If Your Skin Is Acting Up, Try pH-Optimized Skincare

Balanced skin is happy skin.

If you're into skincare, you've likely heard about pH balance. Products tout "balancing your skin's pH" and "supporting your skin's pH"—but what does that mean? What should your skin look and feel like when it's balanced, and how do you know when it's unbalanced?

"The skin naturally has a slightly acidic pH, around 5.5," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "Because of this, the outer skin layer is often referred to as the acid mantle. This pH is necessary for proper skin cell turnover and functioning of enzymes needed to maintain skin hydration, antimicrobial defenses, and barrier function." People with an impaired skin barrier (with conditions like rosacea or eczema) are more likely to experience disruptions in pH. Additionally, as you age, your skin's pH becomes more alkaline, interfering with proper skin function.

What causes pH imbalance?

Overwashing your face can strip skin of essential oils, disrupt the skin barrier, and affect skin pH. Dr. Zeichner recommends washing your face in the morning and/or evening (depending on your skin's needs) and after heavy sweating. Exfoliating helps remove dead cells from the skin surface to improve texture, but more is not necessarily better. Dr. Zeichner explains that harsh and over-exfoliation causes microscopic breaks in the skin barrier, leading to inflammation and pH imbalance.

Cleanser is another important element in your skincare regimen. "True soaps have an alkaline pH and can be damaging to the skin," says Dr. Zeichner. "Instead, stick to non-soap cleansers that are more pH-balanced to the skin's acid mantle." Additionally, hard water—commonly found in groundwater-sourced water systems—contains minerals like calcium, which can lead to dryness and irritation. An impaired skin barrier may alter the outer skin layer's pH, according to Dr. Zeichner; and hard water may be a problem, especially for those with sensitive skin or conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

Dr. Zeichner also notes that, since you regularly have fabric pressed against your skin, you should be conscious of what laundry detergent you're using. "Stick to fragrance-free and dye-free detergents that won't lead to skin allergies," he says. "Use only the amount of detergent recommended on the bottle. Overdosing can lead to cleansing ingredients becoming trapped within the weave of the fabric, which might cause skin irritation."

Finally, overusing acids on skin—particularly glycolic (often used for exfoliation and pore size reduction) and salicylic (common in acne treatments)—can decrease pH to an extreme, leading to peeling, similar to what happens with overuse of alpha and beta hydroxy acids. "It is OK to use low concentrations of hydroxy acids on a daily basis," says Dr. Zeichner. "However, if you notice any dryness or irritation, hold off and let the skin repair itself for a few days before starting again."

How do you recognize pH imbalances?

"Anytime your skin is dry, red, itchy, or peeling, there may be some degree of pH disruption," Dr. Zeichner says. "Immediately apply a bland moisturizer that contains ingredients like colloidal oatmeal or ceramides to help repair the skin barrier."

If you suspect a pH imbalance, a variety of products can test your skin or products. There's a medical-grade skin and scalp pH tester from Hanna Instruments ($111, HannaInst.com); or for a more affordable option, test your products' pH levels with litmus strips, like these from Hicarer ($8, amazon.com).

What products and ingredients should you look for?

Acidic products with a high pH (9 and above)—like chemical exfoliants made with AHAs—can be used in moderation, but overuse can dry out and sensitize your skin. In contrast, overly basic products (below 4 on the pH scale) can compromise your skin barrier, making it more susceptible to damage and textural issues. For optimal skincare that keeps your face's pH balanced, look for products close to your skin's natural pH (from 4.6 to 5.5).

Here are a few products that can help rebalance your skin's pH and treat inflammation caused by pH disruption.

01 of 05

Summer Fridays Super Amino Gel Cleanser

Summer Fridays Super Amino Gel Cleanser

This gentle gel cleanser is advertised to help balance your skin's pH with a combination of 11 amino acids, maris sal (atomized seawater), and vitamin E.

02 of 05

Tatcha Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powder

Tatcha The Rice Powder

While it's easy to over-exfoliate your skin, it's less likely if your regular exfoliant is super gentle. This powder-to-foam product made with soothing Japanese rice is water-activated to ensure maximum gentleness. Plus, it's pH-neutral so it won't affect your skin's balance.

03 of 05

Drunk Elephant Lala Retro Whipped Moisturizer

Drunk Elephant Lala Retro Whipped Moisturizer With Ceramides

This one-and-done moisturizer is great for daytime and nighttime routines. It has a 5.5 pH level and the texture of a rich face cream, but is still lightweight enough for daytime use. It also contains ceramides to help reduce inflammation caused by pH imbalance.

04 of 05

Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Essence Mist

Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Essence Mist

Korean beauty brands are known for prioritizing pH balance; and this one, Acwell, even publishes the product's pH (5.5) on its packaging. This essence mist brightens and soothes skin with licorice water, root extracts, bamboo water, and soothing centella asiatica leaf water.

05 of 05

COSRX Original Clear Pad

COSRX One Step Original Clear Pad

These pre-soaked cotton pads are saturated with betaine salicylate and willow bark water to gently exfoliate skin and help clear pores. Their pH level (between 4 and 5) helps maintain your skin's moisture barrier.

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  1. Proksch E. pH in nature, humans, and skin. J. Dermatol. 2018;45(9):1044-1052. doi:10.1111/1346-8138.14489

  2. Jabbar-Lopez ZK, Ung CY, Alexander H, et al. The effect of water hardness on atopic eczema, skin barrier function: a systematic review, meta-analysisClin Exp Allergy. 2021;51(3):430-451. doi:10.1111/cea.13797

  3. Crawford C, Zirwas MJ. Laundry detergents and skin irritancy--a comprehensive review. Skinmed. 2014;12(1):23-31.

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