Writer and expert /
Have you ever read, “pH balanced” on a product and wondered what it meant? From irritation, dryness, to acne, let’s discuss how pH levels can either resolve or cause further distress to your skin.
Our skin is naturally designed to fight infection and environmental stresses and its ability to do so is affected by its pH level. The pH level of the skin refers to how acidic or alkaline it is. On a scale of 1-14, with 1 being the most acidic to 14 being the most alkaline, 7 is considered a neutral reading for your skin’s pH. Our skin has a thin, protective layer on its surface, 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.
Many factors can interfere with the delicate balance of the skin’s acid mantle, both externally and internally. As we age, our skin becomes more acidic in response to our lifestyle and our environment. Everything that comes in contact with our skin (products, smoking, air, water, sun, pollution) can contribute to the breaking down of the acid mantle, disrupting the skin’s ability to protect itself.
Diet plays an important role in determining our internal and external pH levels. It is important to note that a food’s acid or alkaline formation in the body is not the same as the pH of the food itself. In an interesting paradox, foods that are considered acidic before digestion (like lemons) become alkaline-forming in the body. Most animal products, which are alkaline prior to digestion, are considered acid-forming in the body. According to dermatologist Dr. Jeannette Graf, “We need our diets to be less acidic than alkaline, otherwise internally,we become too acidic.” This means that an ideal diet consists of consuming an abundance of alkalizing foods such as leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, tomatoes, carrots and soybeans.
The acid mantle is an effective form of protection, but if your pH level is too alkaline or too acidic, the mantle is disturbed and skin conditions such as dermatitis, eczema , and rosacea may result. A skin care product may claim to be pH balanced, but you can verify the actual pH of a product by using an at-home pH testing kit (available at most drug stores). A physician also can determine your skin’s surface pH level and saliva tests will accurately indicate your body’s overall pH level.
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. 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. Most over-the-counter products are buffered, making them suitable for everyday use. However, it is still important to pay careful attention to your skin when using any acidic product. If your skin starts to look dry or red, if it 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.
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.
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. SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic is a serum based vitamin C that brightens the skin while preventing future damage. 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.
By Shelby Gerson