Whether you remember well or barely at all, it turns out that chemistry lesson could have proved very valuable in perfecting future-you’s skincare regime. In fact, everything from your twice-daily cleanser to your weekly face mask has its own pH and where that number sits on the scale can drastically affect the condition of your skin.
Thought the talk of pH was going to be done with once you’d closed the door on your GCSEs? Think again. If you cast your mind all the way back to secondary-school chemistry, you might remember your teacher harping on about pH levels. Not ringing any bells? You might recall dipping tiny little pieces of paper in different solutions, waiting to see what colour they turn and using a chart to work out whether a particular liquid is alkaline or acidic.
But what does all of this really mean? Well, let’s start with the basics. The pH scale ranges from 1-14, with 1 being the most acidic, 14 being the most alkaline and 7 being perfectly neutral. If your skin’s pH starts heading towards one end of the scale or the other, you can be sure your face will have something to say about it in terms of irritation. So, now we’ve laid down the ground work, here’s everything you need to know about your skin’s pH balance…
What is the skin’s pH?
While it might make sense for happy skin to sit at a comfortable 7, our skin is naturally acidic. Pamela Marshall, Clinical Aesthetician & Co-Founder of Mortar & Milk explains: “The pH of the skin sits roughly at 5.5, making it slightly acidic. Anyone at any time can go either way a little, depending on what skincare products they are using.”
Why is maintaining our skin’s natural pH balance so important?
Essentially, the importance of pH in skincare comes down to our acid mantle – a vital part of our skin’s natural barrier function. Our acid mantle works hard to keep harmful bacteria away while making sure our skin keeps hold of all of its hydrating natural oils. In order to work at its full potential, our acid mantle needs to maintain its natural pH level.
What happens when our pH balance is thrown?
You know that red irritation that crops up when you’ve overdone it with the acids? Or that tight, dry feeling you get if you’ve used a particularly soapy cleanser? Yep, that’s your skin telling you its pH is all out of whack. “Finding your perfect pH is really important. Using too many acids in the form of AHAs too often can significantly deplete our skin’s barrier function. While it might be exfoliating, it also prevents skin from healing properly, leaving it in a state of panic. The end result is skin that can shed too easily and become vascular (dilated capillaries), irritated or acneic,” says Pamela. Similarly, using too many stripping alkaline products can cause skin to dry out and appear tight and wrinkled.
The answer to this question really does depend on what you want your skincare product to do. For example, if you’re looking to exfoliate, you should be looking for more acidic products.
However, it’s important to keep in mind all product instructions as to be sure you don’t damage your acid mantle too severely. Pamela explains: “If a brand is worth their weight in salt, they will have sorted the optimal pH for each product, with instructions on it’s best use. If it says to leave it on for two minutes – that’s important. A glycolic acid with a pH of 5.0 will only help to exfoliate the dead cells off the skin’s surface – no deeper. Used daily, it will be irritating and cause barrier function depletion. However, used once a week it will remove dead cells without compromising the barrier function.”
So, the next time you go to slather on acid without a second thought about how your skin will recover, think pH.