What is pH Balanced Skin Care?
Products that claim to be pH balanced are all the rage these days. Supermarkets and drugstores are filled with pH balanced soaps, body cleansers, shampoos, deodorant, moisturizers, and even makeup.
These products that claim to restore the skin’s natural pH balance imply that these products are not only beneficial to your skin, but an absolute necessity for skin health and a "youthful" appearance.
As consumers demand more and more natural and organic personal care products, a marketing war has developed between commercial and natural companies concerning pH balanced skin care.
Commercial companies make claims that natural soaps, which tend to be more alkaline, are bad for skin, and that their “pH balanced” cleansers are better.
While it is true that the secretions on the surface of our skin are acidic, are the pH balanced personal care products, formulated with synthetic detergents, preservatives, and other chemicals to make them "pH balanced," really better for your skin?
Please don't misunderstand. I absolutely agree that the acid mantle has a slightly acidic pH and it not only provides the proper environment for the skin’s protective microbiome to flourish, but it is also responsible for a lot more including the proper functioning of the entire surface layer of our skin.
While I respect the research that has been done over the years concerning skin pH, I disagree with the way in which the research is being commercially corrupted.
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 synthetic cleansers are better and necessary for good skin health.
What Is pH?
In order to understand pH balanced skin care, we need to talk about pH.
Why the lower case “p” and the upper case “H”? Chemically speaking, the characteristic feature of an acid is its willingness to give up positive Hydrogen ions. The "H" is capitalized because it is the chemical symbol for the element "hydrogen." Some say the lower case “p” represents the word “potential” while others say it stands for "power."
So you can think of the "p" in pH as basically the power of hydrogen in a solution or the potential availability of hydrogen ions in a solution.
The pH measures the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. In simpler terms, it measures the acidity or alkalinity of an aqueous solution. The word aqueous pertains to water.
An aqueous solution is a solution in which something is dissolved in water. A pH measurement only has meaning in an aqueous solution. If there is no water there are no free hydrogens to measure and therefore there is no pH. For example, you cannot measure the pH of things like solid objects.
The pH scale ranges from 0-14. The pH of distilled water is 7, which is neutral. Basically, any solution with a pH below 7 is an acid and any solution with a pH above 7 is an alkali (or base).
It is important to know that while the differences between a pH of 3 or 4 may seem small, the pH scale is logarithmic, not linear. For pH this means that the difference in 1 pH unit is a difference of 10 times. For example, a pH of 3 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 4 and a pH of 3 is one hundred times more acidic than a pH of 5.
Fluids inside the human body have many functions. The pH levels of these fluids varies to match the bodily function and are carefully controlled by our body.
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 of around 9. Blood has a pH of about 7.45 and seawater has an average pH of 8 to 8.4.
pH and Your Skin: The Acid Mantle
When it comes to skin chemistry it is important to remember that pH is a measurement of hydrogen ions in an aqueous (water-based) solution.
Skin is a solid, not a water-based solution. A common misconception is that your skin, hair, and scalp (simply the skin on your head) have a pH, but they do NOT have a pH of their own.
When people talk about the pH of the skin, they are referring to the pH of a very thin, slightly acidic, moist layer caused by normal secretions from sweat glands and sebaceous (oil) glands, dead skin cells, the breakdown of fatty acids by good bacteria that live on our skin and other skin secretions.
This layer, called the "Acid Mantle," sits on the surface of the top layer (the stratum corneum) of the epidermis of your skin.
The acid mantle helps 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. It also helps neutralize anything mildly alkaline that comes in contact with the skin.
The term "acid mantle," coined in 1928 by two German physicians, has only recently become a giant buzzword in the skincare industry thanks to skin care products that proudly advertise words like "acid mantle repairing formula . . ." on their packaging.
The pH of the acid mantle is not a fixed number, it often varies between 4.5 and 6.5
The pH is different on different parts of your body and is even impacted by the unique composition of your sweat and natural skin oil (sebum).
