If Your Skin Is Acting Up, You Might Want to Try pH-Optimized Skincare
Balanced skin is happy skin.
If you're into skincare, you've likely heard a lot about your skin's pH balance. You've picked up ingredients that talk about "balancing your skin's pH" and "supporting your skin's pH"—but what does that actually mean? What should your skin look and feel like when it's balanced, and how will you know when it becomes 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 (i.e., conditions like rosacea or eczema) are more likely to experience disruptions in pH. Additionally, as you age, the pH of your skin becomes more alkaline, interfering with proper skin function.
What causes pH imbalances?
A number of things can cause pH imbalances. Overwashing your face can strip the skin of essential oils, disrupting the skin barrier and affecting the pH of the skin. 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 surface of the skin 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 imbalances.
Cleanser is also really important to take into account when you're looking at your skincare regimen as a whole. "True soaps have an alkaline pH and can be damaging to the skin," says Dr. Zeichner. "Instead, stick to nonsoap cleansers that are more pH-balanced to the skin's acid mantle." Additionally, hard water—most commonly found in groundwater-sourced water systems—contains minerals like calcium that can lead to dryness and irritation. An impaired skin barrier may alter the pH of the outer skin layer. Dr. Zeichner says that hard water may be a problem especially for people who have sensitive skin or conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
He also notes that, since you're regularly wearing a face mask and 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. "Since the fabric is sitting right against our faces, 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."
And finally, overuse of acids on the skin—particularly glycolic (often used for exfoliation and pore size reduction) and salicylic (commonly found in acne treatments)—can decrease pH to an extreme, leading to peeling. This is what happens with overuse of alpha and beta hydroxy acids on the skin. "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're suspecting a pH imbalance, there are a variety of products you can use to test your skin and/or products. This Hanna Instruments device is a medical-grade skin and scalp pH tester, and you can use litmus strips, like these from Hicarer ($8; amazon.com), to test your products' pH levels. La Roche-Posay is also releasing a wearable, more high-tech sensor called My Skin Track pH (the brand already has a UV-sensing version).
What products and ingredients should you seek out?
Acidic products with a high pH (9 and above)—like chemical exfoliants made with AHAs—can be used in moderation. But an overabundance of these solutions 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 helps keep your face's pH balanced, look for products close to your skin's natural pH somewhere in the 4.6 to 5.5 range—to avoid stripping the skin.
Here are a few products that can help rebalance your skin's pH and treat inflammation caused by pH disruption.
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.
While it's easy to over-exfoliate your skin, it's less likely to happen if your regular exfoliant is super gentle. This powder-to-foam product is made with soothing Japanese rice and is water-activated to ensure maximum gentleness. Plus, it's pH-neutral so it won't affect your skin's balance.
This one-and-done moisturizer is great for both your daytime and nighttime routines. It has a pH level of 5.5 and the texture of a rich face cream, but is still lightweight enough to use during the day. It also contains ceramides to help reduce any inflammation caused by pH imbalances.
pH balance is especially prevalent in K-beauty brands, and some, like Acwell, even publish the product's pH on its packaging. This essence mist—with a pH of 5.5—brightens and soothes skin with licorice water, root extracts, bamboo water, and soothing centella asiatica leaf water.
These pre-soaked cotton pads are saturated with betaine salicylate and willow bark water to gently exfoliate the skin and help clear your pores. They have a pH level between 4 and 5 to help maintain your skin's moisture barrier.