How does pH balance protect your skin?
Have you ever washed your face and it felt dry, tight and itchy afterwards? Well, you may be using a soap that removes all your natural oils, leaving your skin unprotected. A thin layer of oils and lipids called the acid mantle normally covers your skin to create a barrier that protects you from bacteria and other contaminants. Maintaining the low pH of your acid mantle is important for skin health, but harsh soaps easily –and commonly-- damage and strip away this delicate layer leaving your skin susceptible to bacteria, including the bacteria that cause acne. When your skin is not pH balanced, you will also notice that common acid-based ingredients for skincare are less effective– including salicylic acid, ascorbic acid, glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid. While it may initially feel good to get your skin “squeaky clean”, cleansing is best when it does not over strip your skin and maintains your normal pH balance to support the acid mantle.
What affects your acid mantle?
Let’s do a quick high school chemistry review: pH is measured on a scale from 1 to 14 and indicates how acid or alkaline is a substance. A pH of 7 is neutral, like water. Anything less than 7 is acidic, like lemons or vinegar, while anything greater than 7 is alkaline or basic, like bleach or lye. Substances at both extremes of the pH scale can damage and burn your skin. So, minimizing use of those products and, instead, using products that maintain your normal pH balance is ideal for healthy skin. Your skin is naturally slightly acidic, with a pH of 4.2 to 6.
Common soaps are often made with lye and can be very alkaline, especially if they have ingredients to produce a rich lather. Products with foaming agents like sodium lauryl sulfate, will have a pH of 8, while the natural liquid castile soaps will have a pH of 9. On the other hand, acids and peels commonly used for exfoliation can have a pH as low as 2, which also alters the acid mantle. In general, if you use a product and it stings or burns, it is because it has a pH that is very different from the normal pH of your skin. Products that support your natural pH balance will feel calm and soothing when they are applied to your face. A great example from nature is aloe vera gel, which is used in ayurvedic medicine to calm the skin and has a pH of 4.5-5.5, an exact match to the natural pH of skin.
Caring for your acid mantle and your skincare routine.
Most cleansers, including bars and detergent soaps, are too alkaline for your skin. When they also produce a lot of foam, they can strip away the natural oils from your acid mantle, disrupt your natural skin pH and leave your skin feeling tight, dry and irritated. Avoid products with harsh detergents or soaps and with high foaming ingredients. Instead, choose mild cleansers that are slightly acidic and contain lipids, fatty acids and ceramides that help restore your skin’s natural barrier. Also, consider using the double cleansing method, which uses non-comedogenic oils to cleanse the skin and support the acid mantle followed by water and a mild cleanser. A calming pH balanced toner provides the last step for cleansing your skin, while bringing it back to its natural pH, and prepping it for your skincare treatments.
If you have issues with acne, dry skin, hyperpigmentation, aging or any other common skin concerns, applying treatments to treat those issues immediately after cleansing is ideal. If your skin is pH balanced, and slightly acidic, you will find these ingredients are more effective and you will not have to use them in very high concentrations to have a good effect on your skin. Using toners to balance your skin’s pH promotes a gentler approach to your skincare and avoids the need to use very acidic, high concentration solutions that can lead to burning and irritation. The ingredients used to treat common skin concerns include a variety of acids like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, retinoic acid, ascorbic acid and hyaluronic acid depending on your individual needs. Thus, using a pH balancing toner before you apply treatments will bring your skin back to its natural acidic state, and improve the effectiveness of these ingredients, which a more alkaline environment, including water and common soaps, might otherwise neutralize.
Using effective moisturizers helps rebuild and support the acid mantle. Moisturize with products that mimic sebum, your natural skin oil. Moisturizing oils that work particularly well with the skin’s natural oils include jojoba, argan, rose hip, marula and almond oils. They work by leaving a light protective film to support your acid mantle, and many also have the advantage of being high in natural anti-oxidants.
When we say “work with your skin, not against it” a major part of that philosophy revolves around maintaining the natural pH of your skin. By taking a gentle approach that supports the acid mantle and does not over-strip your skin, or remove your natural oils, you will find gentle skincare is a healthy approach that leads to calm, balanced and beautiful skin.