The term “pH” may conjure more images of chemistry class than dewy, fresh skin. But ensuring your skin has the right balance means more than just beakers and test tubes – it influences everything from redness to dryness to breakouts.
Defining pH Balance
pH was introduced back in the 1900’s and stands for “potential hydrogen.” The term is used to describe the acid-alkaline ratio of a substance, which ranges from 0 (the most acidic) to 14 (the most alkaline). Like every other organ in the body, skin is at its best when it’s in an ideal pH environment – which for skin, is best around 5.5 (slightly acidic.)
In this range, the skin is able to maintain a good barrier and shield against the outside environment, also known as the “acid mantle.” Natural moisturizers, oils, and diet can all affect the acid mantle, as can external factors like air, water, sun, and pollution – which is why it’s so important to work to keep your skin balanced and healthy.
Why pH Balance Matters
When pH of the skin is too high or too low, this throws off the natural ecosystem of these moisturizers, bacteria, and oils, disrupting their work to make your acid mantle perform as it should. When skin is too acidic, “good” bacteria are no longer able to keep inflammation and the “bad” bacteria in check, which can lead to breakouts and redness.
On the other end of the spectrum, pH can speed up signs of aging when skin is too alkaline. A study in the British Journal of Dermatology found that over an eight-year period, women with more alkaline skin (a higher pH number) had greater numbers of fine lines and crow’s feet than those who had a more optimal skin pH.
Keeping Your pH Balanced – Naturally
All this may seem a little overwhelming – but have no fear! With a little know-how and a few simple products, you can ensure the pH of your skin is perfectly balanced and healthy.
Test it out
A good place to start is determining the current pH level of your skin. A few products – like pH test strips – can help determine with some accuracy what the pH of your skin is, but chances are you’re already aware of your skin’s tendencies.
If your skin is dry, flaky, or itchy, it’s probably more alkaline. Oily or acne-prone skin means it may be too acidic. Our post, Botanicals for Your Skin Type, is a great place to start for determining your skin’s natural state and products that can help!
Stop washing so much
One of the best ways to keep your skin’s pH healthy is to wash less. Once in the evening to wash away the grime of the day is sufficient for most people.
According to Dr. Zoe Draelos, Consulting Professor of Dermatology at Duke University,
“Skin pH rises 1.1 points following washing with water alone, 1.2 points after washing with alkaline soap, and 0.9 points after washing with a synthetic detergent beauty bar”
Research has shown that after cleaning the skin begins to repair the acid mantle naturally within 15 minutes. Depending on the person, within 1- 2 hours the acid mantle is restored. This can be hastened with the use of a toner or lotion with a mildly acidic toner or lotion.
But washing multiple times a day means your acid mantle is spending more time recovering than it should be.
According to Dr. Zoe Draelos, between soaps, oil-free cleansers, cleansing wipes, abrasive scrubs, and mechanical facial brushes, there is no perfect cleanser for everyone. Although there has been a marketing push for “pH balanced” cleansing products, the pH of a product doesn’t tell the whole story.
One study found two of the gentlest cleansers, Johnson’s Baby Oat Soap and Nivea Baby Creamy had the highest pH around 12.35 which is significantly higher than the average dish soap.
If all these possibilities seem overwhelming, consider opting for a gentle DIY cleanser like honey or olive oil. It sounds crazy — crazy like a fox.
Balance your diet with fruits, veggies, and whole foods
Your skin (and body’s) pH is affected not only by what you put on it but what you put in it. It’s important to acknowledge, the best way to achieve the optimum PH for your skin, is to have the optimum pH in your body.
The body needs a slightly alkaline pH of 7.365 to 7.45 to run at its most efficient. Interestingly, plants that are considered acidic before digestion (like lemons) become the opposite (alkaline-forming) in the body. Most animal products, like meat, dairy, and poultry, form acid in the body, as do baked goods and bread.
“When your body is functioning at its best, your cells are able to maintain healthy blood pH easily,”
explains Nutritional Therapist and Founder of GP Nutrition Gabriela Peacock.
“However, when our bodies have to work to filter the foods you eat to maintain blood pH, then you could be more susceptible to illness… Alkaline foods balance the body and allow our blood to absorb more oxygen to aid digestion, which will in turn lead to clearer skin.”
Choose your products carefully. Focus on natural ingredients.
Take into account your body’s natural pH and the tendencies you’re trying to correct when selecting your products. If you’re going for ready-made products, oils or moisturizers that contain probiotics or state that they are pH balanced are a safe bet – however, to get outcomes that are specifically tailored to your skin, we suggest using natural ingredients that you know and understand.
A few to try:
- Topical antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E are vital in maintaining the acid mantle by fortifying the cells so they can function optimally and protect the cells from environmental stresses and oxidation. For a quick facial mask high in vitamin C, mash one strawberry and the juice of half a lemon, with an optional spoon of yogurt in a bowl. Apply to skin and let sit for 10 minutes.
- Natural, non-processed honey is great as a cleanser or a mask – not only because it has antiseptic properties, but also because it has a pH of 4.0 that helps rebalance your skin. Additionally, it’s a humectant, meaning it helps your skin attract water and retains it, fighting off premature wrinkles and keeping skin smooth. Read our post for other humectants that can help neutralize your pH.
- Hydrosols are 100 percent plant-based lifesavers for lowering pH, increasing sebum, soothing inflammation, and supporting hydration. We have a great article on how to make your own basil and peppermint hydrosol here. Another easy way to lower the PH of skin is to dampen a cotton ball with apple cider vinegar and swipe it over dry areas of your skin.
- Exfoliation helps prepare the skin for receiving and locking in balancing hydration but stay away from physical exfoliants like beads. Instead, using plant-based chemical exfoliants like willow bark extract, or try a mask for a soothing and smoothing experience.
- It should go without saying, but using sunscreen daily is an important part of protecting your skin’s pH balance by blocking harmful sun radiation.
Trust the process
Even if you follow these tips and tweaks, your skin won’t change overnight. It takes time for our body’s natural oils and bacteria to adjust, so resist the urge to scrub harder or lather on the heavy moisturizer.