You know the tight, squeaky clean feeling you get after using a specific cleanser? Or the redness and inflammation when you’ve overindulged in acidic skin care products? Or even the extreme dryness that appears during the winter months? These are all tell-tale signs that the skin’s pH is off balance, and therefore have a compromised microbiome and skin barrier function. The pH, or potential of hydrogen, of the skin can either be acidic or alkaline. “When skin is functioning in the optimal pH range, it has improved skin barrier function and is more efficient at retaining moisture,” says Alexandria Gilleo, wellness expert and celebrity makeup artist (more on that in a bit).
There is a certain pH level you should strive for to ensure healthy skin, which is slightly acidic. Using too strong of alkaline products and/or products that are too acidic can directly impact the skin and cause dryness, inflammation, and the appearance of wrinkles. This is why it’s so important to understand your skin’s pH level, what external factors you should avoid in order to keep it in check, and how certain products can throw it out of whack. Ahead, learn more about factors that are responsible for the skin's pH and how to maintain a well-balanced pH level for optimal, healthy, and glowing skin.
What Exactly Is Skin pH?
Skin pH (the potential of hydrogen) is one of our skin’s protective barriers. The acid mantle, the outermost protective layer of the skin, is made up of sebum which mixes with lactic and amino acids from sweat to create the skin’s pH.
Measured on a scale that ranges from 1-14, “[Skin pH] is determined from the ionization of water, seven being neutral; lower is acidic, and higher is basic, or alkaline,” Dr. Luigi L. Polla, dermatologist and founder of Alchimie Forever explains. “The skin’s pH maintains the balance of acidity and alkalinity that protects us from germs, the elements, and toxic substances while keeping us hydrated and strong in nutrients and minerals.”
According to Gilleo, “Skin’s pH can change based on what products you’re using, how much you are exfoliating, what you’re feeding your body, how hydrated you are, where you are living, your environment, and more.”
What Is The Optimal Skin pH Level?
Your skin can naturally be either slightly acidic or alkaline. Although every body differs, “skin’s optimal pH is between 4.7 and 5.5, being slightly acidic but bordering neutral,” Gilleo says. This pH level will ensure proper cell turnover, hydration, and skin tips barrier function. An acidic pH helps keep skin balanced and healthy, and because the skin is protected by the acid mantle, any fluctuations in the pH level could make skin susceptible to dehydration, inflammation and accelerated aging.
How Does pH Affect Skin?
“The skin pH is a vital part of a healthy microbiome and therefore overall health of the skin,” Dr. Alexis Stephens, founder of Parkland Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery, tells TZR. The microbes (which are a part of the microbiome) on the skin affect the way the skin looks and feels, and healthy microbes fight against external factors and promote healthy skin healing. Both the microbiome and the acid mantle work together to inhibit the growth of environmental factors like bacteria and fungi.
Our acid mantle works to keep out harmful bacteria while also housing all our natural hydrating oils. In order to function at its best, the acid mantle must maintain its natural pH level. If the pH level is off-balance (higher than 5.5 or lower than 4.7) the skin’s barrier function, moisture retention and microorganism environment will be impacted. If skin is too alkaline, you might experience dryness, irritation, and acne from bacteria. Whereas, if skin is too acidic, the lipid barrier will be compromised. All in all, a slightly acidic pH (which is where the skin falls naturally) will help to maintain the skin barrier function and increase the ability to ward off infection.
Wondering how to determine your skin’s pH? Although it is not a traditional practice to test the skin’s pH, you can see how your skin feels after cleansing. “If it feels tight, cracked, or has any dryness, then your pH’s balance could be off,” Gilleo says. The clearest signs of an off-balance pH include acne, dryness, and accelerated aging in the form of fine lines and wrinkles (although these skin issues can all have many factors that cause them — pH being one of them).
How To Restore and Maintain A Well-Balanced Skin pH
Correcting the skin’s pH balance will bring the skin barrier function back to its optimal state of equilibrium. To get your skin back on track opt for a gentle skin care regimen and avoid harsh cleansers. You can also incorporate alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta hydroxy/salicylic acid (BHA) products to lower your skin’s pH.
However, Gilleo recommends staying clear of over-exfoliating with these types of chemical toners and other skin care products. “Exfoliating once a week is ideal for most skin types,” she says, adding that if you’re unsure of your skin’s current pH, it would be wise to avoid harsh alcohols, fragrance and essential oils in your products, all of which could affect your acid mantle and cause irritation or other skin issues.
There is some good news when it comes to keeping your skin pH in check: sweating naturally regulates your pH. According to Dr. Polla, “The secretions of eccrine (sweat) glands are composed of lactic acid, undecylenic acid, and urocanic acid. These acidic secretions are part of the skin’s defense mechanism against microorganisms.” So as long as you’re not using highly acidic or alkaline products and you’re monitoring your environment, you should be able to maintain a balance fairly easily.
How To Tell The pH Of Skincare Products?
As a daily rule of thumb, Dr. Stephens encourages patients to use topical products with skin-friendly pH and to never select a product with a pH less than 2 on the scale. By selecting gentle cleansers and moisturizers, you will see results that work with your skin and barrier and not against it. Sometimes less is more and when it comes to a well-balanced skin pH, stripping down to the basics is exactly what the skin needs.
All products have a pH of their own which can drastically affect the condition of skin. In fact, if the skin pH is outside of the optimal level, it can actually worsen skin problems if not handled correctly. “pH levels in your skin care products should range from a 5-7 with the exception of vitamin C, retinol, and exfoliants, which can range from a 3.2-6,” Gilleo says. “Use these active ingredients slowly, patiently, and carefully.”
It’s important to not go outside of this 5-7 range as alkaline products can strip away natural oils and disrupt the skin barrier by increasing water loss and inflammation. Whereas, overly acidic products can over-strip natural oils, disrupting the lipid barrier.
Although researching the pH level of your future skin care products is extra work, it could be the difference between healthy skin and dry skin. And as always, when in doubt, see a dermatologist for more in depth resources.