What is pH Balanced Skin Care?
The claim “pH balanced” is advertised by many skincare companies.
The claim implies that these products are more beneficial to your skin.
While it is true that the secretions of our skin make it acidic, are the pH balanced skin and hair care cleansing products, formulated with synthetic detergents and chemicals to make them "pH balanced," really better for your skin?
We often receive e-mails asking, "Are Your Natural Soaps & Shampoos pH Balanced?"
This question is very difficult for me to answer, because . . .
I disagree with the whole idea that pH-balanced skin synthetic cleansers are better for your skin.
What Is pH?
The pH (Potential Hydrogen) is a measure of how concentrated hydrogen ions are in a solution. In simpler terms, it measures the acidity or alkalinity of an aqueous* solution.
The pH scale ranges from 0-14. The pH of distilled water is 7, which is neutral.
Any solution with a pH below 7 is an acid and any solution with a pH above 7 is an alkali (or base).
Fluids inside the human body have many functions and the pH levels of these fluids vary to match the bodily function and are carefully controlled in each body fluid.
The pH of the liquid inside the cells of our body is slightly alkaline, meticulously monitored, and is not influenced by skin care.
The stomach contains hydrochloric acid (HCl) and has a pH of 1-2. The liquids in your small intestine have a pH around 9. Seawater has an average pH of 8 to 8.4.
*The word aqueous pertains to water. An aqueous solution is a solution in which something is dissolved in water.
pH and Your Skin
When it comes to skin chemistry it is important to remember that pH is a measurement of hydrogen ions in an aqueous solution. A common misconception is that your skin, hair, and scalp (simply the skin on your head) have a pH, but they do not really have a pH of their own--your acid mantle does.
When people talk about the pH of the skin, they are referring to the pH of a very thin, naturally secreted, moist layer caused by normal secretions from sweat glands (sudoriferous glands), sebaceous glands (which secrete an oily substance called sebum), and the breakdown of fatty acids on the skin by good bacteria that live on our skin.
Together these secretions create the "Acid Mantle."
The protective oils help keep the skin, scalp, and hair moisturized. The naturally acidic pH allows beneficial bacteria to happily live on our skin while it deters bad bacteria and other microbes that do not like the acidic environment.
The acid mantle, which is necessary for the proper functioning of the skin’s surface, can have a varying pH between 4.5 and 6.5, depending on your age, gender, ethnicity, as well as the area of the body, the humidity, and various other factors.
Brief exposure to slightly alkaline (like handmade soap that you rinse off) or acidic material does not harm the acid mantle. Healthy skin can rebalance the acid mantle in a very short amount of time. After bathing, your skin begins re-secreting the mantle immediately and most "healthy skin will regain its acid mantle within 15 to 30 minutes." According to Dr. Zoe Draelos, in an article published on April 1, 2011, in the "Dermatology Times," "Retaining the acid mantel is only problematic in compromised barrier conditions."
Any skin cleansing agent, even normal tap water (with a pH between 6 and 8.5 depending on the source), influences the acid mantle and thus the surface of the skin.
Our skin is awesome at maintaining its own homeostasis (the ability of our body to regulate and compensate for changes in the environment). Unless you are using harsh cleansers or those that are extremely acidic or alkaline, which can actually damage your skin, the pH of most skin cleansers will not cause long-term changes in the natural pH of the skin.
What Is pH Balanced Skin?
Due to the acid mantle, the skin's pH is mildly acidic. As I said previously, pH fluctuates between 4.5 and 6.5 and varies depending on gender and the region of the body it is covering. Moist areas of the body tend to be more alkaline.
So, let's say that you just came in from a workout in your garden and your skin is nice and moist all over. If you tried to measure the pH of the secretions on your own wet skin, you would discover that the pH varies depending on the part of your body you are testing.
Many, many factors such as genetics, gender, stress, time of day, age, physical activity, what and how much we eat, what and how much we drink, hormone imbalance, ethnic origin, health, medication, weather, hard water, environmental pollution and the simple uniqueness of you, affect the pH of your acid mantle.
With so many factors influencing the skin’s pH, how can a product claim to be "pH balanced." I guess the question we should ask is, pH balanced to what?
This blog is about SKIN CLEANSERS that are used and rinsed off
A skin cleanser is not the same as a daily or chronic use of highly alkaline products that remain on the skin, like emollient or medicinal lotions, creams, serums, etc. These topical applications can keep the skin at an alkaline pH, interfere with the skin's natural ability to return to a normal pH, and may cause permanent changes in the acid mantle.