As a matter of fact, there are many external and internal factors that can affect the acidity of the skin surface (the acid mantle) besides skin care products. Some include:
- time of day
- age (pH increases as we age)
- sweat (natural skin moisture)
- sebum (skin oil) production
- area of the body
- heat & air conditioning (humidity)
- environmental pollution
- sun exposure
- inflammatory skin conditions (eczema, rosacea, acne)
- hard water
- cosmetic use
Basically there is no perfect pH measurement for YOUR skin and thus it makes sense that there is no perfect pH measurement needed in a skin care product in order to maintain your own healthy skin. It all depends on how a particular product interacts with your unique skin.
It is also important to remember that our skin is always changing. Our skin is a dynamic organ that constantly renews itself.
The epidermis continually makes new skin cells needed to replace the approximately 30,000 to 40,000 old skin cells that your body sheds every minute (source).
The skin cell turnover rate varies individually and age plays a major role. In a healthy adult, new cells made in the lower layers of the epidermis usually move to the surface about every 4 to 6 weeks.
Although using harsh products continuously (especially those that remain on the skin) can cause disruptions in the acid mantle that can lead to skin problems, temporary fluctuations are typically corrected by the natural regulatory mechanisms of the skin.
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 (acid mantle).
Simply because the pH of your skin is a certain number, does not necessarily mean that your skin is healthy.
What Is pH Balanced Skin?
Due to the acid mantle, the skin's pH is mildly acidic. As I said previously, pH often fluctuates between 4.5 and 6.5 and is affected by many factors. Moist areas of the body tend to be more alkaline.
So, let's say that you and a friend 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. The same would be true for your friend who would also see different pH numbers from yours.
Beside the factors mentioned above, other things such as as stress, time of day, physical activity, what and how much we eat, what and how much we drink, hormone imbalance, weather, and the simple uniqueness of you, can affect the pH of your acid mantle.
We know that the pH level of the acid mantle varies from person to person. We also know that there are many factors that influence that pH.
So, how can a product claim to be "pH balanced. I guess the question we should ask is, pH balanced for whom?
Why Do We Care About "Skin pH?
It is estimated that our skin is home to about 1 trillion beneficial microorganisms (skin flora) which make up a tiny ecosystem called the skin microbiome.
Bacteria are the most common skin microbes, but normal healthy skin will also be home to fungi, viruses, and mites.
Healthy skin has a high microbiome diversity, meaning many different types of microorganisms that live together harmoniously.
While the skin microbiome is similar between different individuals, it is never exactly the same. As a matter of fact, the makeup of these invisible life-forms varies throughout your own body. Some microorganisms thrive best in moist areas while others like dry or oily spots. The composition will also differ in areas exposed to light and with age and gender.
Although science is just starting to understand everything the skin microbiome does, we know that it is an essential part of the body’s immune system. Similar to those in our gut, our skin microorganisms have key roles in the protection against infection.
While the normal microorganisms that inhabit our skin live happily in a mildly acidic environment with a pH of around 5.5, disease causing microorganisms, called pathogens, do not.
Therefore the ability of our skin to maintain a healthy microbiome is dependent on an intact acid mantle. The acid mantle along with the microbiome are part of the delicate matrix that makes up a healthy skin barrier.
While there is so much advertising hype about "pH-balanced" skin products, caring for and optimizing a healthy skin barrier involves much more than just achieving some "optimum" skin pH. But that is topic for another blog.
What Types of Products Affect the Acid Mantle?
Unfortunately, just about everything you put on your skin can contribute to the break down of the acid mantle.
Things like water, skin cleansers, lotions, exfoliants, retinol, alpha hydoxy acid (AHA), alcohols, and the list goes on.
Many of the ingredients that skin care companies insist that we must use to stay youthful, plus other ingredients, can disrupt the acid mantle and as such the microbiome.
While there are often many synthetic ingredients in skin care products, let's look at just one, preservatives.
Remember our acid mantle is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria, fungi and viruses.
Now consider the purpose of preservatives which is to discourage the formation of microorganisms like yeast, bacteria, and mold. But what will those preservatives do to all the little critters that make up our natural skin flora?
It makes sense that preservatives can also eliminate the natural microorganisms in the skin microbiome, including the good ones. The latest skin microbiome research indicates that preservatives, even if they are natural or used in low concentration, will disrupt the balance within a healthy skin microbiome, which over time can lead to skin irritation and sensitivities. If a skin care product contains water it contains preservatives.
