Epidermal Sweet Spot: pH balanced Skin Care Routine


Before we dive deep into the pH balanced skin care, I wanted to re-state basic premise of the matter:

pH balance of our skin is 4 – 5.5. Acid mantle, protective film of amino / lactic acids and oils on top of our skin, guards our skin from environmental factors (bacteria, pollutants) that contribute to premature ageing and irritation. The relative success of your own personal acid mantle depends on its pH level.

Acidic skin

Alkaline skin

Red, irritated and oily skin Irritated, dry and fragile skin which is susceptible to wrinkles
Due to excess oil, the person has clogged pores which makes skin prone to breakouts Acid mantle is damaged / broken which means that bacteria gets in easily. As such, people are prone to acne, dermatitis, rosacea


Human body is a system: the things we ingest affect the way we look. Balanced and produce – happy diet will balance skin’s pH naturally. As far as external treatments go, it is best to be mindful of formulas and ingredients of the products we apply to our skin.

pH balance and facial cleansers (skin – type products)

Cleansers have one objective which is to cleanse the face. As such, I would suggest not paying too much attention to marketing promises of skin transformations and miracles as a result of choosing the right cleanser. In other words, put away the pinatas and confetti and remember just those major points:

1)      Anything above pH 5.6, the upper range of healthy skin, will raise the skin’s pH and cause issues (universal rule when it comes to skin care)

2)      Acidic cleansers do not disturb the skin’s pH like alkaline cleansers do. As such, everyone can benefit from an acidic cleanser, oily or dry skin types alike!

There is certain category of beauty experts who assert that cleansers need to be alkaline in order to cleanse properly. What they often refer to are those “harsh” soaps that boast alkalinity well over 9 but leave you feeling squeaky clean. According to the research, there is no correlation between efficacy of cleaning and pH level of the solution. As such, low- pH cleansers are just as effective as high – pH cleansers but with an added benefit of maintaining healthy skin with the acidic cleanser. Just to make this point more evident, consider this: high- pH soaps make acne worse while the acidic cleanser makes acne better since low pH is inhospitable to acne.

Acidic / slightly acidic cleansers might include AHAs or BHAs which will give some exfoliation effect as well. Please be mindful of skin-care product ingredients and their compatibility.

3)      Consider that water itself has neutral or slightly base pH in most cases. For example, in my locality pH of tap water rose from 6.5 to 7.2 in a matter of one year (2009 – 2010). The reason for raising the pH of naturally “soft” and acidic water was that acidic water is corrosive, causes pipes to leak and leaches heavy metals from pipes/ plumping fixtures into the tap water. As such, local administration authorized introduction of sodiumcarbonate (soda ash) into the tap water to make it more alkaline. This essentially means that whether you use acidic or alkaline cleanser you have to consider that tap water will further raise pH level of your skin. For that precise reason some people try to avoid or minimize contact of skin with the tap water


pH balance and toners (skin – condition products)

Due to contact of the skin with tap water, skin’s pH will not be at its optimal 5.5 level following facial cleansing procedure. This is where facial toners serve their basic function of balancing skin’s pH by recalibrating the skin to its optimal level.

Basic toner formulationMost toners are at the optimal pH level or ever so slightly acidic pH in order to balance probably slightly alkaline skin after washing.

No matter your skin type or condition, it is best to avoid toners that contain preservatives, alcohol, fragrances, coloring and / or other similar ingredients as they can make skin irritated and even chronically sensitive.

Toner formulations to address some skin conditions:

–          Dry / dehydrated skin: Some toners might also contain humectants (nano-particles that draw in larger particles of water and moisturizer) which will essentially make moisturizers more effective

–          Acne: Toners containing AHAs and BHAs will remove dead skin cells and pore buildup

If you want to your skin to be most receptive of facial acids and vitamins, you could consider pH adjusting your face with toner. After cleansing, skin might be at pH level of 7 or even 8 while pH dependent products (glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, Vitamin C, etc) are formulated / work best at pH level of around 3 or 4.

