it’s time to apply that chemistry knowledge to our skin-care routines and find out how pH levels apply to our products. Does the pH level of cleansers, toners and serums have anything to do with our skin’s natural pH state? Ahead, we chatted with board-certified dermatologists and Skincare.com consultants, Dendy Engelman, M.D. and Hadley King, M.D., about what exactly pH means in skincare.
What Is The pH Balance of Skin?
According to Dr. Engelman, pH stands for potential hydrogen and it measures the level of alkalinity (base) or acidity of a substance. Everything from our skin and the products we use to the water that we wash with has a pH level.
When choosing a new skin-care product (or when experiencing breaking outs), having a basic knowledge of the skin’s pH balance can come in handy for a number of reasons, including being able to tell whether a product is altering your natural pH level and, in turn, not working for you or your complexion.
Your skin’s natural state has a pH of around 5. “The outermost layer of the skin is referred to as the acid mantle,” says Dr. King. “The acid mantle is made up of sebum (free fatty acids) that come out of the skin’s sebaceous glands, which mixes with lactic and amino acids from sweat to create the skin’s pH.” All of these factors combined make the skin sit on the more acidic side of the scale. When your skin’s pH is out of whack, it means that your acid mantle isn’t functioning properly, which could lead to a decrease in moisture and an increase in breakouts.
Why pH Matters in Skin Care
According to Dr. Engelman, “if the pH balance in a product is too alkaline, the product can be over-drying and cause skin irritation, as well as little protection against bacteria growth and breakouts may occur.”
Dr. King echoes this sentiment and adds, “at the opposite side of the pH spectrum, if skin-care products are overly acidic, they can also be problematic.” Acidic products can over-strip natural oils and temporarily disrupt the lipid barrier. “Ingredients like AHAs, retinoic acid, BHAs and amino fruit acids, if not used properly, can weaken the skin’s natural defenses to bacterial infection and environmental damage,” she continues.
How to Help Restore the pH Balance of Skin
Choosing skin-care products with the right pH levels will help keep your skin’s pH intact. “Look for ingredients that help restore skin barrier function, like humectants such as glycerin and hyaluronic acid to hydrate,” says King. “Barrier-restoring lipids like ceramides and petrolatum can help lock in moisture and restore and protect.”
Dr. Engelman also suggests maintaining a healthy lifestyle and eating leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, tomatoes, carrots and soybeans. She also recommends using products with a balanced pH level or a balancing toner to help rebalance your skin’s pH.
In order to figure out if the skin-care products you’re using are too alkaline or acidic, pay attention to how your skin feels after cleansing. A squeaky-clean tightness typically is an indication that your cleanser might be over-drying your skin. If so, Dr. King recommends sticking with gentle cleansers, toners and moisturizers. Some of our toner favorites include the Skinceuticals Equalizing Toner, the AcneFree Witch Hazel Toner, and the Kiehl's Ultra Facial Oil-Free Toner.
How Can You Tell If Your pH Is Improving?
After swapping out some products in your routine, you should be able to tell if your skin’s pH has improved relatively quickly. “Your skin barrier will be healthy-looking,” says Dr. King. “The skin won’t be dry, irritated or irritable.”
Photo: Chaunte Vaughn