The pH of skincare products is an important factor that affects how your skin will look and feel. Read on to discover why.
We recently created a graph of some of the most popular cleansers’ pH levels, and lots of readers had some pretty interesting questions about pH levels in general. This got us even more interested in why the pH of our skin care products matter and how it can affect your skin. Here, we go over what pH is and the role it plays in your skin care products.
First, what is pH?
pH is a scale of measure from 1 to 14 that tells you how acidic a product is. A neutral pH is 7. Anything lower than 7 is considered acidic while anything higher than 7 is considered alkaline or basic. Your skin is actually naturally more on the acidic side with a pH of 4.2 to 5.6, and remains at this pH to defend itself from bad bacteria, which can multiply in more alkaline conditions.
Your skin is naturally protected by a thin layer made of ceramides, free fatty acids and lipids called the acid mantle. This mantle protects the skin from any possible irritants, like acne-causing bacteria and transepidermal water loss (AKA one of the culprits behind dry skin). It’s important to keep this mantle balanced so that it can continue to fight off bad bacteria for you. When it’s thrown off, you essentially leave your skin unprotected, which is why it’s important to keep the pH of your products in mind.
What affects the pH?
Long story short: Anything can affect pH. I reached out to dermatologist Kavita Mariwalla and she says, “Soaps, moisturizers and toners can all affect the skin. It is important to know whether there are certain ingredients in your products that can affect pH, like alcohols.” Also, the addition of certain stabilizers can help to increase the effectiveness of a product as well as its ability to penetrate the skin barrier without affecting it negatively.
Beyond the formulation, outside factors can also affect the pH of your skin, such as simply washing your face with water. This can actually raise your skin’s pH and keep it that way for an extended period of time (upwards of 6 hours after use). In fact, any product that comes in contact with your skin will always affect the pH in some way and keep it that way, which is why it’s important to use pH balancing products to return your skin back to its appropriate levels. The longer your skin’s pH is left affected, the longer your skin is prone to exposure to environmental stressors and the growth of bad bacteria.
Is it okay to use higher pH cleansers?
You may be wondering at this point then that if your skin is naturally more acidic, then why are there more alkaline (or higher pH) cleansers on the market? Does this make them bad to use? The answer is no. It really depends on your skin type and the surfactants (the factors that make a cleanser foam) being used.
The number one way to tell if your acid mantle is being stripped by your cleanser is to wash your face and see if it feels tight and/or dry after use. This is a clear indicator that your acid mantle has been affected. That squeaky clean feel is not what you should be searching for. You should seek cleansers that leave your skin feeling clean but also moisturized.
While higher pH does have the ability to cause skin irritations, the biggest culprit here is usually the inclusion of sodium lauryl sulfate in the formula. This surfactant can actually be really damaging to the skin. It has been known to cause redness, irritation, dryness and even skin conditions like atopic dermatitis because it throws off the balance of your acid mantle. Usually, higher pH cleansers use this surfactant which is why you’re told to avoid them and instead reach for lower pH ones, but those can be just as damaging if sodium lauryl sulfate is in the formula.
Instead of demonizing higher pH ones completely, it’s more important to think about how your skin feels after use. If your skin feels nourished, it’s definitely okay to keep using it. Just remember to use a pH balancing toner, like the Klairs Supple Preparation Toner after, which will help to return your skin back to its normal pH levels.
The pH of your skin care products matters more than you think. Using the correctly balanced ones will not only keep your skin more happy and healthy but also help you to avoid unnecessary acne. Stripping your skin with harsh products will only increase oil production, leaving your skin clogged and irritated. So, next time you plan to make a skin care purchase, make sure to find out the pH of it beforehand so you can buy products that are healthier for your skin.