April Office Hours: All About pH #AskGW

Happy Spring, GW readers! In this installment of the April Office Hours – we tackle skin pH. If you have any questions, please send an email using the link mail icon on the top menu with #AskGW in the subject line, I’ll also look out for the hashtag on social media.

Source: MMScene

When products say they are pH balanced, what does it mean? What is the pH supposed to be? Is there a range? If a product does not say it is pH balanced, do I need to check? What happens if I use a non-pH balanced product?

“pH balanced” is a good marketing term to make you feel comfortable. The actual meaning is just that the product’s pH is supportive of a healthy skin pH. Ideally, you want your skin’s pH to be around 5.5. This is what is referred to as the “acid mantle” and it helps to protect your skin, and keep it functioning. When your pH is thrown off, your skin may become irritated, inflamed (including acne), or simply weakened as shown through dullness, dryness, and premature aging. Many processes needed to keep skin running in top shape including probiotic and enzymatic reactions are compromised as well.

There is no definite pH that skin “needs” to be at, just as there is no definite temperature our bodies run at. In the same way that 98.6 degrees is the accepted norm, a pH of 5.5 is the accepted norm for healthy skin pH but in general the goal should be for skin to run slightly acidic. I’ve seen skin pH from a 4 to a 6.2, more acidic pH can lead to a higher tendency to breakout while alkaline pH can result in drier skin, and the goal should be to get it around 5.5.

The major culprits that will throw your pH off balance are alkalizing agents like soaps and baking soda and harsh acids. The alkalizing agents are mostly found in cleansers so if you are concerned about pH, your cleanser should be the step you scrutinize most while your toners/acids should just be on the gentle side.

Most mainstream skincare lines formulate their cleansers with a soap base which is why an acid based toner is frequently sold as an add-on. This toning step helps move the needle of your skin’s pH back to a good range. However for sensitive skin, the 1-2 punch of an alkalizing cleanser and then an acidic toner can actually cause irritation and inflammation which only damages, weakens, and ages the skin in the long run. This is why I do not like cleansing-toning systems like Clinique and much prefer products to just be made with the purpose of supporting healthy pH in mind.

Now onto acids. While acids can be good for exfoliating and smoothing skin texture, some products are just formulated too harshly and can actually set off imbalance. There are many good acid products out there that are gentle and the ideal pH for these acids are from 3-4. I would draw the line at a product like Sunday Riley’s Good Genes which has a pH of 2.6 which means: yes it works, but most people may experience irritation which is counter productive.

With acids, you should be able to feel when something is too harsh and either discontinue, mix with something else to dilute the acid or decrease frequency.

If you read this and think that you need to start asking about pH of everything, hold your horses – it is mostly pointless. Nearly every other category of skincare is free of alkalizing ingredients. For instance, face oils made from pure plant oils naturally run slightly acidic, so you don’t need to ask each manufacturer for specific pH. Just pay attention to your cleansers and acids.

Below are some good options to consider for cleansers and acids.

Here are my recommended cleansers:
YÜLI Halcyon (Personal favorite: formula is a thing of beauty, well balanced botanicals & high tech ingredients like peptides/Vitamin C Esters, gentle cleansing that mimics tear chemistry, no soap base)
Kahina Giving Beauty Cleanser
AESOP Parsley Seed Facial Cleanser
One Love Organics Easy Does It
Tammy Fender Spearmint & Alfalfa Purifying Cleanser

Here are my recommended acids:
Drunk Elephant TLC  (12 % AHA/BHA Serum which is great for efficacy with a 3.9 pH which is ideal for acid products)
Tatcha The Essence Plumping Skin Softener
First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads
The Beauty Chef Probiotic Skin Refiner

Have any questions on this topic? Leave a comment below. Have other skin related questions? Send an e-mail our way with #AskGW in the subject!

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  • Magnus

    another brilliant post by Green Derm as always! I bought a home pH test kit and was astonished that my May Lindstrom mask was a 8 and some other green cleansers from green companies tested pretty poorly too.

    • try testing the mask a few times, we’re hearing it’s a different pH each time. yikes.

  • ant

    Thank you for your clarity and as always realistic advice about all things skin! *sigh* the Yuli cleanser is definitely a masterpiece. What do you think of the Somme Institute pads, too much?

    • We can’t speak for Green Derm, but check out Beauty Idealist, she did a great write up a little while ago.

  • Seth

    I really appreciate this post, I am a cosmetics developer and in recent years the number of people with no background or knowledge in the field who think they can start up their own “organic” line (they ALWAYS want organic) asking me about the pH of face oils just makes me want to slam my door.

    • Even as a blogger, we’ve gotten e-mails asking for “advice and books” for where to start learning about how to make skincare from people trying to start a “luxury organic line”, just STOP.