Skin care products that you leave on your skin made with only simple preservative-free natural oils and butters may be a better alternative for healthy skin care.
Remember, no matter what you read, the acidity or alkalinity of vegetable oils, plant oils or natural butters cannot be measured using the typical pH scale because they do not contain water, are not water soluble, and there are no free hydrogen ions to measure.
That being said, there are alternative methods to determine whether an oil is more acidic or basic. Most vegetable oils tend to me mildly acidic.
What about SKIN CLEANSERS that are used and rinsed off?
“Rinse-off” products are personal care items that only come into contact with the skin for a short time and are then washed off with water, such as soap and shampoo. On the other hand “leave-on” products, like body cream, are intended to remain on the skin
After bathing or showering with soap your skin begins re-secreting the mantle immediately. However, using a highly alkaline or acidic product that remains on the skin can 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.”
A syndet is the name given to a cleansing bar or liquid made with synthetic surfactants (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 these 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.
Want to know more, read our blog, "What Are Syndets?" It also discusses some of the research done concerning pH balanced cleansers and the acid mantle.
An article published in Skin Research and Technology in 2015 tested two groups of subjects. One group had used a soap for more than 5 years and the other group had used a mildly acidic syndet cleanser for more than 5 years. Researchers determined that "the long-term use of soap does not affect the pH-maintenance mechanism of human skin."
Problems With pH Balanced Skin Cleansing
Many skincare companies like to place the blame for every skin care issue on products that are not pH-balanced.
I have a number of questions and concerns about pH balanced skin cleansers.
Using a product based solely on its pH level does not make sense.
Let's say that I create a product by mixing hydrochloric acid (an acid) and oven cleaner (a base/alkali) in just the right amounts to create a pH balanced skin care product with a pH of 5.5. Would you use that product on your skin?
It is all about the ingredients! Any skin or hair care product is only as good as the all of the ingredients used to make it.
An article published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science discusses research done to "determine whether a skin cleansing product by virtue of its pH being same as “skin pH” is milder to skin." The researchers concluded that the mildness of any skin cleanser is a function of the way in which the surfactants and other ingredients interact with the skin of an individual. "Therefore, a cleansing product claiming the same pH as that of skin does not guarantee it will benefit the skin."
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 pH values alone.
What happens when you mix your pH balanced cleanser with water?
It is a scientific fact that diluting an acid or base with water affects the pH. Let's say I buy an "acid mantle repairing" skin cleanser with that magical pH of 5.5 (although a company does not usually disclose the pH). When I take a bath or shower that pH balanced cleanser now mixes with my tap water which has a pH of its own due to dissolved minerals etc. As a result, the pH of the cleanser will not be the same as it was when it was in the bottle.
As an example, imagine drinking an 8 oz glass of lemon juice. If I take the 8 ounces of lemon juice and add 4 ounces of water, the taste will change. The sour taste is now less sour (acidic) because it has been diluted.
The pH of pure water is 7 and the pH of tap water varies, but either way, the water can make an acidic product less acidic and an alkaline product less alkaline.
What is the real purpose of any skin cleansing product?
The purpose of any skin cleanser, whether it is pH balanced or not, is to get rid of dirt and grime that is mixed with the natural fatty sebum (oily) on your skin. So, while pH-balanced syndets may have a slightly acidic pH, they are still surfactants (cleansing agents and detergents) designed to remove even natural skin oils.
Remembering that the sebum makes up an important component of the acid mantle, removing this fatty layer may make us feel clean, but aren't these fats an important part of our natural acid mantle and thus the natural microbiome of our skin?
The whole premise of pH-balanced skin cleansing is that it will not disrupt the acid mantle. But numerous studies like the one 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 as well as the microbiome 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 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!
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 not only better but an absolute necessity for healthy skin (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.
How Do We Test The pH Of Our Soaps & Shampoos?
I do not approach soapmaking as a craft. It is a science and I am fascinated by the chemistry of saponification (the chemical reaction that makes soap) 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")
If you test liquid soap batter before it is poured into the mold, the pH is extremely high and shows a deep purple color on the pH paper (see the color chart above).