Syndets vs Natural Soap?
Syndet is a blended word made by combining the words “synthetic” and “detergent.” Technically it is a cleansing product made by the binding of different synthetic detergents
Although the word syndet may be new to many people, the first syndet bar, Dove, was introduced in 1955.
There is a lot of marketing hype and buzz about using pH-balanced syndet bars to go "soap-free." The theory is that since these syndets are less alkaline than natural soap they will not harm the acid mantle.
The problem -- you will be trading your natural soap for synthetic detergents.
The synthetic detergents may have a pH that is more acidic than handmade natural soaps, but many people are not only sensitive to detergents but are also sensitive to synthetic foam boosters, emulsifiers, preservatives, colors, and fragrances used by mass marketers in their soap-free liquid and bar cleansers.
Problems With pH Balanced Skin Cleansing
The pH value alone does not determine whether a product is gentle, harsh, or even effective. The chemical makeup of a product consists of all of the important components, with the pH value being only one of them. Whether a product is gentle or damaging cannot be determined simply by low or high pH values.
These qualities are determined by the complete chemical makeup of the product. In other words, all of the ingredients used to create the skin or hair care product.
The whole premise of pH-balanced skin cleansing is that it will not disrupt the acid mantle. But studies show that all skin cleansing products (even water) disrupt the acid mantle in some way.
What is the real purpose of any skin cleansing product? The purpose, whether it is pH balanced or not, is to get rid of the fatty sebum (oily) layer that holds the dirt and contaminants.
So, while pH-balanced syndets have a neutral or slightly acidic pH, they are still cleansing agents and are made with synthetic detergents and surfactants that dissolve the natural protective fat layer on our skin as they clean.
Remembering that the sebum makes up an important component of the acid mantle, removing this fatty layer may make us feel clean, but these fats are an important part of our natural protection.
While commercial skincare companies like to place all of the blame on skincare products that are not pH balanced, their pH-balanced products are not much better.
A natural soap may temporarily increase the pH of the acid mantle, but the synthetic detergents and other synthetic chemicals used in syndets, cleansing bars, shampoos, and other cosmetics to make them "pH balanced" – can be damaging to the skin.
Many of the synthetic additives can strip the skin of the natural fatty acids and oils, inhibit the natural moisturizing factors of your skin, and actually prevent it from managing its own pH balance.
Of course, the companies making bar and liquid syndets are making the most of the pH controversy. The idea of "pH balanced" is a phenomenal marketing hype. Large skincare companies are continually trying to find ways to convince the public that their products are better (that is their job).
So if they claim that your skin is “acid” and their synthetic detergents, foam boosters, etc. are acid, then their products must be better for your skin. I guess it sounds logical.
A study published in Dermatology 1997;195:258–262 concluded that all skin cleansing agents, even normal tap water (with a pH of 7), influence the acid mantle of the skin.
So basically, cleaning our skin, even with plain water, is not a good idea at all.
I wonder why there are no skincare companies out there telling us that we should bathe or shower much less frequently in order to protect our acid mantle? I have a funny feeling that bathing once a month will never really catch on!
If you really ponder the thought,
our idea of bathing is a relatively new concept
in the total history of humankind.
It also makes sense that chronic use of highly alkaline products that remain on the skin and keep the skin at an alkaline pH, as an alkaline lotion or cream, could cause permanent changes in the acid mantle.
However, the idea that we must use "pH balanced" skin cleansing products or else something will be terribly wrong with our skin, is problematic for me.
From what I have read, I believe that the pH score does not cause skin changes that necessitate sacrificing natural soap for pH-balanced synthetic chemicals. Obviously extreme pH levels in either direction will harm the skin and cause dryness, inflammation, and irritation
While a natural soap may temporarily increase the pH of the acid mantle, the synthetic detergents and other synthetic chemicals used in syndets, cleansing bars, shampoos, and other cosmetics to make them"pH balanced" – can be damaging to the skin.
Many of the synthetic detergents, emulsifiers and other additives can strip the skin of the natural fatty acids and oils, inhibit the natural moisturizing factors of your skin, and actually prevent it from managing its own pH balance.
