Some of us don’t consider our skin’s pH level on a regular basis. We may not consider how our pH level is affected by our dietary choices, our harsh cleansers, or any negligence in our daily skincare routine. But if you are actively thinking of your skin’s pH, well, you’re ahead of the game and we commend you.
Once upon a time, we were all taught about pH levels, acidity, and alkalinity. Our chemistry teachers showed us the colorful pH scale, and some of us completed chemistry labs where we measured the pH levels in different solutions.
What we weren’t taught about pH is how it affects our skin. Chemistry didn’t teach us that our pH level has a significant impact on the quality and condition of our skin. (Maybe we would’ve retained the lesson more if we knew we could eliminate acne, reduce fine lines, and regulate our skin’s oil production with some basic pH knowledge.)
We’re here to teach you what you didn’t learn about your skin’s pH level, and why it’s critical that you stay vigilant of your skin’s acidity and alkalinity—because as it turns out, pH balance has everything to do with youthful skin.
So if you’re looking to defy your years, keep your skin in a state of resilient hydration, and minimize acne breakouts, it all starts with your pH balance.
What is skin pH?
pH stands for the ‘potential of hydrogens’, and it describes our skin’s level of acidity or alkalinity. The pH of our skin is essentially its water-to-oil balance.
A balanced skin pH supports our skin in forming a healthy skin barrier, also known as the ‘acid mantle’. The ‘acid mantle’ skin barrier is a protective, slightly-acidic film on the skin’s surface that keeps moisture in and keeps infectious bacteria out.
Factors that Affect Skin pH
Everyone’s skin pH level varies naturally, based on factors such as our genetics, our healthy and not-so-healthy habits, our skincare products, the time of year and humidity levels outside, the make-up we use, and the environmental pollution we come in contact with every day.
The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 as the neutral pH level. Any level below 7 on the pH scale is considered acidic, and levels above 7 on the pH scale are considered alkaline. To give you some context, substances like battery acid and lemon juice have a very acidic, low pH level. Pure water (not tap water) has a neutral pH level of 7, and products like ammonia and drain cleaner have a very high, alkaline pH level.
The ideal pH balance for our skin is on the more acidic end of the spectrum, at around 5.5 pH. When our pH balance goes out of whack, becoming more acidic or more alkaline, our skin is more susceptible to damage. This is when our skin reacts in undesirable skin conditions, like acne breakouts or dry flakiness—and this is directly correlated with our sebum production.
It’s All About the Sebum
Sebum is the oily substance that our skin produces and secretes. It comprises our skin’s natural oils and is what hydrates, moisturizes, and protects our skin from damage.
When our skin’s pH is on the alkaline end of the spectrum, above 7 pH, it’s not producing enough sebum. This is when we experience acne breakouts, and sensitive, dry skin. Skin that isn’t sufficiently moisturized with sebum isn’t as resilient or elastic, which makes it especially vulnerable to fine lines, wrinkles, and sagging.
When our skin’s pH is more acidic, below 7 pH, it’s producing more sebum than necessary. This is what causes oily, greasy, acne-prone skin. Acidic skin is actually ideal for fighting off free radicals and slowing the aging process, but when the skin is too acidic, it becomes oily, greasy, pimply, increasingly sensitive, and easily irritated.
Maintaining an optimal skin pH level allows the skin to enforce a much-needed skin barrier (the skin’s acid mantle) by producing just enough sebum, without overdoing it or underdoing it.
Skin pH and Aging
Over the years, our skin barrier, or acid mantle, starts to weaken. Our skin slows down in its production of protective oils that comprise the acid mantle. This makes the skin more susceptible to moisture loss and damage from environmental aggressors—both of which amplify signs of aging.
Harmful bacteria, UV rays, and pollutants that penetrate the skin’s barrier start to take a toll on collagen production and elastin production. As collagen and elastin production slows down, wrinkles start to form, discoloration and hyperpigmentation occur, and the skin doesn’t bounce back from damage and impact as well as it used to.
An imbalance in the skin’s pH can have a super unfortunate snowball effect on our skin’s natural aging process. That’s why it’s important that we understand skin pH, the factors that affect our pH balance, and what we can do to restore a favorable balance.
