Have you ever read, “pH balanced”, “low pH” or “pH 5.5” on a product and wondered what it meant? From irritation, dryness, to acne, pH levels can either resolve or cause further distress to your skin.
The term ‘pH’ means ‘potential of hydrogen.’ In other words, it is the measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions in any substance. This pH scale was devised to measure acidity and alkalinity. It ranges from 0 (most acidic) to 14 (most alkaline), while 7 is considered a neutral reading.
Our skin has a thin, protective layer on its surface, a skin’s barrier, referred to as the acid mantle. This acid mantle is made up of sebum (free fatty acids) excreted from the skin’s sebaceous glands, which mixes with lactic and amino acids from sweat to create the skin’s pH, which ideally should be slightly acidic – at about 5.5. However, it is fine if it is somewhere between 4.8 and 6. It is responsible for keeping your skin healthy and moisturized by blocking all the germs and toxins from harming it. Your skin is at its best when there is a balance between its acidity and alkalinity. Throw it off track, and your skin will go crazy.
When the acid mantle of your skin is too alkaline, your skin becomes sensitive and dry. You may even experience inflammation and signs of aging due to certain enzymes that can destroy your collagen levels. This usually happens when you change your skin care products too often. When you use products that have a high pH (alkaline), it affects the permeability of your skin. When your skin’s permeability is compromised, it becomes vulnerable to skin issues, irritants, and microorganisms and also accelerate your skin’s aging process.
CLEANSERS & TONERS
Most cleansers, including bars and detergent soaps, tend to be too alkaline for the skin, as they strip away natural oils causing dryness and irritation. Skin that is too alkaline can be more susceptible to acne because a certain level of acidity is needed to inhibit bacterial growth on the skin. You may have noticed that many cleansers and shampoos are now avoiding the use of sodium laureth sulfate, which has an approximate alkaline pH level of 10 and can be very drying and irritating to the skin. Choosing mild cleansers and toners that are slightly acidic (close to 5) will benefit all skin types in properly maintaining the acid mantle.
At the opposite side of the spectrum, skin treated with products that are overly acidic also can be problematic. They too can over-strip natural oils, which can temporarily disrupt the lipid barrier of the skin. If your skin starts to look dry, red or becomes more sensitive, or if you notice an increase in breakouts, you may be using a product too strong for your skin, or you may be applying it too often. Ingredients such as Alpha Hydroxy Acids, Retinoic Acid, Beta Hydroxy Acids and Amino fruit acids, if not used properly, can weaken the skin’s natural defenses to bacterial infection and environmental damage. It is important to pay careful attention to your skin when using any acidic product.
OILS & MOISTURIZERS
As we age, the amount of oil or sebum naturally produced by our skin decreases, influencing the acid mantle and its ability to protect the skin. Using effective moisturizers helps rebuild this important barrier. Oils that work particularly well with the skin’s natural oil secretions include jojoba, coconut, argan and olive oils.
ANTIOXIDANTS & SUNSCREENS
Topical antioxidants (vitamins A, C, E, and green tea) are important in maintaining the acid mantle in two ways. First, they fortify the cells so they can function optimally and second, they protect the cells from environmental stresses and oxidation. Vitamin C in the form of l-ascorbic acid is acidic by nature and has a low pH, so while not considered a pH-balancing antioxidant, vitamin C formulations can be used safely and beneficially on the skin as long as they are not used at the same time as other acidic products.
The daily use of sunscreen defends the acid mantle by shielding the skin cells from sun damage and increasing the skin’s ability to protect itself. There is a large variety of sunscreens available for all skin types but it’s important to remember that it should be applied daily, without fail, even if you’re not outdoors.