By Anura Logan
Why the pH of your skincare is important, how to read pH levels and how to order your skincare routine to get the most out of your products.
pH levels are kind of like kidneys. Most of us are aware of them, know they’re important but at the same time, don’t really know why (seriously, what do my kidneys do again? I should probably know). Skincare ads frequently throw around the words “pH-balanced” and “pH neutral” like it's a good thing – but is it? What does it all mean?
The truth is, pH isn’t a complicated concept - and knowing how to use this information can greatly enhance your skincare routine and the potency of your products. Even ordering your products according to their pH can deliver serious results. Ignoring pH altogether however, can render your skincare ineffective - no matter how good each individual ingredient is.
So, we’ve done the research for you, and came up with Kanvas Beauty’s ultimate guide to interpreting pH levels. Here's the good news: it doesn’t have to be complicated!
Let’s start with the basics: pH level stands for potential hydrogen level. The more hydrogen ions = the more acidic something is. Therefore, pH is a measure of acidity.
You can tell how acidic a product is depending on where it falls on the pH scale, which ranges from 0 (extremely acidic) to 14 (extremely alkaline). If a product has a pH of 7, it falls right in the middle of scale. That means it’s neutral or pH balanced. Look at it as the dividing line between acidity and alkalinity.
Although a scale of 0-14 might not seem that significant on the face of it, the difference between each digit is actually 10-fold. As an example, a cleanser with a pH of 8 is 100 times more alkaline than a cleanser with a pH of 7. Chemical exfoliants like AHAs are 200 times more acidic than your average retinol serum. Yep, that’s right – even 1 unit in either direction on the pH scale can make a big difference to our skin. That’s why paying attention to the pH of your skincare is so important!
Are pH-balanced products better for you?
The short answer is, not really.
You might be surprised to learn that adult skin is naturally slightly acidic, with a pH around ~5.5. In fact, maintaining a pH around that level is # skin goals. The acidic barrier on your skin helps keep bad bacteria out, seal in moisture, and protect your skin from infection. The further your skin’s pH drifts away from ~5.5, the more at risk it is of conditions like acne, inflammation, fine lines, eczema and rosacea. If you’ve struggled with these issues in the past no matter what products you’ve used, correcting the pH of your skincare routine may be the answer. Your skincare products can affect your skin’s acidity barrier, and might even be working against you.
Okay – then why would I ever want to use products with a pH higher than 5.5?
Consider this: black coffee has a pH of 5.5. Have you tried washing your face in it? It won’t clean your face very well! You need a little bit of alkalinity to cleanse your face. Skin on the oily, congested side can also respond very well to a high pH cleanser (i.e. >7). The higher the pH, the more thoroughly it will clean your pores. Just be aware, however, that high pH products should treated like an occasional luxury rather than an everyday product – even if you have acne. If your skin feels “squeaky clean” afterwards and your sebum production doesn’t compensate for that stripping effect, you’re probably doing more damage than good. Your skin might feel smooth at first, but overusing high pH products can damage your skin barrier and spark all the issues that come with a compromised acid mantle (redness, little bumps, allergies, breakouts etc).
So, are low pH products better?
Well, it depends how low we’re talking.
Highly acidic skincare products include chemical exfoliants and vitamin C serums. Many of these ingredients have to be formulated at a pH level below that of your skin in order to effectively penetrate the barrier and do its work. These give you a great glow, but as you may already have realized, overuse can lead to rawness, irritation and skin sensitivity. If you're applying a product and get that horrible burning feeling on your face, you may have overdone it on the acid front. That's your skin's way of telling you that it's time you get back to the magic 5.5 level.
In conclusion, it’s okay for most skin types to use high or low pH skincare products – just not on the reg
Basically, your skin is pretty picky. Regular use of skincare products whose pH levels are too high OR too low can disturb and damage it. When you’re picking skincare for your daily routine, try and ensure they as close to your skin’s pH as possible. As a general guide, most skin types respond well to products which fall within a pH range of 4.5 – 6.5.
And it’s not just the skin on your face and body – this pH range also applies to the skin on your scalp. At a pH of 5.5, your scalp is less susceptible to conditions like dryness and dandruff formation. Been suffering from persistent dandruff? A deep cleanse or salt scrub might feel good every now and then, but you’re likely better off ensuring the pH of your regular haircare comes as close to skin-matching as possible.
How do I structure my routine according to pH to avoid skin damage?
