pH Balance: Understanding the Science of Your Skin
pH balance in skin is an essential part of what keeps us looking healthy and youthful, as well as makes our skin smooth and supple. But what exactly is pH balance and how does it apply.
What is pH?
pH is an abbreviation for “potential of hydrogen,” and is a measuring system for comparing the strength of acids and bases. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14, with water being the most neutral element at 7. Anything below that point is an acid; anything above is a base or alkaline. The further pH shifts from 7, the stronger the solution. pH is based on a logarithmic scale, so just moving one unit up or down can force a tenfold difference in concentration. It is important, especially in the human body, to regulate pH levels, and our bodies do it naturally through a system called acid-base homeostasis. But there are products that can affect the overall pH of our skin.
Skin and pH Balance
Skin is the largest organ of the body. It regulates body temperature, protects of from environmental elements and fights off germs. But skin’s power relies on something we can’t even see. The acid mantle is a thin, viscous fluid that protects our skin. It consists of two fluids: sweat and sebum. Sweat glands produce a salty, watery solution that mixes with sebum, an oily secretion produced by sebaceous glands near hair follicles. The acid mantle maintains a pH between 4.0 and 5.5, a range that allows it to help skin stay healthy. The acid mantle helps our skin in a number of ways. It acts as an antioxidant, protecting underlying skin from damage. It helps repel water so skin layers are not damaged, and it inhibits bacterial growth. It also maintains the hardness of protein. The outer skin is made of a protein called Keratin that needs to have an acidic balance to stay strong, so the acid mantle helps stave off alkaline that could break up the protein and cause problems like acne and skin allergies.
Since the acid mantle plays such a key role in how our skin functions, it is necessary to protect it. Any disruption to the acid mantle will interfere with the protective shield of skin cells that surrounds the epidermis. Cells can be dislodged from each other, causing dryness, irritation, roughness and flaking. When cells break apart, skin is left defenseless. Also, as cells pull away, the remaining breaks leave skin exposed to bacteria. Usually, bacteria have trouble penetrating the skin when pH is normal because the acid mantle creates an unfavorable environment. If pH rises, the natural prevention of infection is compromised, making it easier for bacteria to penetrate under the skin, causing numerous skin problems.
It seems simple enough: Protect the acid mantle and regulate pH level to maintain healthy skin. However, it’s a lot more difficult than that, especially when you consider the fact that almost everything we face in our day to day life can interfere with the acid mantle. Sunlight, diet, excessive sweating and even applying skincare products can disrupt the harmony of skin ph.
Protecting Skin pH
When it comes to skin treatment, the biggest mistake people make is washing skin with harsh soaps that are high in alkaline. As they strip off the acid mantle, these soaps debilitate natural defenses and extract fats that actually help protect skin. Bacteria are free to attack and can cause infection. It’s better to use a cleanser that contains more acidic or neutral elements, such as alpha hydroxy or beta hydroxy. These will keep skin cells tightly locked together, maintaining skin’s healthy glow.
Prolonged skin conditions like acne are usually caused by skin that has a high, alkaline pH or an imbalanced acid mantle. Bacteria can continuously infiltrate the skin, creating a consecutive string of pimples. Luckily, many acne treatments focus on restoring skin’s acidity, so skin can return to normal and fight off breakouts. When selecting an acne treatment, be sure to read the ingredients and check labels to make sure it contains high acidic elements.
Sun damage can also remove the acid mantle, resulting in rashes, breakouts, infection and dry skin. The best way to protect yourself when you step outside is to apply a generous amount of sunscreen to all exposed areas of skin. And be sure to reapply it throughout the day, especially if you plan on being outside a lot. Also, applying a daily moisturizer can greatly improve pH balance, as well as rehydrate skin.
For people dealing with the effects of aging, it can be difficult to reverse the damage done to the acid mantle. Aging skin is vulnerable because sebum production declines, so the ability of the acid mantle to protect skin decreases, leaving skin dry with noticeable wrinkles. The key to battling this is effective skin cell replacement, and using an exfoliating acid on a regular basis can help speed up cell turnover. By protecting the acid mantle and increasing the flow of new skin cells can keep skin looking youthful for longer.
Most cleansers, including bars and detergent soaps, are too alkaline for the skin, stripping away natural oils and causing it to become dry and irritated. Skin that is too alkaline can also be more susceptible to acne because a certain level of acidity is needed to inhibit bacterial growth on the skin. You may have noticed that many cleansers and shampoos are now avoiding the use of Sodium Laureth Sulfate, which has the approximate alkaline pH level of 10 and can be very drying and irritating to the skin. Choosing mild cleansers and toners that are slightly acidic (close to 5) will assist in properly maintaining the acid mantle and benefit all skin types.
As we age, the amount of oil or sebum produced naturally from our skin decreases and influences the acid mantle and its ability to protect the skin. Using moisturizers will help build this barrier. Oils that work well with the skin’s natural oil secretions include Jojoba, Coconut, Argan, and Olive Oils.
Topical antioxidants (Vitamin A, C, E, & Green Tea) are important in maintaining the acid mantle in two ways. They fortify the cells so that they can function optimally, and they protect the cells from environmental stresses and oxidation. Vitamin C in the form of L-Ascorbic Acid is acidic by nature and formulations will have a low pH, so while not being considered a pH balancing antioxidant, can be used safely and beneficially on the skin as long as it’s not used at the same time as other acidic products. The daily use of sunscreen defends the acid mantle by shielding the skin cells from sun damage and increasing the skin’s ability to protect itself.
Skin pH is a crucial part of skincare, and it’s important to understand how it is affected by skin products and everyday rituals. Maintaining balance is the best way to protect skin and keep it healthy.