The pH of Skin

Published: 04th August 2009
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Sometimes we forget to think of skin as an organic substance. We think our facial cleansers clean skin the same way we wipe down the surface of the kitchen table. When skin feels dry, we picture skin being more like the papery layers of an onion. But what we don't tend to realize are all the dynamic properties involved in maintaining our skin

Skin contains small opening called pores. These include the glands that produce sweat, sebum (oil), as well as the hair follicles. When skin is behaving, the mixture of sebum and sweat normally secreted from the glands combines to form a thin, protective layer over the surface of the skin. Since the pH of that layer is 5.5, or slightly acidic, this protective covering is referred to as the acid mantle. The acid mantle protects skin from bacterial infection by creating a hostile acidic environment to microbes. Without that layer, skin is open to infection and irritation. A recent scientific study showed that skin treated with an alkaline product of pH 8 was highly susceptible to water loss and cell damage after coming in contact with a 1% SLS (detergent) solution.

When we use facial cleansers, the acid mantle is disrupted by the act of washing. Facial cleansers need to raise the pH of skin slightly in order to effectively remove dirt and grime from the surface of skin. However, if the pH is raised too much, too much surface sebum is removed, thus removing the protective acid mantle of skin and creating dry skin. Interestingly, many dermatological skin conditions are associated with skin that has pH of 7 or above.

The reason why people recommend you do not use soap to wash your face is because soap is very alkaline (pH 9 or higher) and will definitely raise the pH of skin, which leads to skin dryness. Some studies show that it could take skin up to an hour to return back to normal. Many people use toner after washing in order to lower the pH of skin back towards acidity.

Therefore, choose a facial cleanser that has a pH close to normal skin. Most skin care companies are aware of the pH conundrum and a search of the common drugstore facial cleansers shows reassuringly that a majority have a pH < 7. The pH of most acne facial cleansers tends to be very close to the normal acidic pH of skin. The reason is that the bacteria that promote acne growth thrive in an alkaline (basic, or pH >7) environment. In addition to the cleansing ingredients, moisturizers and ingredients that promote water retention are commonly included. Lactic acid, hydroxyl acids, lipids and fatty acids can all help bring the pH of skin back towards acidity.

However, you should still be a careful shopper. Just because a bottle says "pH balanced" or "mild" does not mean the pH is within the normal range for skin. In fact, "pH balanced" might just mean it is the pH of water, which is 7.4.

As you can imagine, pH of skin can be affected by exercise and sweating. The weather (sunshine, temperature, humidity) also affects skin pH, with studies showing skin's pH to be lower in July as compared to October. It's possible that a diet free of fatty acids may impact skin negatively (and you thought you were being healthy!). pH buffering decreases as we age, too, leading to more skin sensitivity.

Think of skin as a "living" environment with lots of dynamic processes. The acid mantle is the protective covering over skin. Disrupting it causes lots of skin irritations, dryness and infection. By understanding that all skin conditions are related to changing the pH of skin, take some care in choosing products that won't disrupt or change the pH. That can be your biggest step towards perfect skin.

The author writes reviews on wrinkle cream and facial cleansers to help shoppers find the best deals on products that really work.

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