How The pH Level of Your Beauty Products Affects Your Skin

Sable Yong
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Did you ever wonder why a certain skin care product that everyone raves about is either so-so on you, or worse – causes blemishes, breakouts and dull skin? Much like dating, sometimes a product can be great but not a great fit for you. A big reason for this is pH level. pH measures the acidity of alkalinity (aka basic-ness) of a substance, be it your skin or the products you use on it. Your skin’s natural pH level is between 4.5 – 5.5. On the pH scale of 0-14 (0 being battery acid, 7 being neutral, and 14 being the most alkaline), this is a bit on the acidic side because your skin is your body’s first defense barrier against the elements (it is in fact called the “acid mantle”). A bit of acidity protects your skin from allergens, bacteria, wind and pollutants, as well as retains moisture. Factors like UV light, environmental pollution, and climate change can affect your skin’s pH – causing dry flaky skin, inflammation or eczema. The best thing you can do to keep your skin looking its best is to maintain its naturally slightly acidic pH level. If this sounds a bit like revisiting AP Chemistry class, it’s really not that hard if you keep these things in mind.

Avoid soap cleansers. Seems weird since you’d WANT to cleanse your face with some kind of soap. You’ve probably seen “pH Balanced” on some facial cleansers and may not have given it a second thought. This a good thing though because soap is actually very alkaline – around a 9-11 on the pH scale – much too basic for your skin. Soap strips your skin of dirt and oil, which is great, but it also strips your skin of the natural oils needed for moisture. The most alkaline products are used for serious de-greasing and cleaning. Drain/pipe cleaners have a pH level of 14 – so just think about that. Look for facial (and body) cleansers that say “soap-free,” “pH Balanced” or “pH Neutral” on the packaging.

MORE: 10 Things to Know About Washing Your Face

Go easy on the peeling products. Peeling masks and mild fruit acid or chemical peels can feel so satisfying, but you can certainly get too much of a good thing. Since an acidic formula is used to remove dead skin cells, overdo it and it’ll remove a lot more than just the dead stuff. It’s rare that your skin will fall into the too-acidic zone on its own but you’ll know you’re there if it’s red, breaking out, inflamed and sensitive. This goes for any treatments high in vitamin c or retinoids as well – their high acid content breaks down your skin’s natural defense against UV light.

Break out the chemistry kit! If you really want to try a certain beauty product, or you can’t figure out why one is bugging out your skin, there’s a simple way to take the guesswork out of all this pH mystery. You can purchase pH testing strips from the drugstore. If you want to test your body’s pH level, dipping a test strip in your own saliva is the best way to get your internal read. It’s a bit difficult to get a reading on your skin because your skin’s pH is found on the very thin layer of moisture on top of your skin – including natural oil, sweat and sebum.

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No need to see-saw. You may think that if you’re suffering from breakouts due to an acidic bout or from flaky dry patches due to too much alkaline products, that the obvious solution would be to go in the opposite direction to “neutralize” the situation. The best way to “neutralize” any situation though is to use products with the same pH level of what your skin should be – so somewhere between 4.5 to 5.5. Keeping whatever you slather on your face in the mid-range of pH neutrality is a good move to nix the negative side effects of straying in either direction too much. Again, if you’re smack-dab in the middle of neutral-zone, your skin will be too vulnerable to infection without its acid mantle protector.

What you eat counts. It seems like some people can eat whatever they want and their skin is fine, and some people can’t have a Happy Meal without suffering next-day breakouts. Naturally, what you put in your body manifests on the outside of your body. Since bits of what you eat and drink get filtered out of your body when you sweat, and sweat is a big factor in determining acidity/alkalinity, your diet is a contributing factor to your skin’s condition. Processed foods are often acidic, so making sure your diets incorporates plenty of raw dark leafy veggies high in alkalinity will prevent your body’s pH from becoming too acidic, causing breakouts.

MORE: 10 Things No One Tells You About Dry Skin