The pH Of Your Skin: Why It Matters & How To Care For Your Skin
When we talk about skin care, things can start sounding like a science course pretty quickly. Between the formula structure, how ingredients influence the epidermis, and skin mechanisms themselves, the jargon can get advanced pretty quickly. A great example of this in action? Your skin pH.
So let's go all the way back to chemistry class: pH is a scale used to specify the acidity or basicity of any solution. And whether you realize it or not, your skin's pH (and the pH of your skin care) has a huge effect on the skin's functionality itself. Here's everything you need to know.
What is skin pH, and why does it matter?
The pH range of the skin on your face and body fluctuates between 4.7 and 5.751. For context, the pH scale ranges from 0 to 14; 7 is considered neutral (water has a pH of 7); anything below it is acidic, and anything above is alkaline. Hovering around 5, your skin is slightly acidic. It's vital that your skin stays in this range—when it doesn't, it affects its overall function largely due to the role of the microbiome. "The skin microbiome prefers a relatively acidic environment," notes physician Kara Fitzgerald, N.D.
The range, here, is important. The pH of the skin varies slightly for men and women—men usually having more acidic skin. The skin also becomes more alkaline with age, especially for women as they go through menopause. "The pH level of our skin changes at around age 50, skin becomes more sensitive, and women are more likely to develop rashes and easily irritated skin," says board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D. Skin type can also affect the pH, with oily skin tending to be more acidic (sebum itself is quite acidic).
Finally, the pH of the skin can be affected by what it comes into contact with—such as skin care products or even water. See, when you put on a substance that has a different pH (be it acidic or alkaline), it influences your skin's. Now, for the most part, your skin has an impressive ability to bounce back. (Read: Your skin's pH goes back to its natural state pretty fast.) However, if these fluctuations are too dramatic or happen too consistently, that's when you have a problem.
So what's the acid mantle?
You can't talk about skin pH without talking about the acid mantle. The acid mantle is the film of acidity that protects the skin and is actually the mixture of your natural sebum (oil) and sweat. This acidity is a vital part of the skin's protective function. See, acidity "helps inhibit the growth of pathogens," notes Fitzgerald who explains that opportunistic bacteria tend to do better in alkaline environments.
Signs that your skin's pH is out of balance.
There are several indications that your skin's pH is off—in fact, many common skin conditions and woes can be traced back or linked to pH:
Dry, tight skin.
When your skin's pH is too alkaline, it disrupts the skin's ability to retain water. Your skin barrier function is essentially its ability to keep in moisture, and when it's compromised, something called transepidermal water loss happens. As the name suggests, it's when water is lost through the epidermis (the top layer of the skin) and evaporates into the air.
Inflammatory skin conditions.
Skin conditions—like eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, and acne—are connected through inflammation. Chronic inflammation wreaks havoc on the skin and can influence flare-ups for those individuals with genetic predisposition to these woes. Because of pH's role in your skin microbiome, when it's off, it will be more susceptible to inflammation. In fact, as Fitzgerald told us, "An imbalanced microbiome, or skin dysbiosis, is associated with many health conditions, including psoriasis, allergies, eczema, contact dermatitis, acne, poor wound healing, skin ulcers, dandruff, yeast and fungal infections, rosacea, and accelerated skin aging."
Sensitive skin is caused by a perennially compromised skin barrier function. (Some people have this naturally—others "sensitize" their skin through lifestyle and skin care choices.) Thanks to pH's vital role in barrier function, when your pH is disrupted, your skin can become more sensitive and reactive.
How to balance your skin's pH.
Balancing your skin's pH is just as much about what you don't do as what you do. In fact, one of the main ways you disrupt your pH is by simply doing too much and being too aggressive:
- Don't: Use water that's too hot when showering, washing your face, or hands. The hot water is too stripping and breaks down your natural lipids. Not to mention: Water's pH is higher than the skin's and can influence your own. Done repeatedly and with too long of an exposure, you can affect your skin barrier function.
- Do: Use barrier-supporting ingredients and creams. Ingredients—like squalane, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and various botanical oils—help your skin retain its role as a barrier and bring the pH back to normal. And while some products will go as far as to share their pH, rest assured: Most clean products on the market today are formulated in such a way as not to disrupt your microbiome.
- Don't: Use stripping sulfates and soaps. Perhaps one of the most common reasons our microbiomes and pH are disrupted, strong soaps and sulfates have a very alkaline pH. Now, using strong soap once in a while won't send your pH into a spiral, but consistently using these (and the regular pH fluctuations that come with it) will affect your skin function.
- Do: Nurture your skin microbiome. So much of skin is connected and influenced by other parts of it—pH and your microflora are two such examples. (In fact, it's almost impossible to talk about one without the other.) So you can enhance your microbiome by keeping skin at a steady and consistent pH—and you can balance your pH by using microbiome-specific products.
- Don't: Overexfoliate. Remember how we talked about your acid mantle and how it's intimately tied to your pH? And remember how your acid mantle is created from your natural sebum? Well, if you overexfoliate, you run the risk of damaging that film and the pH of your skin with it. Stick to one to three times a week, max.
The skin is a complex organ, with many influences and means of function. To care for it, you have to consider it all. One very important part of the function is the pH, which should be around 5, making it slightly acidic. There are many things that can influence your pH—and several unfavorable outcomes when it's out of balance. So do your best to be mindful of how you're treating it.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.