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The Lowdown on the pH Scale: What pH Means for Your Skin

September 16, 2019

The Lowdown on the pH Scale: What pH Means for Your Skin

When you hear the term “pH,” you might think back to eighth-grade science class when you learned how acidic or basic different substances were. 

As a refresher, pH stands for “potential hydrogen” and measures an object’s acidity and alkalinity on a scale of 0–14. A 7 on the scale means neutral; anything below 7 is acidic and anything above 7 is alkaline.

So, what does all this have to do with your skin? 

The Skin’s pH 

Remember that the skin is the body’s largest organ with many different functions. Its main daily duties are fighting off infections and taking in antioxidants. The skin’s pH level has a direct effect on its ability to do just that.

Skin has a protective barrier on its surface called the acid mantle. The skin’s sebaceous glands give off sebum (fatty acids) that make up the acid mantle. The sebum mixes with amino and lactic acids to form the skin’s pH.

The Balance BINGO: Ideal pH for Skin

Going back to middle school science class, many people connect the pH scale with acid rain and its impacts on the environment. Normal, clean rain has a pH of about 5.5 — slightly acidic. But when power plants and cars release sulfur and nitrogen pollutants that combine with the rain, it becomes much more acidic and the pH decreases.

Just like clean rain, the skin has a slightly acidic pH level of 5.5. And as we live our daily lives and come into contact with smoke and other pollutants, products, and natural stressors like the sun, the acid mantle begins to break down. This makes the skin more susceptible to environmental stressors and deregulates the skin’s pH.

To give you an idea of what the pH scale means in terms of everyday household products, see the table below.


pH Scale

Examples

Relation to Skin

0

Battery acid

Danger zone — way too low 

1

2

Vinegar & lemon juice

3

Tomato & grapefruit juice

Low

4

5

Black coffee


The skin’s sweet spot!

 (Not a bad pair, right?)

6

Milk

7

Blood

High

8

Seawater

9

Baking soda

Danger zone — way too high 

10

Bleaches and ammonia (+ some store-bought face soaps!)

11

12

13

14

Drain cleaner


Alkaline Skin Symptoms 

Have you ever — in an act of desperation — used a bar of soap to cleanse your face? Your skin probably felt tight afterward. That’s a result of the high alkalinity in bar soap, which usually falls somewhere between 9-12 on the pH scale. 

Dry skin types usually have a higher pH (typically somewhere between 5.5–7). Acid prevents bacterial growth, so lack thereof can cause acne and breakouts. Alkaline skin symptoms may also include the following: 

  • Dryness
  • Sensitivity
  • Dullness
  • Faster aging
  • Possible pigmentation

Acidic Skin Symptoms

Overly acidic products can cause damage to the skin by stripping its natural oils and disrupting the healthy functioning of the skin barrier. Overusing acidic ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) can further debilitate the natural shield of the skin. 

Oily skin types typically have a lower, more acidic pH of about 4–5. Acidic skin symptoms can include:

  • Psoriasis
  • Fine lines
  • Crow’s feet
  • Proneness to sun damage

Effect of pH on Skin — What Can Throw the pH Off?

A pH level that is too high or too low affects the skin as a protective barrier, which can lead to inflammatory skin diseases like rosacea, acne, eczema, and psoriasis. It may also cause dry patches, redness, and aged skin.

So, what can cause the skin’s pH to become too high or too low? Some contributors that cause an imbalanced pH are as follows:

  • Everyday pollutants, which can break down the acid mantle.
  • Aging — as we age, our skin becomes more acidic.
  • Diet can also have a significant effect on skin pH levels.

Studies have shown that time spent outdoors in the summer can affect the pH of skin. Being outside in the heat causes the body to produce more sweat, increasing sebum excretion and hydration levels and in turn reducing the skin's pH. Then, as the skin acclimates back to a normal environment, sweat evaporation causes dehydration. 

As such, cosmetics that target summertime pH balance should control sweat and sebum secretion and provide lots of moisture. 

If you only read one sentence of this article, let it be this: the effect of pH on the skin is significant and should be taken seriously.

Typically, a solution’s pH can be measured using either an electric pH meter or paper strips that can be purchased at a hardware store.

However, these mechanisms can’t be used on the skin — so how do you know if your skin’s pH balance is off? 

Generally, an unbalanced pH of the skin can be detected when the skin “misbehaves.” If you notice more dry patches than usual, premature aging, or more serious inflammations like eczema or rosacea, it’s usually an indicator that your pH balance is off.

How Can You Find the Right Balance?

Luckily, there are ways to keep the skin’s pH healthily balanced. 

One way is to use pH optimized products, which will always be slightly acidic. These products help to restore the ideal skin environment when you lose your balance.

You may notice, however, that products not specifically formulated to target pH balance don’t have the pH listed on the packaging. What to do then?

Here’s where those paper strips come in handy! You can use them to test the pH of your skincare products. 

Plus, most beauty products are pH-balanced already. Chemists have become more aware of skin health in regard to pH, and typically square this away before putting a product on the market. 

After all, if a product is terribly unbalanced, it will manifest on the skin of those who use the product and result in widespread dissatisfaction (and negative ratings). So it’s in the best interest of beauty lines to demand this balance before a product hits the market.

