Here's the Truth About Using Baking Soda as a DIY Acne Treatment

baking soda

 Getty Images/Design by Cristina Cianci

We're not necessarily the betting type, but we'd be willing to put good money on the fact that there's at least one box of baking soda currently stashed somewhere in your kitchen. Whether it's in the pantry waiting to be mixed into your go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe, in the back of the fridge to absorb all those weird odors of unidentified origin, or under the sink ready to be used as part of a make-your-own cleaner, there's no denying that baking soda wins in the versatility department. That being said, there's one place where—contrary to what you may have heard—it shouldn't be used with abandon. We're talking about your face, or more specifically, using baking soda and baking soda masks for acne. According to the experts we spoke with, this popular, often-touted DIY treatment can do more harm than good. Ahead, New York City dermatologist Dr. Marnie Nussbaum and board-certified dermatologist Dr. Annie Gonzalez of Riverchase Dermatology in Miami, Florida explain exactly why baking soda isn't your best bet for battling blemishes.

Baking Soda

Type of Ingredient: A chemical compound classified as a salt.

Who Should Use It: Only those who are in a pinch and don't have access to products that use ingredients specifically formulated to fight acne, such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, cautions Nussbaum. Generally speaking, it's also a better option for oilier skin types, adds Gonzalez, but it can be problematic even then.

How Often Can You Use It: No more than once per week.

Works Well With: Mix it only with water to create a spot treatment.

Don't Use With: Because baking soda can be very drying, don't use it with other potentially drying skincare ingredients, such as retinoids or acids.

What Is Baking Soda?

Also known as sodium bicarbonate, baking soda is a chemical compound with alkalinizing properties and is technically classified as a salt, explains Nussbaum. The alkalinizing part is super important when it comes to using baking soda in skincare and for acne. But per that same point, it's why baking soda helps neutralize acidic substances, both internally and externally, points out Gonzalez. Did you know that baking soda can even be used as a remedy for indigestion?

There's no denying that baking soda can play a role in many at-home beauty treatments, not to mention that it's an insanely affordable ingredient for these purposes. It's an effective physical exfoliant; it can step in for dry shampoo in a pinch; it makes for a great foot soak; it can easily be turned into toothpaste, and is a star ingredient in many natural deodorants (both DIY recipes and the ready-made options). You get the picture. But where things start to get a little dicey and you need to proceed with caution is when using baking soda on your face and for acne-fighting purposes.

Benefits of Baking Soda for Acne

There definitely are some; there wouldn't be tons of articles singing its praises as a natural zit-zapping solution if there weren't. Take a look at some notable benefits below:

  • Exfoliates: Baking soda's slightly gritty texture means it has an exfoliating effect, says Nussbaum. And exfoliating is one key way to help keep pores from becoming clogged and blackheads, whiteheads, and red pimples from forming.
  • Offers anti-inflammatory properties: Baking soda is anti-inflammatory; it's why it's often found in many over-the-counter topical products meant to soothe minor skin irritations such as bug bites and rashes, Gonzalez points out. And, by default, this is why it could be beneficial for quelling red, inflamed breakouts, she adds.
  • Can help balance out the pH for those with oilier skin: For context, let's start with a quick high school chemistry class refresher: The pH scale runs from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Anything below 7 is acidic, anything above is alkaline. "The skin is naturally acidic, with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5. This is a healthy level that maintains moisture while also protecting it from bacteria and pollution," explains Gonzalez. However, "If your skin is more acidic than average, it can lead to an excess production of sebum (your skin's natural oils) which can clog pores and cause acne," adds Nussbaum. In that case, the alkaline nature of baking soda (remember how we talked about that before?) can help balance the skin and bring it back to a healthier pH, she adds.

Side Effects of Baking Soda

Because baking soda is so alkaline—it has a pH of about 9—it can easily disrupt your skin’s natural pH levels by over-stripping the natural oils, resulting in dry, irritated and inflamed skin, cautions Nussbaum. Messing with your skin's pH can also lead to premature wrinkles (no, thank you) and ultimately, even exacerbate existing acne, warns Gonzalez. (If skin becomes too alkaline, it's more susceptible to acne.)

In short, baking soda does offer the aforementioned benefits, but it's a super fine line you're walking between reaping said benefits and quickly veering into irritated skin territory. It's why both doctors we spoke with warn against using it as part of a DIY acne-fighting routine.

How to Use It

If you still want to take baking soda for a test run, remember that, first and foremost, the oilier your skin is, the less likely you are to run into issues. In other words, if your complexion is dry and sensitive to begin with, this is definitely not the ingredient for you. Secondly, small amounts used infrequently are safest. Nussbaum suggests mixing approximately two teaspoons of baking soda with enough water to form a paste-like consistency and applying it as a targeted spot treatment onto blemishes only. To clarify, don't slather it across your entire complexion as an all-over face mask. Leave it on for five to 10 minutes before gently rinsing with tepid water—and do this no more than once per week, she says. Since there's also a high potential of it drying out your skin, be extra diligent about SPF usage; skin that's been stripped of oils may also be more photosensitive, so always apply sunscreen afterwards, she says.

At the end of the day, that box of Arm & Hammer is going to get plenty of use for other purposes and acne-fighting doesn't need to be one of them.

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