I personally find that natural, superfatted handmade soap, that retains its natural glycerin, is much more gentle and less drying than syndet bars. (Yes, I did try some)
Whatever product we choose to clean our skin, pH balanced or not, will not only remove the natural sebum (fat) but also the natural skin microflora or good bacteria, which help stabilize the pH of the skin as well as protect us from bad bacteria.
After reading so many studies about things that affect the acid mantle, it seems to me that cleaning our skin is actually not a very good idea.
Please read our blog, "The War on Soap."
How Do We Test The pH Of Our Soaps & Shampoos?
I do not approach soapmaking as a craft--I am fascinated by the chemistry of saponification and respect the effect that an alkali heavy soap can have on our skin.
Very early lye soaps were often very irritating to the skin. Since there was no accurate way to measure the lye concentration, the old-fashioned methods of soap making often resulted in harsh soap, which has given lye soaps an undeserved bad reputation.
Early soapmakers often had to make many batches of soap before one was suitable to be used on their family's skin. (Read about "The Origin of Soapmaking")
We test all of our soap batches with technical grade pH paper. The pH of the initial soap batter is extremely high and shows a deep purple color on the pH paper. After 24 hours in the mold, the pH has dropped drastically.
Many soapmaking books warn soapmakers to use gloves when working with fresh soap. When I take our soaps out of the molds after 24 to 48 hours, I do not use gloves and my hands are never irritated.
The picture to the left shows a simple pH paper test of four different soaps that are two to three weeks old. Notice that the soaps test around 7 with this pH paper. When using a pH meter we also get similar values. Some of the soaps made with fruit juices actually test even lower. But we know the pH is really higher.
The problem is that since soap is a soft solid, pH test strips and simple meters are not the best choices to measure soap pH. Since the pH scale is used to measure the acidity or alkalinity of solutions not solids, I need to rub water on the bar to wet the surface in order to use the pH paper and this affects the pH number. But the pH paper and the meter do allow us to compare the changes over time as the soap cures and we watch the pH decrease.
We allow our soaps and shampoos to cure for 8 to 10 weeks. We superfat all of our soaps and shampoos. Superfatting leaves a portion of unincorporated oils in the finished soap, which ensures that Chagrin Valley natural soaps and shampoo bars have superior moisturizing and emollient qualities. We superfat at a much higher rate than most soapmakers.
These "extra oils" also provide free fatty acids and triglycerides to the soap bar. Studies have shown that after being washed with soap and water, these free fatty acids help skin recover its natural pH balance faster.
The most accurate test of a good mild soap is how it feels on your skin. We have received many emails, phone calls, and testimonials from people who have seen dramatic changes in their skin, scalp, and hair after just a few days of using our handmade soaps and shampoos.
They have switched from their “pH balanced” synthetic "soap," body wash, or shampoo and are finally free from itching, dry skin, eczema and other skin and scalp problems.
A little note: If you love using natural soaps on your face and are really worried about pH try adding a pH balancing toner by mixing 1 part apple cider vinegar with 4 parts water.
It is important to remember that . . .
all soap bars are not created equal!
I found so many articles written about the "evils of soap" that began with words like, "Using a harsh bar soap with a high pH..." But, what is the "harsh bar soap?"
Commercial companies remove the natural glycerin and add synthetic ingredients not found in handmade soap, like chemical preservatives to increased shelf life and synthetic colors or scents. They also contain free Alkali which increases the shelf life and hardness of the soap bars, but also increases the pH and makes them harsh and drying.
I have written an entire blog about "Natural Soap vs Commercial Soap"
Also, all handmade soaps are not also created equal! The quality of a bar of handmade natural soap will vary based on:
- the technique or process used
- curing time
- the amount of superfatting (adding extra oil)
Compare For Yourself!
|Chagrin Valley Rosemary Mint Charcoal Shampoo
|A Popular Shampoo that claims to be "pH balanced"
The pH-balanced shampoo states that it is made with Tea Tree Oil and natural herbal extracts.
Notice how far down the ingredients list you must go before finding the two (in red) natural ingredients!
What I stated above is worth repeating, the pH value alone does not determine whether a product is gentle, harsh, or even effective. These qualities are determined by the complete chemical makeup of the product. In other words, all of the ingredients used to create the skin or hair care product.
I believe that the synthetic chemicals in pH-balanced cleansing products cause more damage to the skin than the temporary disruption of the acid mantle that comes from a well-formulated natural bar of soap or shampoo.
Please read our blog, "The War on Soap."