The Skin Condition You Never Knew Was Wreaking Havoc on Your Face

How to keep your complexion healthy and pH balanced according to the pros.

skin ph balance
Being the body’s largest organ, it makes sense that skin can be so temperamental. The endless array of internal and external stressors makes it nearly impossible for your complexion to appear flawless 100 percent of the time (sigh). But within the world of skin care, there is an almost invisible factor that may tip the scales from a great skin day to one filled with irritation, dryness, and breakouts: your skin’s pH level.

In case you need a refresher from your high school chemistry course, pH stands for potential hydrogen and refers to a substance’s acidity level. The scale ranges from 1 to 14, with the higher numbers considered alkaline (or non-acidic), while the lower ones are acidic. A pH of 7 is classified as neutral; however, human skin clocks in at 5.5, meaning our skin mantle is naturally acidic. So what happens when our pH levels are raised or lowered due to the products we use, the weather outside, or the food we eat? Well, according to the experts, it can cause some less-than-desirable reactions for your complexion, even though the fluctuation on the pH scale is only around 0.5 in either direction. More on the importance of maintaining your skin’s pH levels, plus how to get yours back on track, below.

Alkaline v. Acidic

Your skin’s pH can be raised or lowered due to a multitude of stessers, and knowing how to identify what the symptoms of each look like is your first step in correcting the imbalance. According to New Yorkbased dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engleman, if your pH balance is too alkaline, your skin will appear tight and dry (aka the exact opposite of how we want our skin to feel in the cold winter weather). This can lead to further irritation as well as a lack of protection against the growth of acne-causing bacteria. Dry skin plus products that contain harsh, acne-fighting ingredients are never an ideal combination.

If the skin’s pH moves in the opposite direction and becomes too acidic (meaning it is lower on the scale), there is a loss of natural oils to help maintain hydration, and the lipid barrier becomes compromised, which may result in transepidermal water loss. That means more dry skin and more irritation and redness, since the skin is being overworked to prevent dehydration. Says Dr. Engleman, “If not balanced, the acid mantle will no longer be able to fight off infection as well as the environmental stress factors we face every day.”

Causes of pH Imbalance

Skin-care products, especially those with highly active ingredients like retinol or vitamin C, have their own unique pH, which can greatly affect the pH of your skin. And according to a study by the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, even the water you use to wash your face can affect your skin’s pH. European tap water generally has a pH around 8.0, so more alkaline, and can increase the skin mantle’s pH for up to six hours after cleansing before returning to its average level. Comparatively, the water in New York is more acidic, around 4.4 to 4.5, while water on the West Coast is slightly higher (although still acidic) around 5.2, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. So no, you’re not crazy for thinking that when you travel, your skin and hair are much happier or annoyed depending on what part of the world in which you are showering.

Environmental factors like sun exposure, the change of seasons, and air pollution can also cause your pH to change, in addition to topical products that contain cleansing detergents, certain cosmetics, and washing your face too frequently. And because your face and hands are generally exposed to the elements more frequently than, say, your butt or armpits, they change pH levels at a greater rate than those protected areas. That’s why the irritation is typically contained to those locations rather than spread across your entire body. Even your diet can affect changes in your pH—an area of skin-care research that is still undergoing extensive study (especially for foods with a high glycemic index like white bread, white rice, and sweet potatoes).

skin ph balance

Maintaining pH Balance

Even though it may seem impossible to not negatively affect your pH levels each and every day, there are various steps you can take to return your skin to its optimal state. First up, Dr. Engleman recommends a diet rich in leafy green vegetables (think lots of spinach and kale), citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits, tomatoes, carrots, and soybeans. Once you’re eating foods that help maintain your skin’s balance from the inside out, it’s time to move on to your beauty routine, specifically the types of products that you use on the daily.

If you wash your face and wind up with the telltale squeaky-clean feeling, that is an obvious sign that your product is alkaline (contains a high pH) and is stripping away your natural oils and sebum. That in turn can lead to inflammation, dryness, and redness, and because your skin is working overtime to replace those lost oils, you might also experience breakouts.

Generally, products that are more acidic, and therefore closer to your skin’s natural pH, are a safer bet, but some peels and chemical exfoliants can lean too low on the scale and cause flaking and irritation as well. If you’re not sure of a product’s pH, you can purchase an at-home testing kit online for less than $10. Better safe than sorry, in our opinion.

Dr. Engleman recommends using products that have a balanced pH level, or trying a toner to restore the natural pH level of your skin. “This helps to keep oil and sebum production under control,” she explains. “For the body, [drinking] apple cider vinegar will alter the pH level of your skin, which fights off bacteria and neutralizes odors. It is a potent antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral substance capable of keeping bacteria at bay and pimples from forming. The anti-inflammatory and acetic properties [also] help smooth skin.” Consider adding a shot of ACV to your morning routine along with ultra-healthy hot lemon water and green tea. Anything for your skin health, right?

Products for Healthy pH

If you think your skin’s pH is out of whack either from extensive travel, your diet, or the products you use, it’s likely time to incorporate a toner into your routine (in addition to doing a full audit of your current lineup). Remember, using a product that is too harsh can cause more harm than good, so be sure to be patient with your skin and keep your skin-care regimen on the gentler side. Dr. Engleman advises looking for toners with acid blends like lactic or glycolic to exfoliate, as well as soothing toners that contain aloe vera, witch hazel, or vitamin C. These will help nourish irritated skin and rebalance your pH for happy, healthy skin. Finally, be sure to steer clear of products with fragrance or alcohol, which can trigger further skin issues.

A few of her recommendations? “SkinMedica Rejuvenative Toner. [It] contains lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, and malic acid. Each is a natural alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from bilberry extract, sugar cane extract, sugar maple extract, and citrus extracts that provides mild exfoliation to help enhance skin texture and reveal healthy new cells. The Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Toner has an 8 percent concentration and combines [the glycolic acid] with aloe vera and witch hazel to soothe and exfoliate.” Just remember to be consistent with your product usage—using something one time won’t provide the results you’re after. But don’t worry—clear, glowy, and hydrated skin is in your future, we promise.

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