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Skin pH levels: Why they matter and how to keep yours balanced

A pair of hands holds a pH strip above a white background.
Liz Thompson
Liz Thompson December, 30, 2019

Freelance writer, green beauty expert, coffee drinker, beach bum wannabe

You know the soap commercials that talk about products being "pH balanced" for healthy skin? Those advertisements likely left you — and tons of others — wondering what on earth pH measurements have to do with soap.

The truth is, it's actually pretty important! Certain things can mess up skin pH levels and cause all sorts of issues, from acne to irritation. Thankfully, it's fairly easy to keep your skin's pH balance in check; you just need to know the best ways to protect your skin and recognize what to steer clear of.

What's the big deal with pH?

Discussions about pH can get bogged down in scientific terminology pretty quickly. But it's worth cutting through the jargon and getting to the core of why pH (which stands for "potential Hydrogen" and measures relative acidity) matters: The skin's acid mantle is made up of oils and sweat that create a barrier to protect against environmental stressors and bacteria. This barrier is what determines skin pH levels. When pH is balanced between acidic and alkaline (clocking in at around 5 on a scale of 0-14), it's easier for skin to stay healthy and hydrated.

asian woman portrait mirrorSounds good, right? Well, it can be pretty easy to throw this delicate balance out of whack! Harsh ingredients, over-washing, over-exfoliating, not using enough moisturizing products, following a poor diet and even hard water all disturb a balanced pH — and this imbalance can show up as acne, dermatitis, wrinkling, redness and inflammation.

While you may be surprised to learn all of this, it isn't really news. Information regarding the importance of pH balance has been around for the past century, and in the last decade or so, multiple studies (seriously, so many studies) have shown its effect on skin health. From there, the main question is: What can you do to keep your skin's pH in check?

4 ways to keep pH levels balanced for healthy skin

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to protect your pH balance and keep your skin looking its best! While skin pH varies slightly on different parts of the body — as well as by gender (men tend to be slightly more acidic than women) and age (skin becomes more alkaline with age) — research has shown that keeping skin pH levels under 5 is an effective way to ward off unwanted skin issues.

Follow the four tips below to maintain a balanced pH level and beautiful skin:

1. Keep your skin moisturized. Be sure to keep skin adequately moisturized for proper balance — yes, even if you have acne-prone skin! Drying products can disrupt skin pH levels and exacerbate issues like acne and irritation.

2. Use skincare products with a low pH. Soap-based cleansers tend to be more alkaline, so using facial and body cleansers with a lower pH are better options. A study on acne sufferers showed that participants who used alkaline cleansers saw more lesions and those using acidic cleansers experienced fewer breakouts. It's a good idea to avoid harsh chemical surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate.

3. Make sloughing a regular part of your routine. Make an effort to exfoliate two or three times a week (less frequently if you're experiencing irritation). It's also important to choose the best exfoliant for your skin. For example, the lactic acid found in yogurt not only mildly exfoliates but supports healthy barrier function and keeps skin feeling hydrated, too. Experiment with a moisturizing hand or foot mask, or try a body lotion made with yogurt.

4. Use SPF to ward off pH imbalance. You probably already know that too much sun exposure causes dryness and premature aging, but it can also disrupt your skin's delicate pH balance! To avoid issues, opt for a sunscreen with a built-in moisturizer to keep skin supple and protected against UV damage.

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