Balancing pH In Your Skin

By Minji

  • Do the different pH levels in skincare products confuse you?
  • It can be overwhelming, but besides certain acid-based products, it's generally a good idea to look for balanced products with pH levels around 5-7
  • Stay away from harsh cleansers and use acids in moderation!

If the concept of “balancing pH” confuses you in general, I would recommend you first read my article on balancing pH in the body.  Assuming you have a general ideal of what pH is and why it’s important, I’d like to take you on a deeper dive into pH levels in skincare products and how it can be relevant for your skin health. 

To recap, our skin is wired to fight infection and environmental stresses and its ability to do so can be dependent on its pH level. The pH level of skin refers to how acidic or alkaline it is. Normal healthy skin should be slightly acidic with pH levels around 4.5 to 5.5.

Assuming you’re generally healthy, don't worry, your body knows what to do and how to balance your pH levels.  However, when it comes to your skin pH specifically, it makes sense to make some effort to balance your pH levels. This is due to the fact that many of the skincare products we use, in particular cleansers, have a pH level that is either much higher or lower than the ideal 5-7 for skin and can disrupt this balance.

Dr. Yoon says, if you’re worried about skin irritation issues or aging skin, pay attention to pH levels and pick products that have a slightly acidic formulation that matches our natural skin.

A prime example of potentially pH disruptive skincare products to be wary of are harsh cleansers. Many cleansers run alkaline with higher pH levels and can strip away good natural oils resulting in dryness, breakouts or irritation. 

On the other hand, some products can be overly acidic and cause issues too. Ingredients such as AHAs, BHAs and vitamin C are all on the more acidic side (generally pH 4 or lower) and can cause problems if not used properly. 

You might’ve seen vitamin C serums advertising a lower pH level as a good thing and now might be wondering why that is.

Well, for some of these more acidic ingredients, having a lower pH range helps the ingredients function properly and enhances the potency of these products, which is a good thing.  Also, even if you use more acidic products on your skin, your skin can self-regulate itself and come back to its balance.

The problem arises when you overuse these products that have either significantly higher or lower pH levels than your normal skin.  For cleansers, I would recommend that you look for gentle products that are relatively clean and free from harsh chemicals - there doesn't seem to be much benefit in using high pH products.

For acids, I would say balance is the key word. As your might already know, a variety of acids are proven to be beneficial for your skin health and are considered the most effective skincare ingredients in the market today.  So instead of steering clear of them just to protect pH levels in your skin, I recommend using them in a balanced way that works for your particular skin type.

If you have dry or sensitive skin, maybe you use a gentle AHA toner and vitamin C serum just in the mornings on alternating days and see how your skin reacts.  If your skin is fine, then maybe you can start using both on the same days and even consider using at night too with your gentle retinol moisturizer.  If at any time your skin becomes irritated and starts to look dry or peel, you might consider pulling back to a more moderate schedule.  

Personally, I have no issues combining a gentle AHA toner in the mornings with my vitamin C serum, and then also using the same toner again at night with my gentle retinol cream.  I sometimes even use my vitamin C serum at night too, layering all three products with no issues, but that’s just me. 

You need to be patient and experiment to see what works for your unique skin type.  Besides acids, it’s generally a good idea to check your skincare labels to look for balanced pH levels around 5-7. 

There’s also a lot of controversy around whether it’s okay to simultaneously use skincare products with varying pH levels.  This is a whole different conversation we promise to tackle in the near future.

I know it can be quite overwhelming, but the important thing is to listen to your skin and look out for signs of irritation.  Otherwise, the main takeaway is, besides acids, try to look for balanced pH levels of around 5-7 in your skincare purchases to the extent you can, but this definitely shouldn’t be something that stresses you out!