That said, it’s always good to be extra cautious. While many cosmetics fall within an acceptable pH range, there are still many products out there that are way too acidic or alkaline for the skin — and you should know about them.

But first, what exactly is a well-balanced pH for skincare products? It normally falls between 4-7. 

If the pH is slightly below or above this, that’s ok. Products like exfoliators typically have high acidity, while some mineral sunscreens tend to have high alkalinity. After a few hours of use, the skin will equalize — just be sure not to overuse products on extreme ends of the pH scale.

The table below provides the typical pH of various skincare products, along with our recommendations on what to look out for.


Skincare Product

pH 

Recommendation

Bar soap

8–10

Throw away your store-bought soap bars! Most of them have an alkalinity far too high for the skin.


Instead, use a gentle body wash that does not disrupt the skin’s natural barrier.

Cleansers

4.5–7

Cleansers are a super popular skincare product, so luckily they fall within a well-balanced pH range.


Try an antioxidant-rich cleanser for an even better-balanced pH.

Toners

5–7

Toners are extremely important for a balanced skincare routine, but sometimes they contain harsh chemicals that can harm the skin.


Hydrating, natural toners are always the best choice for a smooth, bright complexion.

Serums

4–6

When the skin’s pH is too high, it loses the acidity it needs to fight bacteria. A serum rich in hyaluronic acid will help to restore the skin’s ideal environment.


On the other hand, when the skin’s pH drops and becomes too acidic (which often happens with age), you’ll want to opt for a more antioxidant- and vitamin-rich serum to stave off premature signs of aging.

Moisturizers

5–7

Unsurprisingly, moisturizing (a lot!) helps rebuild the acid mantle.


Oils are especially effective at restoring the skin’s barrier. Jojoba oil works particularly well since it mimics the skin’s sebum


Coconut, argan, and olive oil also work well with the skin’s natural oil production. Find our helpful guide on the best facial oils for your skin type here.

Exfoliants

3–4

Though this pH is slightly acidic, the skin will bounce back to a healthy pH a few hours after exfoliating.


But be careful not to overdo it! Most skin types can only tolerate exfoliation 1–2 times per week.

Sunscreens

5–7.5

Using sunscreen daily (even in the winter) shields the acid mantle. It protects skin cells from the sun, in turn allowing the skin to protect itself more effectively.


We recommend using a mineral sunscreen formula, which is more soothing for the skin than chemical sunscreens.


Remember: Sunscreen all day, rain or shine, summer or winter, indoors or out! (Repeat!)

Retinol products

3–5

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that is known for collagen production and reducing fine lines and wrinkles. 


Always choose retinol products with natural ingredients and soothing qualities formulated to balance their slight acidity.

Vitamin C products

2.5–3.5

Vitamin C is a skincare superfood that is great for pH balance.


vitamin C moisturizer rich in antioxidants will keep skin hydrated and help balance sebum production.

At-home acid peels

4–5

Be careful with acid peels! Some beauty experts believe that only those with a pH of 3.5 or lower are effective. 


Only a dermatologist should handle any skin procedure involving a product with a pH lower than 3.5,  as they have the technology to immediately neutralize these extreme conditions.

Makeup removers

5.5–7

Makeup removers are typically gentle, but sometimes you’ll find one that irritates or burns the sensitive region around the eyes.


We recommend removing makeup with calming makeup remover pads.


Other Balancing Acts: Probiotics and Diet

A healthy pH balance is important for your entire body, not just the skin. Both internal and external forces can help create your perfect pH balance.

Probiotics & pH 

Probiotics can also help improve the skin’s pH balance. Studies have shown that topical use of probiotics can reduce inflammation from acne and also restore acidic skin pH, resulting in anti-aging effects! They can also help repair the skin barrier by laying the foundation for a healthy microbiome. 

Balanced Diet, Balanced pH

Diet has more to do with skin quality than most people think. Interestingly, the body swaps pH levels with foods once they’re digested. In other words, a lemon is acidic before it’s eaten, but forms alkaline byproducts after it’s been digested. We don’t want to be too acidic internally, so dermatologists recommend an alkaline-heavy diet (that is, alkaline after digestion), meaning citrus fruits, carrots, leafy greens, and soybeans are best for the skin’s pH. 

The Take-Away: Your Skin’s pH Matters

There are many aspects of a healthy skincare regimen, and pH is a very important one. When it comes to cultivating your perfect pH, here’s our general advice:

  • Moisturize. The magical elixir of skincare, moisturizers are almost always the answer. Remember: oily skin types have a lower, more acidic pH, while dry skin types tend to have a higher, more alkaline pH. 
  • Sunscreen. The sun stresses the skin more than anything else, and UV light can cause irreversible (!) damage. You need to protect your acid mantle as best you can — and the best way to do this, hands down, is through everyday use of sunscreen.
  • Don’t wait! Ignoring an unbalanced pH can result in long-term skin damage. If you notice signs of an off-balance pH, start digging in to find solutions right away. The earlier, the better!

As always, remember to consult your dermatologist regarding skincare concerns such as acne, rosacea, and eczema. While these issues can be the result of a high or low pH, it is best to discuss your options with a professional. Your (healthy, glowing) skin will thank you! 

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