How to Check your Skin's pH Level
Alright, we know what you’re thinking… “All this talk of pH levels, acidity, alkalinity and aging, but how do I know what my pH level is?”
Let’s get to the point. Knowing the pH level of your skin can make all the difference. If your skin is of a more acidic composition, you’ll want skincare products that bring your pH level up a bit. If your skin is of a more alkaline composition, you’ll want skincare products that bring your pH level down a smidge.
As we know, everyone’s skin is different. That’s why a skincare routine that works for you probably won’t work for the next person.
Here’s what you can do to determine your skin’s pH level:
Your skin can tell you everything you need to know. The way your skin reacts to certain skincare products can tell you which products to avoid and which ones to load-up on. The natural condition of your skin can also tell you where you’re at on the pH scale.
If your skin has a naturally soft texture with no noticeable dry patches or oily areas, you probably have an ideal, balanced skin pH. If your skin has a rough texture and dryness that you just can’t moisturize no matter what you do, you probably have an alkaline, high pH level. If you’re battling oily skin, and you’re constantly reaching for blotting sheets throughout the day, you probably have an acidic, low pH level.
One of the most accurate measures for determining your skin’s pH level is through a skincare professional. Your dermatologist may use a skin pH meter to test your skin’s pH level. This measurement can help you to make sense of your skin type and understand the products or lifestyle changes that will effectively balance your pH level.
At-home tests can measure your skin’s natural pH level via a number of methods. Urine tests, saliva tests, and topical skin tests can show you exactly where your body’s natural acidity/alkalinity level lies on the pH scale.
How to Balance Skin pH through Skincare
Once you’ve determined your skin’s pH level, you’re equipped to start making some informed decisions in the skincare realm.
Cleansing products and soaps that contain harsh ingredients, like parabens, SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate), fragrance, and BHT (synthetic antioxidants) should be avoided at all costs. These ingredients are not kind to your skin, and they often have super high pH levels that confuse your natural oil-to-water ratio.
Opt for gentle yet effective cleansers (like this all-in-one cleansing cream) that don’t contain harmful SLES, SLS, silicones and synthetic fragrances.
If you don’t have a natural toner in your skincare cabinet, it’s time to change that. The right toner can do wonders for your skin because toners have a natural ability to “recalibrate” the skin’s pH level after cleansing.
It’s important to stay away from toners that use alcohol in their ingredients. Although toners with alcohol are effective for killing bacteria, they do a lot more harm than good. Alcohol dries out the skin, which causes redness, irritation, flakiness, and worst of all—lots of wrinkles.
Hydration is the pinnacle of happy skin. When the skin is moisturized, it’s bright, supple, firm, and soft. Nothing can repair the skin quite like a good moisturizer.
As we age, our body’s production of collagen, elastin, and natural oils starts to decrease. (That’s why it’s incredibly important that we continue to modify our skincare routine to meet our skin’s changing needs throughout the years.)
When our natural oil production slows down, this decrease in hydration damages our skin’s acid mantle, or skin barrier. As we know, this skin barrier is vital for maintaining a healthy, balanced pH level. It’s a good idea to complete your daily skincare routine with a hydrating face oil, a hydrating serum with hyaluronic acid, or an illuminating moisturizer to support the skin barrier function for youthful, protected, and balanced skin.
How to Restore Skin pH Balance Naturally
If your skin’s pH level is unbalanced, try adding any of these powerful ingredients to your daily routine for some skin harmony.
- Vitamin C — Try a vitamin C booster!
- AHA & BHA exfoliants
- Antioxidants — Here’s why antioxidants can save your skin.
- Aloe vera
- Diluted apple cider vinegar
A thorough skincare routine coupled with some healthy lifestyle habits can restore your skin’s ideal pH level to help you achieve hydrated, age-defiant skin. Wear sunscreen, cleanse your skin every day, eat a balanced diet, and steer clear of intense ingredients to support your skin barrier function and stabilize your skin’s pH level.
As always, listen to your skin. Most of your skincare questions and concerns can be remedied with a heightened awareness of your skin’s natural reactions, and some /skin regimen/ education.
By Lauren DellaRocco, feature contributor