It’s official: pH is the new black. From dermatologists’ offices to the aisles of Sephora, “pH balance” is the phrase on every beauty maven’s well-moisturized lips. The market has started to flood with pH-focused cleansers, toners, moisturizers, pH strips, and even high-tech wearable pH sensors. When it comes to beauty treatments and products that claim to restore the skin’s pH balance, today’s marketplace is a bit like the Wild West: There’s a rush to stake some big claims, and certainly some snake oil being sold.
While aestheticians, dermatologists, and wellness gurus may have divergent philosophies, all agree that pH levels are important to overall skin health. So we thought it would be a good time to step back and ask some basic questions, like: What is pH balance, anyway? And why should you care about it in your quest for great skin?
What’s pH Anyway? A Quick Science Lesson for Beginners
Let’s go back to high school science class for a moment. The pH is a numeric scale that indicates how acidic or alkaline something is. On the pH scale of 1 to 14, 7 is neutral, below 7 is acidic, and above 7 is alkaline. What does that have to do with your skin?
“The pH of your skin is normal at 4.7,” says Anthony Youn, MD, a plastic surgeon based in Troy, Michigan. “The thought is that if you alter that pH, you’re altering how healthy the skin is.”
PH isn’t the only trending buzzword beauty insiders are also increasingly talking about how pH can affect what’s called the “acid mantle,” a thin barrier on the surface of your skin that helps maintain its slight acidity. Dr. Youn explains that if you disturb your acid mantle by using overly harsh products, you’re going to suffer the consequences, and they won’t be pretty. While it has recently re-entered the lexicon, the term “acid mantle” actually dates to 1928, when it was coined during one of the earliest studies on skin surface pH, according to an article published in August 2018 in the journal Current Problems in Dermatology.
How pH Became One of the Hottest New Trends in Skin Care
“Your acid mantle is made up of amino and lactic acids, plus sebum, also known as fatty free acids,” says Tiffany Masterson, the founder of the Houston, Texas–based skin-care line Drunk Elephant, which ensures its products are pH balanced. Self-trained on the subject of pH, Masterson has become a leading voice on the topic largely through the success of her brand.
“The acid mantle just so happens to protect skin from environmental factors that lead to aging and all-around irritation,” she says. The brand’s Slaai Melting Butter Cleanser debuted in April and instantly drew raves from beauty insiders for its pH-balancing powers.
Other products, like Tula’s Pro-Glycolic 10 Percent pH Resurfacing Gel, are so popular that they’re often sold out completely both online and in department stores. The buzz is so big that retailers, including Sephora and Dermstore, have dedicated spaces on their websites to pH-balancing products.
And taking the obsession with pH-awareness high-tech, La Roche-Posay in 2019 released My Skin Track, a prototype of a wearable sensor that detects trace amounts of sweat from your pores and promises an accurate skin pH reading in just 15 minutes.
Some credit the surging popularity of pH-focused skin care in the West to the success of Korean skin care worldwide. “Many people living in Korea identify with a sensitive skin type, and some of the redness and irritation is attributed to the high pollution levels in Korea,” says Charlotte Cho, a cofounder of the K-Beauty website Soko Glam. “As a result, Korean beauty brands often formulate products with low pH.” Bestselling K-Beauty brands like Corsx and Acwell, the latter of which lists the pH of each product on the label, are at the forefront of the trend.
But some medical experts question the extent to which all this focus on pH-balanced products matters to the average consumer. “The reason why we don’t put too much thought into it is because the skin-care scientists have already done that,” says the New York City–based dermatologist Cheryl Karcher, MD. “They’re very smart people, these PhDs making these skin-care products. They know that you have to have something close to the pH of the skin or else it’s not going to be cosmetically appealing it’s going to burn.”
“The skin’s barrier is slightly acidic for a reason: to keep moisture in and bacteria out, Dr. Karcher says. “If your pH balance is off and it’s too alkaline, your skin is going to look flaky and red. If it’s too acidic, you’ll increase your chances of inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and acne.”
Masterson believes that common ingredients in products cause many of our skin troubles. Those ingredients include fragrances, essential oils, drying alcohols, and harsh cleansing agents such as sodium lauryl sulfate, which can cause inflammation and disrupt the acid mantle. “No product can make a difference in the health of your skin barrier if you’re using another product that is actively causing it harm,” says Masterson. “Your body doesn’t work that way you can’t smoke a cigarette and then eat some broccoli and hope they cancel each other out so why would your skin be any different? This is why we are adamant about both the importance of pH balanced formulas as well as avoiding the categories of ingredients that can cause the acid mantle harm.”