The picture of the four soaps shows a simple pH paper test of different soaps taken after only two weeks of curing. Notice that the soaps test around 7 (green), which is neutral. Some of the soaps made with fruit juices actually tested even lower.
The problem is that we cannot measure the pH of solid soap.
Remember I said above that the pH scale is used to measure the acidity or alkalinity of water-based solutions only. In order to test pH I need to add water to the bar to wet the surface in which case I am actually testing soapy water, not the soap itself. The water lowers the pH.
So how do we test the pH of our soap and shampoo bars? We use them!
The most accurate test of a good mild soap is how it feels on your skin. Your body will balance the skin pH on its own. So, listen to your skin and trust it.
We have received many emails, phone calls, and testimonials from people who have seen dramatic changes in their skin 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.
It is important to remember that . . . All soap bars are not created equal!
All handmade soaps are NOT 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)
- the knowledge and experience of the soapmaker
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?
Our soaps and shampoos are allowed 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. After bathing with soap and water, these free fatty acids may help skin recover its natural pH balance faster.
Commercial companies remove the natural glycerin and add synthetic ingredients not found in handmade soap, like chemical preservatives to increase 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.
Learn More Blog, "The War on Natural Soap"
To Sum Up My Problems With pH Balanced Skin Cleansing
I absolutely believe that we need a healthy, intact acid mantle, but if your skin is healthy and you use a slightly alkaline cleanser, like a well formulated bar of natural soap, your skin will quickly revert back to its normal pH.
The pH is not the way to measure if a product is mild or not. Using harsh ingredients or surfactants, at a lower pH, may damage your skin more than a natural product with higher pH. That why my skin loves a well-formulated bar of natural soap.
The idea that we must use only "pH balanced" skin cleansing products or else something will be terribly wrong with our skin, is problematic for me. After researching many studies concerning the acid mantle, it seems that cleaning our skin at all is actually not a very good idea.
From what I have read, I believe that the pH score does not cause changes in healthy skin 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 syndet cleansing bars, liquids, shampoos, and other cosmetics to make them "pH balanced" – can be irritating or even damaging to the skin.
Many synthetic detergents, emulsifiers, and other additives can actually 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.
Remember that any product we choose to clean our skin, pH balanced or not, will remove natural sebum (fat) as well natural skin microflora or good bacteria, which help stabilize the pH of the skin as well as protect us from bad bacteria.
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 potentially cause more irritation and damage to the skin than the temporary disruption of the acid mantle that comes from a well-formulated natural bar of soap or shampoo.
I personally find that natural, superfatted handmade soap, that retains its natural glycerin, is much more gentle and less drying than syndet bars or pH balanced liquid cleansers. (Yes, I did try some).
The words "pH-balanced" (like the words "natural" and "organic") have become a buzzword in the beauty industry. Thus, products that claim to be pH balanced are all the rage these days. The necessity for using only “pH balanced” skin care has been perpetuated on many websites all over the internet.
Brands hype the pH balance of a product to appeal to consumers, but this claim alone does not provide the full picture of a product's effectiveness or whether it is the best product for a particular individual.
Maintaining an intact acid mantle is necessary for a healthy and diverse skin microbiome. However, the pH value of skin secretions can differ from moment to moment and there are many factors that contribute to the overall health of the skin. If you focus simply on pH you will neglect other factors that are just as important or even more important than pH.
You are unique and so is your skin and hair. How any product interacts with your skin depends on the ingredients that product offers, how it is applied, and your skin type, not the pH alone. Thus it makes sense that:
- there is no perfect pH measurement needed in a skin care product in order to maintain your own healthy skin
- there is no perfect pH measurement that YOUR skin must achieved in order to be healthy
Blindly adhering to the "pH-balanced" buzz overlooks the complexity of skincare and haircare formulations and individual needs. Become an informed consumer. Look beyond marketing buzzwords and understand that the overall formulation as well as your personal skin and hair type play a critical role in product efficacy.
Remember that the health of your skin is also a reflection of your personal health. Diet, exercise, and general health are absolutely important to keep skin healthy.
If you have chronic skin issue which can lead to a compromised pH, you should consult a dermatologist.
This blog has been updated and was originally posted on October 10, 2015