What is the pH of your skin, and why does it matter?
The surface of healthy skin is a thin oily film atop the outmost layer of skin. It has an acidic pH, on average between 4 and 5, due to lactic acid from sweat and from production by normal skin bacteria. This acidic surface acts as an inhibitory barrier to invasive microorganisms, and so it is sometimes called the "acid mantle"—a necessary part of your body’s defence system. Healthy skin bacteria, the "bacterial flora" that live around and atop of your skin cells, grow better in this acidic environment. The bacterial flora not only help to maintain the acidity of the acid mantle of your skin, but also protect your skin by out-competing other invading microorganisms for resources. Different areas of skin may have different pH values, even in the same body area like the face. Men often have have lower skin pH values than women (although they may be more susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections, due to their skin's higher oil content). Babies have a less acidic skin than older children and adults.
Most skin cleansers on sale today contain inexpensive alkaline surfactants that are similar or even identical to those found in dishwashing detergent. Soaps, by the chemistry of their manufacture, are very alkaline. At least one study of commercial skincare products found that the majority of soap cleansers have a pH of 9 to 10—that is to say, quite alkaline. Alkaline cleansers make your skin feel "squeaky clean"—i.e., not greasy—but in doing so they strip it of its acidic mantle, making it much easier for potentially harmful chemicals, allergens and bacteria to find their way in. As an example, the foaming agents sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and its analogues (e.g. sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)) are found in almost every cleanser, yet under alkaline conditions their well-known ability to cause skin irritation is exacerbated. Moisturisers and other cosmetics, too, can be far more alkaline than your skin's normal pH. Some cosmetics companies even erroneously claim that healthy skin is pH neutral—but this is both factually wrong and unscientific. When the acid mantle is disrupted by alkaline conditions, healthy skin bacteria do not thrive and are more likely to fall off. With out their protection your skin's acid mantle is weakened even further, and sometimes this can lead to skin disorders.
While everybody has a naturally different proportion of sweat to oils in their sebum that can sometimes "naturally" take skin away from its natural balance, most often it is external changes that cause unhealthy skin. Short-term use of alkaline products on your skin can cause transient symptoms of skin "tightness", itching, dryness and/or excessive oil production. Continued use of these alkaline products weakens the acid mantle over time, causing irritation, inflammation, and infections. Alkaline skin has been implicated in causing or worsening a range of medical skin conditions, including acne, various kinds of dermatitis (particularly atopic dermatitis and its secondary bacterial infections) and rosacea. Certainly, sufferers of these conditions should avoid irritating heavily foaming facial cleansers—but paying particular heed to the skin's pH should be just as important.
Most skin disorders involve some kind of damage to the skin that requires healing, and the pH of the skin in and around wounds (even small wounds, such as acne lesions) can affect the processes required for their healing. It is well known clinically that chronically non-healing wounds (e.g., ulcers) contain an elevated alkaline environment, and that all wound healing occurs better and more rapidly when in an acidic environment.
So, what does "pH-balanced" mean when purchasing soaps and cleansers? Such claims abound on supermarket shelves... but at what pH are these products balanced? One study on a range of cleansers for the treatment of acne, for example, revealed pH values anywhere from 4.5 to 10.5, and a disturbing majority of the products were very alkaline. Few of the bewildering array of skin care products in the supermarket isle describe their pH value on the packaging. Without the use of sophisticated pH-measuring equipment, it is frustratingly impossible to know which might be the most appropriate. All of this may seem to present quite a challenge... and for many people with skin problems, it can be an uncomfortable one. Yet one fact remains: while maintaining your skin's acid mantle can be a fine balance, it is vital to your skin's health.
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Want to learn more about skin pH, or about how our acidic pH-balanced products might help you? Our industrially-certified formulating pharmacists are available to help. Simply contact us with your enquiry or needs.
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