Intro to pH Balance: Skin and Skin Care

When it comes to pH balance, it seems there is a lot of research with very little conclusive findings which makes things only more confusing for those looking for definitive answers. Interestingly enough, among the chaos of pH discussion, there is an agreement that pH affects our overall health and growth of bacteria among other things. In this particular post, I will focus on pH relative to skin and skin care.

pH stands for “Potential Hydrogen” and refers to the scale representing relative acidity / alkalinity of a solution. pH value has a range where 1 is most acidic, 7 is neutral and 14 is most alkaline. When it comes to skin, human skin is inconclusively considered to have a pH of 4 – 5.5.


 Photo Credit: Border Compounding Pharmacy

Please keep in mind that:

1)      Different areas of skin  might have different pH values

2)      Men often have lower skin pH values than women (Though men are more prone to bacterial and fungal growth due to their skin’s higher oil content). Babies have less acidic skin than older children and adults

3)      Skin pH has occasionally been reported to vary with ethnic and genetic background. However, there are no conclusive results

Speaking about healthy skin pH, it is essential to understand acid mantle and its contribution to keeping things balanced – acid mantle!


What is acid mantle?

Acid mantle is a naturally secreted, thin hydro lipid protective film that covers the outmost layer of the skin, stratum corneum. Acid mantle is made of oils, fatty acids, lactic acid, amino acids and skin’s own natural moisturizing factor.  Essentially, acid mantle is a mix of oil and sweat from production by normal skin bacteria. Acid mantle is slightly acidic in nature – pH 4 – 5.5.


What is acid mantle responsible for?

–          Keep skin cells tight and flat (life roof top shingles) thus protecting skin from weather assaults and harmful bacteria

–          Boost immune system which produces anti-agents close to the skin surface to hinder growth of bad bacteria, known as pathogens

–          Secrete enzymes that break down excess sebum in the skin

–          Acts as a barrier thus keeping in lipids and moisture

–          Prevent bad bacteria and viruses from entering blood stream

–          Keep skin soft and supple so it stays free from cracks and abrasions


What affects integrity of acid mantle?

Personal health and habits: Age, stimulation by medical and chemical substances, stressful life style, unhealthy diets, hormonal imbalances

Environmental contributors: Sun damage, pollutants, bad weather, central heating, air conditioning

Aside from above mentioned factors, your skin care practices affect acid mantle as well: Acid mantle can be washed or scrubbed away and it can also be neutralized by alkaline products that raise the pH of the skin above the level of 6. When it comes to pH, it is important to remember that the hydrogen bonds holding together strands of DNA break up at high pH (alkali environment). As such, continued use of alkaline products (or products that contain inexpensive alkaline surfactants) disturbs the integrity of the acid mantle causing irritation, inflammation and infections.


Photo credit: Hartmann

What happens when integrity of acidic mantle is compromised?

Acid mantle is formed when both secretion of sweat and sebum are balanced. It is true to say that everybody has a naturally different proportion of sweat to oils in their sebum that can “naturally” take skin away from its natural balance. That said, I wanted to focus specifically on the effect that alkaline products have on acid mantle.

Usage of alkaline products damages acid mantle: skin cells that were tight and flat become weak and raised after application of alkali solutions. Once damaged, the acid mantle can take anywhere between 15 minutes to 14 hours to restore itself, depending on how much it has been disturbed or damaged. If you wash your skin twice a day, you can try to imagine the state of your acid mantle!

Short term use of alkali products can strip the skin of its acidic mantle leaving the skin feeling tight, dry and itchy. Alkali products can also cause excessive oil production which will lead to skin collecting more dust and dirt resulting in clogged pores. Continued use of alkali products will weaken the acid mantle further leading to breakage of hydrogen bonds and making the skin more permeable to microorganisms such as bacteria, harsh chemicals and pollutants. When this can easily get in, things can easily get out which means that nutrients and water will not be retained leading to dull and dehydrated skin.

Alkaline skin has been implicated in causing or worsening a range of medical skin conditions including acne, various kinds of dermatitis and rosacea.


Skin care products and skin pH

The fact that there are no conclusive findings when it comes to pH and pH of the skin brings substantial confusion to the members of cosmetic skin-care community. Absence of conclusive results on skin’s pH seems to give skin care manufacturers the freedom of choosing which perspective of scientific research they want to follow when formulating their products. Many cosmetic companies choose to side with 4- 5.5 as an optimal pH balance of the skin. There are also some companies that claim that healthy skin is pH neutral (pH 7). However, there are also numerous companies that do not seem to preoccupy themselves with skin pH and develop skin care products that are at a level of 8, 9 and sometimes even 10, according to the findings of market research.

What I am trying to say is that cosmetic skin care manufacturers do not seem to be obligated to follow any particular pH level standards and it is up to us, consumers, to ensure “pH safety” of the products we are about to use. There are suggestions to purchase products that are labelled as “pH balanced”; however, upon testing their pH value ranges from 4.5 to 10. As such, it is better to use pH strips or pH meter to evaluate the pH safety of the product.


What does it all mean in practical terms?

1)      Access the state of your skin: Is it acidic or alkaline?  Acidic skin is red, irritated and oily. Due to excess oil, the person has clogged pores which makes skin prone to breakouts

Alkaline skin is irritated, dry and fragile skin which is susceptible to wrinkles. Acid mantle is damaged / broken which means that bacteria gets in easily. As such, people are prone to acne, dermatitis, rosacea.

2)      Use skin care products that are slightly acidic in nature  Epidermal Sweet Spot: pH balanced Skin Care Routine
3)      Do not forget to use toner after cleansing as it restores your skin’s pH after contact with water which is alkaline in nature
4)      Do not over – exfoliate your skin (whether by means of mechanical scrubs or by means of facial acid exfoliants)  Exfoliation and Acid Mantle


Thanks for reading,

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