Why does the pH of Skincare Products Matter so Much?
While exploring the many different skincare options on the market and how they work with skin, their textures and smells, how often do you check the product’s potential hydrogen (pH) level? Understanding your skincare’s pH is often the most overlooked, but crucial, part of choosing the right products for your skin. Just as your skin’s pH has an enormous effect on your skin’s overall health, the pH of your skincare products do as well. Let’s discover how pH levels in skincare products affect skin and why the pH of your skincare matters so much.
You’ve likely seen “pH balanced” on some of your skincare products but do you know exactly what that means? What is the deal with pH anyway? Why does the pH of your skincare matter so much?
What is pH?
The pH is the scale that measures the acid-alkaline ratio (0-14) in substances, in this case skincare products, which is directly related to its functionality and how it relates to your skin’s overall health.
pH in Skin
Healthy skin is normally slightly acidic, with a pH between 4.5-6.0. The acid mantle, our skin’s acidic film on the surface, protects skin from potential bacteria, pollutants and virus. The key is to preserve this acidic environment so that the acid mantle is not compromised, otherwise skin can become vulnerable to irritation and infection.
- Acidic: pH of 0-6
- Neutral: pH of 7
- Alkaline: pH of 8-14
Common examples of basic and acidic substances:
Skin is Slightly Acidic
“Preserving this acidic vibe of skin makes for more resilient skin. Maintaining an optimal acid environment is important for skin barrier and immune function, sustaining the skin’s natural flora, inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria and neutralising alkaline aggressors, such as harsh surfactants.” – consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk.
The term “pH balanced” of skin refers to the acidity levels of skin and the term “pH balanced” of skincare refers to the acidity levels of skincare.
Do not take a “pH balanced” label at face value.
Labelling a skincare product “pH balanced” is a common marketing ploy used by companies. If you want to know the pH level of your skincare products, you are either going to have to look for this information (and take note, most skincare companies do not list their products’ pH levels) or reach for the pH test strips and check the product yourself – after purchase!
What does it mean when a product includes the term “pH Balanced” on the label?
The term has no legal definition. This only means the product is “balanced” between 0-14, which would be a pH of 7.0, a neutral pH. Skin’s natural pH is approximately 5.5.
The pH of Skincare Products
The pH of your skincare matters and actually, quite a lot. Without the right pH, a skincare product might not actually not work properly and even damage your skin.
What is the ideal pH of your skincare products?
For the most part, skin is its happiest when its skincare products have a pH identical or close to its natural pH level. A good target for skincare pH would be similar to skin’s natural pH 4.0 – 6.0, which is slightly acidic.
However, there are exceptions:
Natural Skincare and pH
Some active ingredients and natural preservatives are pH sensitive. The pH is adjusted in these cases to ensure they work properly in the formulations. Acids and Vitamin C need to be different pH levels in order to increase absorption and effectiveness.
The pH level can change how your acid exfoliants, like AHAs, are absorbed in your skin. They should have a lower pH (levels 3.0-5.0) in order to effectively penetrate skin and therefore, should be used in moderation. Overuse can lead to dry, sensitized skin.
Skin tip: AHAs makes skin photosensitive regardless of how often you use it. Don’t forget sun protection!
Vitamin C serums
A Vitamin C serum, such as one with L-Ascorbic Acid, should be an acidic pH (ie. Below 3.5) for optimal absorption. The more difficult it is for Vitamin C to penetrate into skin, the less effective it will be. This is one reason why Vitamin C Serums are recommended to be first in line when layering skincare (on a clean face of course!).
Skin Tip: Look for Ferulic acid in your Vitamin C Serums as it helps lower the pH level of the Vitamin C.
Cleansers are the most over-looked skincare product. They play a critical role in skin health and are often the most common threats to skin with their damaging pH levels. Many have very high pH levels because alkalinity is required to effectively remove dirt and oils from skin. Unfortunately, achieving the ‘squeaky clean’ finish can disrupt skin’s acid mantle and, with prolonged use, can make skin prone to chronic irritation, dryness and infection.
The alkaline pH of a “basic” cleanser will severely disrupt the acid mantle and the lipid barrier. A cleanser at too high of a pH weakens those skin structures, allowing the cleansing agents in the product to strip away too many of the skin’s natural lipids, compromising its overall integrity and allowing bacteria and irritants to invade and water to escape. (3)
Check out our cream based, pH-appropriate cleansers here.
Did you know that your cleanser could be the cause of your acne or redness?
A cleanser with a high pH generally contains detergents and soaps that strip skin’s natural moisture and oils. If you suffer from acne or sensitive skin, you should be extra careful and stick to ph-balanced cleansers because they can trigger flare-ups.
Try to use cleansers that are only slightly higher than 5.5, so they are still effective at breaking down dirt and oils on your skin but still leave it intact and moisturized.
Skin Tip: How to tell if your cleanser has a high ph: if product foams or bubbles.
Layering Order of Skincare
Being mindful of the order you layer your products and their pH levels can have an effect on skin’s pH level and health. As a general rule, we suggest going from lowest to highest.
Generally, your skincare products should fall within these ranges:
- Cleansers: pH 4.5–7
- Toners: pH 5–7
- Sunscreens: pH 5–7.5
- AHA and BHA Exfoliants: pH 3.2–3.9, with any reading between 3 and 4 considered most effective
- Moisturizers: pH 5–7
- Serums: pH 4–6
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) products: pH 2.6–3.2 (3.5)?
- Retinol products: pH 4–6.6
Interpreting Skincare product pH numbers
- It is best to use a facial toner after your cleanser as cleansing will rebalance the pH level in your skin. As suggested, try to avoid alkaline, harsh cleansers but if you do then this is when it is the most important to then use a toner.
- As a rule of thumb, your evening moisturizer would be applied after any retinol products.
- If you’re using acids, make sure to use them before more neutral ones (5.0-7.0).
- Low and high pH products do not mix so try to use at different times of the day.
Skin Tip: Do not combine retinol and Vitamin C as they work best at different pH levels. It is suggested to wait at least 30 minutes between them or better yet, using one in the morning and the other at night.
ELLA i SKiN and pH
At ELLA i SKiN, we believe in the importance of pH-appropriate formulations for optimal skin health, so your complexion is functioning at its best for your skin’s overall health.
(1) Low pH Facial Cleanser: How the Skincare Staple Balances Skin. K. Howard. R. Nazarian, MD, FAAD. Byrdie.
(5) WHAT YOUR SKIN PH SHOULD BE – AND WHY IT MATTERS. A. Hunter. Get the Gloss.