What is pH?
The first time you came across the term ‘pH’ was most probably in school, during a Chemistry lesson. pH or ‘potential of hydrogen’ refers to the acidity level of a substance that is measured on a scale of 0 to 14. While a pH of 7 is considered to be neutral, a value less than 7 and greater than 7 is acidic and basic or alkaline respectively.
While it may seem that a pH of 2 isn’t that small a number compared to a pH of 3, you have to realise that the scale is logarithmic and not linear. This means a pH of 2 is 10 times stronger than a pH of 3, which is 100 times stronger than a pH of 5!
What is the pH of the skin?
Healthy skin has a pH of around 5.5 – that means it’s slightly acidic. Men’s skin tends to be more acidic than women’s skin.
While we are born with neutral skin, it gradually becomes acidic. pH increases with age too but remains acidic.
What determines the skin's pH?
The acid mantle is a film that protects the skin from pollutants, dehydration, infection and environmental stressors. It is made by the outermost layer of the skin, the Stratum Corneum, and by the bacteria that live on our skin and is composed of sebum and sweat. The acid mantle gets its acidity from the bacteria and has a pH between 5 and 5.5.
But why is any of this important? Because pH is an important aspect of keeping your skin healthy!
How does pH affect the skin?
It is very important to keep the pH of our skin balanced and your acid mantle healthy to make sure the skin is functioning as it should. Disturbing your skin’s pH and acid mantle can lead to skin problems such as dryness, tightness or even acne. Does your skin feel tight and a little dry after washing your face with soap or a cleanser? Irrespective of whether the cleanser is alkaline or acidic, this happens because the cleanser removes a bit of the acid mantle. While the pH does get disturbed as well, healthy skin balances it’s pH in 30 to 60 minutes, on average. Most people think it is the pH that gets disturbed and that’s what the problem is but that is only partially true.
What happens if the pH of the skin is disrupted?
Mild disruptions in the skin’s pH are not that big a problem since the skin works to balance itself. However, if you use a highly acidic (pH < 2.5) or highly alkaline (pH > 8) products, then it will take a longer period of time for the skin to adjust itself and can lead to increased sensitivity, inflammation and redness. Highly alkaline products are particularly not good for your skin. In fact, the enzymes that break down collagen (which is responsible for making your skin look plump and young) are activated at higher (alkaline) pH levels, making you age faster.
These disruptions damage the acid mantle of the skin, making the skin more vulnerable and prone to acne, redness and sensitivity.
A Guide to pH-balanced Skin
What should be the general pH of our skincare products?
Usually, this is the pH of skincare products:Cleansers: pH 4.5–7
Toners: pH 5–7
Sunscreens: pH 5–7.5
AHA and BHA Exfoliants: pH 3.2–3.9
Moisturisers: pH 5–7
Serums: pH 4–6
Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) products: pH 2.6–3.2
Retinol products: pH 3.7–5
Why is it important to follow the correct skin routine?
More than anything else, using skincare products in the right order is critical to maintaining healthy and pH balanced skin. If you are using a chemical exfoliator or a retinoid or even a vitamin C serum, it will disrupt the acid mantle and the pH of the skin. This is why it is important to follow up with a moisturiser to restore that balance and replenish the skin!
You should move from thinnest to thickest:
Cleanser | Toner | Chemical Exfoliant | Serum | Moisturiser | Facial Oil
Maintaining pH balance and preserving the acid mantle are the two reasons why you should also slowly introduce products such as exfoliants or vitamin C serums into your skincare routine. Over time, your skin adapts to the product. If you use too much too quickly, you’ll damage the acid mantle and irritate your skin!
What must you consider while choosing the right cleanser for your skin?
If you see organic cleansers and soaps, they’re all mildly alkaline and most people assume that the soap’s alkaline nature will damage their skin. This isn’t true. Yes, if it is highly alkaline, it will cause damage but a mild alkaline soap or cleanser will not harm your skin. For any rinse-off products, such as cleansers and scrubs, look at the ingredients. If it contains sulfates and potentially carcinogenic ingredients such as Parabens and Phthalates, it doesn’t matter if it is alkaline or acidic, it will harm your skin!
What must you consider while choosing the right toner for your skin?
While toners today have a variety of benefits, their primary purpose is to restore the pH balance of our skin. Since toners tend to have a pH between 5 and 7, they are ideal for restoring the pH of the skin.
A toner can be hydrating, tightening, sebum-controlling or glow-enhancing depending on the formulation. While oily skin types should opt for oil-control and anti-acne toners, dry skin types can opt for hydrating formulas.
Always remember, your skin is your largest organ. It is a reflection of the choices you make, in terms of the products you use, your lifestyle habits and most importantly how well you take care of it. Always be mindful while choosing your skincare products, and opt for formulas that help in nourishing your skin and maintaining your skin's natural pH balance.
- By Gauri Sindhu