Here are our top tips:
- Start by switching to a low pH cleanser. This is one of the easiest and most effective adjustments we can make, as our cleansers tend to be the most alkaline products in our lineup. Some of our favourite skin-matching pH cleansers include Purito’s From Green Deep Foaming Cleanser, Heimish’s All Clean Green Cleansing Foam and the COSRX Good Morning Low pH Cleansing Gel.
- Only use a high pH cleanser on occasion. If you are in the habit of routinely using high pH cleansers (especially if you have oily or acne-prone skin), you don’t need to turf them altogether. High pH cleansers are useful in some cases – studies have shown that they can even be helpful in treating conditions like psoriasis! But frequency of use is the key here – instead of daily, try using one every 3-4 days or even weekly. Some great higher pH cleansers for that occasional deep clean without stripping include Klairs’ Rich Moist Foaming Cleanser, the COSRX Salicylic Acid Gentle Cleanser (particularly suited to cystic acne sufferers) and the Sebiaclear Cleansing Gel from SVR Laboratories (for mild-to-moderate acne and sebum control).
- On the days you use a high pH cleanser or treatment, make sure you follow up with a pH-correcting toner or serum: It might seem counter-intuitive (especially if you have oily or acne-prone skin) to use a nourishing toner after cleansing, but trust us. This will keep your skin barrier in better health, and lessen the frequency and severity of breakouts, allergic reactions other annoying skin conditions. Try one of the following: Pyunkang Yul’s Essence Toner, the Soon Jung pH 5.5 Relief Toner from Etude House or the Vitamin B3 Hydra Essence from SVR Laboratories. If it’s a serum you’re after, we like Krave’s Great Barrier Relief, Purito’s Buffet Serum and Benton’s Snail Bee Ultimate Serum (how underrated is Benton's Snail Bee range?!).
- ALWAYS use an SPF during the day. A lot of great, glow-giving ingredients like vitamins and acids increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV rays. Sunshine makes us happy, but it’s also the cause of premature ageing, skin cancers and barrier damage. Therefore, treat your SPF as central to your skincare routine and to getting the most out of the rest of your products. Kanvas Beauty stocks a huge range of SPFs for every skin type, tone and condition – check them out here.
If you’re one of those lucky folks with skin that’s not fussy or reactive, then you can probably afford to travel more frequently lower or higher on the pH scale than others. Just be aware however, that our skin changes throughout our lives, and becomes more delicate as we age. Be kind to your skin and don’t push it to its limits! Give it regular breaks from active products and treat it with skin-soothing ingredients like ceramides, cica, fermented ingredients and snail mucin (this stuff WORKS).
When using a low pH product, how do I structure my routine to get the most out of my skincare?
As we mentioned earlier, some ingredients (like chemical exfoliants and vitamin C) penetrate better at a low pH. But with low pH skincare also more likely to cause skin reactions and irritations, the key to good skin is striking a balance between using a product to its max potential and keeping sensitive skin happy.
On the days you’re using low pH, acidic treatments, avoid using a high pH cleanser or toner. Get low all the way, baby! This will increase the efficacy of the treatment, and permit you to use it less frequently to get the same results (better for your skin barrier AND your wallet). Below is our handy guide on what pH level is best for maximum absorption for the below ingredients, and how to integrate them into your routine:
How do I fix my skin’s damaged acid mantle?
Overdone it with acids or been using too many drying products? It’s okay – we’ve all been there! The good news is that you can repair the damage. Here are some simple steps you can take to turn back time on your skin:
- Wind back your routine to the basics (low pH cleanser, low pH toner and moisturizer), and ensure they fall within a tight, skin-matching pH range.
- Give your skin a break from acids, scrubs, vitamin C serums and other extremely high or low pH products. Probiotic skincare (like these products from Neogen’s popular range) can help reverse the damage.
- To speed up the repair process, add a good barrier-repair serum, like Purito’s Centella serums, or Krave’s Great Barrier Relief.
- If your skin is flaky, ensure you’re using a lipid-replenishing moisturizer like SVR’s Barrier Cream or IOPE’s Derma Repair Cica Cream.
- When you think your skin is ready to take on active ingredients again, start with a niacinamide product first. Niacinamide is relative gentle but packs a punch. It can help with acne and brighten the skin, but it can also combat redness, rosacea and sensitivity.
And there you have it! Now after all this, you might be wondering – this is great but how do I actually find out what the pH of a particular skincare product is? Where possible, Kanvas Beauty will list it on the product page. For the most accurate results however, you can purchase a pH testing kit online, and just smear a bit of product on the strip to get a pH reading.
Build your perfect pH routine at Kanvas Beauty
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Has adjusting your skincare routine according to pH worked for you? What do you think? Leave a review and tell us all the gory details!