Why pH-Balancing Products Might Matter Less if You Have Healthy Skin
As much as pH balance and the acid mantle matter, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Much depends on the natural state of your skin. Karcher explains that healthy skin is about more than pH alone. “pH is the flavor of the month, but it has to be part of a bigger picture,” she says. “Yes, you need to have an acidic pH to have healthy skin, but if your skin is healthy and you use an alkaline cleanser, your skin is going to revert back in just a few minutes.”
Karcher believes that pH is one of the myriad components that keep skin healthy, but it’s not the only one, nor is it necessarily the primary one. “There are so many factors that contribute to overall healthy skin that if you focus just on pH you’re going to miss so many others that are just as important, or in fact, more important than pH,” she says.
And Cho agrees, but notes that by keeping your pH at an ideal level with the right products, you may get ahead of some common complaints. “The pH of your cleansers matters because something that is high pH, 9 and above, can be too drying and stripping for your skin, says Cho. “When your acid mantle and skin barrier is compromised, it can lead to bacteria, which causes acne and dehydration, which leads to wrinkles. And when the pH of your skin is normal, it should look smooth and hydrated.”
How a Growing Understanding of Gut Bacteria Has Fueled Interest in pH Imbalance
A plastic surgeon specializing in holistic beauty, Youn believes that one reason pH balance has become so trendy in skin care may be growing research about the microbiome, which protects us against germs, breaks down food to release energy, and may affect the skin. “There’s something now called the gut-skin axis where we’re finding that the health of the gut also impacts the trillions of bacteria that live on our skin, and when your pH is imbalanced it may affect that,” says Youn, citing a review published in July 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.
Youn says that while many in the holistic beauty world have become obsessed with pH, the acid mantle, and the microbiome, it’s not the case in the medical world just yet. “The real question is just how much impact does the pH of a skin-care product have on the skin, and for how long? I don’t think we know. If you ask 10 plastic surgeons who are recommending skin-care products about the pH of the skin and the acid mantle, they probably would have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Sometimes research follows marketing, Youn adds. “It remains to be seen what role pH balance plays in disturbing the microbiome, but if it affects bacteria on the skin, that might explain the origins of inflammatory disease skin problems like eczema, rosacea, and acne which have no known cause in science as of now.”
Trevor Cates, ND, a Park City, Utah–based naturopath who addressed the American Academy of Antiaging Medicine about the skin’s barrier functioning in December 2018, says the foods we eat can play a part. “Eating a lot of sugar or dairy products can increase sebum production,” says Cates, who is also the author of Clean Skin From Within. “Those things can impact the acid mantle from the inside-out. But also, what we put on the skin can impact that. And the first thing that people do is use a cleanser, so it’s important that it has a mild acidity.”
The Best Way to Find Out if Your Skin-Care Products Have a Low pH
It may be that you don’t need to worry too much about the pH of your products if you have healthy skin. But if you already suffer from inflammatory skin conditions, such as acne or eczema, you’ll want to stick to cleansers, serums, and moisturizers that range from 4.6 to 5.5 to avoid stripping the skin, says Cates.
Because the majority of skin-care products in the United States don’t list the formula’s pH on the label the way many K-Beauty products do, you can find out what the pH of a product is by checking the brand’s website, or call the company and ask. If you want to be sure, you can also purchase pH strips and test a product yourself. “If you live in a location where the tap water is hard, that can cause your skin’s pH balance to become more alkaline,” Cates says. (If you see white spots on your glassware, or calcification on your showerheads, you likely have hard tap water, according to Sciencing.com.) One solution is to try cleansing with micellar water, which French women have been hailing as the secret to great skin for decades.
A review published in July 2014 in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology cites research that suggests diet may have a bigger connection to skin health than dermatologists formerly believed. On the basis of existing data, a plant-based diet that’s low in refined carbohydrates is a good idea for overall skin health, researchers concluded.
And when all else fails, sometimes it’s best to remember that less is more. “There’s something I call the ‘hospital phenomenon,’ says Masterson. “When I was delivering my babies, I was in the hospital for several days each time and then at home in bed recovering. I really didn’t pay much attention to my skin then, and guess what? My skin was never happier. It’s because I allowed it to function on its own and left the acid mantle alone to do its job, which it did very well. If you struggle with skin issues and you don’t know what else to do, the answer is almost always: ‘Do less.’”