Maybe you haven’t thought about pH levels since you said goodbye to chemistry class. The high school version of you probably even thought that acid and alkaline could be relegated to the list of things you learned that have no practical application in real life. But who knew that chemistry could actually play a part in your skincare routine? Well, today’s the day you can dust off your pH knowledge and put it to good use!

To refresh your memory: pH stands for potential hydrogen and is the measure of the acid-alkaline ratio of a substance. The levels run from 0 to 14 with pH 7 being neutral (the pH level of pure water); anything below 7 is acidic and anything above 7 is alkaline.

You may not realize it but different systems of the body require different pH levels—some parts are better acidic and some parts are better alkaline. It’s all about maintaining balance.

When it comes to skin, the ideal level is 5.5, or slightly acidic. This acidity helps keep it protected from things like allergens, UV rays, and pollutants. Having a skin pH level that’s too far from 5.5 may lead to all sorts of problems for your skin, from acne to redness to visible lines.

How pH Levels and Healthy Skin are Connected

Is Your Skin Acidic or Alkaline?

While you can do a literal litmus test on your face to determine your skin’s pH level, you can quickly evaluate your skin by thinking about how it looks and feels under various conditions. If your skin is soft and smooth after cleansing, feels pretty normal, and doesn’t give you constant problems like greasiness, breakouts, or flakiness, then your pH levels are most likely a-OK.

If your skin feels tight after you give it a wash, is constantly dry, and looks kind of dull and worn especially when you wake up, then it is likely alkaline (meaning it has a higher-than-normal pH level). If your skin always feels oily, even after washing, and you suffer from breakouts, redness, and other skin irritations, then it’s likely too acidic (meaning it has a lower-than-normal pH level).  

Having skin that is too alkaline means that you lack the acid mantle or protective layer that locks in moisture and acts as a barrier from foreign elements and irritants. In short, skin ends up being too dry and sensitive and tends to age prematurely.

A study published in the British Journal of Dermatology reinforces this last bit: Those who had alkaline skin tended to have more visible fine lines than those who had acidic skin.

It’s rarer for skin to be too acidic, but if yours is, then you may have skin that is red, inflamed, and even painful to the touch. 

Balancing Act

If your skin pH levels lie far from the ideal 5.5, you may be tempted to reach for more products on the opposite end of the spectrum to balance things out. But experts note that your skin can correct itself if you give it a chance—piling on the products won’t help much and may even do more harm than good. It’s better to go for products that have pH levels that are close to 5.5.

Try Thayers Witch Hazel, Natural Rose Water, and Cucumber Witch Hazel Toner, which have pH levels of about 5.0. (All available at Healthy Options.)

If you suspect that your skin is too alkaline, evaluate your skincare routine and the products you use. The usual bar soaps and cleansers tend to be alkaline and can thus dry your skin out. You might also be over-cleansing or scrubbing with products that aren’t specifically formulated for facial skin, or you’re not moisturizing enough.

If all signs point to overly acidic skin, you may have to cut back on peeling products that may contain acids. You may be using these peels to help keep oil under control but in trying to get rid of the grease, you may inadvertently be conditioning your skin to produce more of it.

If you want to unlock beautiful skin, you can start by paring down to the bare minimum products with the right pH for your skin. But keep in mind that maintaining balanced pH levels isn’t the be-all and end-all of good skincare. Other factors, like diet, sleep, and stress, are just as important.