A balancing act

Photography by Alaina Latona

Photography by Alaina Latona

Any time we wash our faces to remove dirt and oil, our cleansers typically have surfactants, short for surface acting agents. These are detergents and emulsifiers that work by drawing impurities to the surface. They turn into micelles, little molecules that attract dirt and oil with their hydrophobic core (oil-loving, hello high-school Chemistry) and face the water with their hydrophilic (water-loving) head, and are then easily washed away. Certain surfactants, like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), can be drying and harsh on skin. They can strip away its barrier properties, like natural lipids, enzymes, and oils, while drawing out all of the dirt and impurities that you do want to wash away. Which leads us to the topic of skin pH.

Although pH does not normally factor into our decision-making process when looking into skincare products, it does merit some discussion. The pH of the skin on your face is typically around 5.4 to 5.9, which is slightly more acidic than the neutral pH of 7. This is the reason that it is often called the acid mantle, which is not a sci-fi term, but rather, the skin's protective barrier against environmental pollutants and other bacteria. Skin that is more alkaline tends to be dry or flaky, and skin that has a more acidic pH tends to be acne-prone. As we age, our skin tends to get more alkaline, thus the constant battle for ramping up our skincare regimen with acids and peels continue into old age in an effort to regain that youthful hydrated plumpness.

It goes without saying that stripping the skin of its acid mantle can lead to its defenses being shut down, making your skin more vulnerable to breakouts or dryness. Increasing the skin's pH leads to irritability, dehydration, and higher bacterial count. Certain surfactants can remain in the deeper layers of your skin after washing, and by remaining there, they can disrupt the normal pH and integrity of your skin, leading to all of the issues above. 

To add more burden to your woes, many soaps are alkaline, having a pH within the 9 to 10 range. A study evaluating various skincare and hair care products found that only around 3% of the soap products tested had a pH corresponding to that of the skin. Bear in mind that chemicals used to strip away gunk from your drains are typically alkalizing, so overly alkaline solutions in face washes have a similar effect on your skin. So, how do we fight this imbalance?

Dermatologists understand the need for pH balancing and tend to recommend products that are within the appropriate ranges for their patients' skincare needs. When you go shopping, a good rule of thumb is to look for soap-free products. That is, of course, unless you carry pH testing strips with you and you decide to open every bottle in the store. This is not advised. Cleansers and toners that are "balancing" will also help to restore your skin's pH to its normal levels. Glycerin in products also help to create more gentle formulations that are lower in pH. If your skin is on either end of the spectrum, it's important to use products than can bring the pH to healthy levels.

CosRx Low-pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser is a gentle daily exfoliant on top of being a cleanser, thanks to the betaine salicylate, which is a beta-hydroxy acid that helps prevent acne by unclogging pores. It's got a pH of around 5, which is perfect for maintaining natural skin pH.

Dermalogica Special Cleansing Gel has Quillaja Saponaria, which is a gentle foaming agent from the soap bark tree, that collects and washes off dirt and excess oil from the skin. The gel cleanser has calming ingredients, like lavender and mint, to soothe the skin during cleansing. 

Micellar water has become a household term these days because of its gentler cleansing properties. It's often formulated as an all-in-one cleanser that can remove makeup, dirt, and excess oil without being a foaming "cleanser" that strips away all of the good, natural oils that the skin needs. Simple Kind to Skin Cleansing Water and Bioderma Sensibio H2O Water are two budget options that have nourishing effects on the skin post-cleanse.

Mizon AHA & BHA Daily Clean Toner contains both alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids to carefully exfoliate skin while simultaneously unclogging your pores. This is a great step after cleansing to ensure that you wipe away anything remaining on your skin that didn't get washed away.

Paula's Choice Skin Balancing Pore Minimizing Toner is perfect for normal to oily skin. It has ceramides for extra moisture and niacinamide to help reduce pores and inflammation in the skin. It doesn't look super sexy in your medicine cabinet, but it'll do its job.

Hylamide Sensitive Fix Advanced Calming Complex Booster is a serum that has pH-balancing effects from their independently studied golden-eye grass complex while treating signs of aging and skin sensitivity.

Other factors can come into play when discussing skin pH. From the food you eat, to the products you use, to medications you take can alter your skin's pH. Even having hard water in your tap or shower can alter the pH in your skin. There are ways to circumvent this if your budget does not allow you to cleanse and bathe in Evian. A good rule of thumb is to use more alkaline products if your skin is too acidic and oily, and to use more acidic products if your skin is too dry and alkaline. There are caveats here and there so a consultation with a dermatologist can help you balance everything out if you're left unsure.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4171909/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3425021/