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pH-Balanced Skincare: Why It’s Key to Keeping Your Skin Balanced and Happy


Of all the skincare buzzwords we’ve seen lately (like probiotics, CBD, niacinamide, and more), there’s one that stands out because—well—it’s just so familiar: pH-balanced skincare (or at least the pH part). The term pH stirs up memories of high school chemistry class, where we tested strips in liquids to determine their level on the pH scale. For those of us who don’t have a chem degree or own a pool, pH levels don’t take up much real estate in our brains. But if you’ve kept an eye on skincare trends, you’ve probably seen this term more frequently as of late—and for good reason.

While walking down the skincare aisle at your local drugstore or scrolling skincare brands on your Insta-feed, it’s hard to ignore the growing number of cleansers, toners, moisturizers, and more that promise to be pH-balanced or help balance your skin’s pH levels. But what does pH level actually have to do with skincare, and how does it affect your skin? We chatted with Rachel Nazarian, MD FAAD about pH skincare to find out why it’s so important in keeping your complexion balanced and happy.

About the Expert:

Rachel Nazarian, MD FAAD is a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.

What are pH levels?

Before we dive into pH skincare, let’s cover the basics. In general, pH levels are measured on a scale of 1-14, with 7 being a neutral pH (like water), below 7 being acidic (like some citrus fruits), and above 7 being alkaline or basic (like some fresh veggies). Just like these items, your skin and your skincare products have pH levels, too. And yup, they’re important (more on why later).

What is the pH of your skin?

Consider skin’s ideal pH level as its happy place. “The skin, like every organ in our body, performs its best within a narrow ideal environment, especially when it comes to pH,” says Dr. Nazarian. “Skin maintains its barrier best around 5.5, which is slightly acidic. At the ideal pH of 5.5, the skin can maintain a good barrier, and together with natural oils, moisturizers, and bacteria, it functions as a true protective defense organ. This collection of factors creating this shield is called the skin’s acid mantle.”

And, just like moisturizers, lotions, and serums help your skin do everything from retaining moisture to balancing sebum, your skincare products can help your skin’s pH level stay close to a cozy 5.5.

What pH should my skincare products be?

According to Dr. Nazarian, pH in skincare is still being extensively studied, but there are some guidelines. “Too high of a pH or too low throws the “ecosystem” or "microbiome" of skin off, and causes inflammation and irritation when the natural oils and natural bacteria on the skin are disrupted.” She adds, “The connection between pH and bacteria comes from shifting the pH so far in either direction that the good bacteria are no longer able to keep inflammation and “bad bacteria” in check.”

So what exactly happens if a skincare product has a low pH? Or high pH? Dr. Nazarian says, “Skincare ranging too far low on the acidic pH spectrum creates increased redness and inflammation, and any deviation (from skin’s natural pH) prevents skin from looking, feeling, and performing at its best. A pH that is too basic (or alkaline) causes dryness and decreased hydration of skin, which can lead to eczema flares and potentially highlight signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles.”

Why does pH matter for skincare?

“To understand pH, you have to understand why it matters for healthy skin,” says Dr. Nazarian. “The skin’s barrier has to do with the ability of the skin to retain water—and the more irritated or damaged it is, the less effectively it maintains the moisture barrier. The “microbiome” is the natural colonization of bacteria found on the skin, which can be disrupted by shifting the skin's pH balance. Shifts in the pH can allow bad bacteria to flourish, which may flare inflammation of skin and breakage of the barrier.”

There are some tell-tale signs that your skincare routine is throwing off your skin’s pH level. “When people complain of dry skin, and that their skin is too red, too itchy, too flaky, too oily, too….anything, it’s potentially because the ideal balance of the skin is off and the pH has shifted creating a cascade of inflammatory factors and unevenness in the natural flora,” says Dr. Nazarian. “If you’re using products that are too acidic, or too basic, you could alter the pH.”

How can you help maintain your skin’s ideal pH?

Healthy, naturally radiant skin is something we all strive for—and trust us—we’ve tried endless products in pursuit of it. But when it comes to chasing that glow, it’s important to look at your entire routine to ensure you’re not throwing off your skin’s pH level with products that do too much.

“Patients of mine are always looking for home remedies or Pinterest-type skincare tips to naturally address skin concerns, but this can be extremely risky as most home products have a pH far varied than that of skin,” says Dr. Nazarian, who adds that “The skin’s pH can be impacted by nearly anything—what products you use, what you’re using to wash (classic soaps are too alkaline), how often you’re washing, even potentially what you’re eating.”

So, what should you be looking for in your skincare? “Probiotics or products with probiotics can help restore the balance of skin and bacteria both externally and internally, but it’s important to also adhere to a good topical regimen and diet to decrease the disruption of the good bacterial flora and pH,” says Dr. Nazarian. “Many topical skincare products today contain probiotics or state that they are pH balanced—both of these will help regain an ideal skin environment.

“I love gentle products that keep it all healthy,” says Dr. Nazarian. “A cleanser like Dove Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar is close to the natural pH of skin at 5.5 and not irritating.” Want more pH-balanced products to try? We’ve rounded up 5 more favorites we swear by.

Best pH-balanced Skincare Products

DERMATOLOGIST’S CHOICE SKINCARE pH Balanced Cleanser with Glycolic Acid (AHA)

LOOKS & MEII Amino Bubble pH Cleanser

  • LOOKS & MEII Amino Bubble pH Cleanser What’s more fun than a bubbly cleanser? Not much, tbh. This whipped cream formula foams up like crazy when you add water. The slightly acidic pH level (more in line with your skin’s pH) is great for sensitive skin, plus this cleanser keeps your skin hydrated with amino acids and squalane, and skin barrier-boosting ceramides.

FIRST AID BEAUTY Pure Skin Gentle Foaming Face Cleanser with Amino Acids

EVENPRIME Cleansing Gel

  • EVENPRIME Cleansing Gel It’s cool, refreshing, and really works—everything we love in a gel cleanser. The pH-balanced formula helps remove icky stuff while boosting your skin’s barrier function. It’s made with hyaluronic acid and vitamin B5 for moisturizing benefits.

SUR.MEDIC+ Azulene Soothing pH Cleanser

  • SUR.MEDIC+ Azulene Soothing pH Cleanser If it’s calm, comfy skin you’re after, this gentle cleanser will do the trick. It has a pH level of 5.5-6.5 (close to your skin’s) to keep things balanced and happy. Plus, azulene helps soothe (great for calming breakouts) while hyaluronic acid maintains moisture for the long haul.

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Article Last Updated June 10, 2021 12:00 AM