  No pH adjustment with toner pH adjustment with toner
Central point of pH adjustment dilemma Facial acids and vitamins are supposed to go onto bare skin Skin’s pH after cleansing has much higher pH than the pH most optimal for efficiency facial acids and vitamins


Pros More gentle way of using facial acids on the skin since skin is less reactive –          Skin is very receptive


–          Facial acids and vitamins are said to work best


Cons Midler efficacy of facial acids –          Skin is prone to dryness and irritation

–          Only limited number of pH adjusting toners have simple and non – interfering formulas


How it work 1)      Use low – pH / acidic cleanser then use facial acids and vitamins directly

2)      Use low – pH / acidic cleanser, follow up with hydrating toner of around pH 5 and then apply facial acids

3)      Use low – pH cleanser, wait 20 minutes to 1 h for acid mantle to restore naturally and then apply facial acids


As such, upon application of facial acids,

the product will need to further adjust the skin’s pH before starting to do the work it was  designed to do


Use acidic cleanser and follow up with low – pH toner


If you use pH adjusting toner, you will be able to bring pH level of the skin to 3 or 4 so acids are able to get straight to work upon application



pH balance and active ingredients (facial acids and vitamins)

When it comes to active ingredients, there are two things to get acquainted with:

1)      Active ingredients tend to be pH – dependent

2)      General rule of thumb is to wait 20 – 30 minutes between application of facial acids and other low- pH dependent ingredients

pH dependent skincare product ingredients:

There are certain ingredients in the skincare worlds that require specific pH to work their magic. This is known as pH –dependency. Mostly it applies to active ingredient like chemical exfoliants and serums.

Facial acids / chemical exfoliants like BHAs (salicylic acid) and AHAs (like glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, etc) have something called a “Free Acid Value” which will tell you the true strength of its exfoliating powers. Essentially, the lower the pH of the product, the deeper chemical exfoliants will be able to penetrate, work more effectively and have greater concentrated effect. Low – pH also means that products are more or simply too powerful and have to be used by professionals or highly competent consumers.

When facial acid is formulated at a pH below 2.0 the entire percentage of that acid in solution is considered “free” – competently unrestrained to do everything it’s going to do like unclog pores, slough off dead skin, upregulate collagen production, increase cell turnover , etc.

For example, if you have a 20% salicylic acid product at a pH of 2.0 than the entire 20% is “free” to work its magic. However, the closer the pH of that product to neutral (pH level of 7), the less of the total 20% will actually work.


Order of application of active ingredients following the toner: 

Wait 20 minutes between application of

–     20 minutes is a window allowing each facial acid to do its work and each acid’s pH will be effectively neutralized by the skin

–  20 minutes wait will ensure that products do not mix so they don’t cancel each other out or cause reactionary breakouts

–     Avoid product interference

For example, facial acids will be interrupted by the action of serum. While serum might not be able to do the job due to facial acid formulation


1)      Cleanser + Toner (?)

2)      Vitamin C

3)      Wait 20 minutes

4)      BHA

5)      Wait 20 min

6)      AHA

7)      Wait 20 minutes

8)      Apply the rest of your routine



If you want to use retinol or retinoid during the same skincare routine, you should wait as long as you can after you apply facial acids to the skin. The reason for this is that retinol is pH dependent product and will not do the job otherwise. Retinol will work best on pH neutral (5.5) skin.


pH balance and moisturiser (skin – type products)Moisturiser will stay on the face for an extended period of time so it is essential that its pH fits the happy skin criteria in terms of the pH level. You could use pH strips or pH meter to test the product.


I strongly suggest testing pH level of your skincare products. With that in mind, it would be reasonable to mention that you can test pH of products that contain water. If you are using pure oils, it is suggested that there is no pH to be found. That said, pH debate seems to be a rabbit hole that has no end and new developments might suggest otherwise sometime soon.


Thanks for reading,


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