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Regardless of your skin type or skincare concern, it seems that there are dozens of cleansers out there formulated with specific ingredients to treat it. From acne-fighting benzoyl peroxide to hydrating hyaluronic acid, most people stop at the ingredients list when it comes to finding the right skincare products. But there's a valuable characteristic you're likely overlooking when it comes to cleanser: pH. Our skin’s pH (and the pH of the products we put on that skin) might make a huge difference in the way our skin looks, feels, and functions. Ahead, two board-certified dermatologists explain why pH is important and why you should make the switch to a low pH cleanser.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Sapna Palep is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Spring Street Dermatology in New York City.
- Dr. Rita Linkner is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, where she is also the clinical instructor for the department of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
What Is pH?
“The pH is a scientific indication of how acidic or basic something is,” says Dr. Sapna Palep. Everything has a pH which is measured by a number somewhere between zero and 14, depending on whether it’s an acid or base (alkaline). The more hydrogen ions in a substance, the lower the pH and the more acidic it is. Conversely, the fewer hydrogen ions in a substance, the higher the pH and the more basic/alkaline that substance is.
- Acidic Substance: pH of 0-6
- Neutral Substance: pH of 7
- Basic/Alkaline: pH of 8-14
Water is considered neutral with a pH of seven—anything below that is considered acidic, or low pH, and anything with a high pH above seven is considered basic, or alkaline.
Your Skin's pH
“The skin's pH runs from 4-6,” says Dr. Palep. This means that the skin is slightly acidic, and naturally aims to stay that way in order to function at its best. When it comes to our skin, it’s important to have a general understanding of what high and low pH contents are for one reason: to choose products that will keep your skin as healthy and happy as possible. This all starts with our skin’s normal pH level.
The Ideal pH For Skincare Products
Your skin is the most functional at its natural pH level (4-6), which means you want your skincare products (including cleanser) to feature an identical or close pH. What happens if you use a cleanser that isn’t pH balanced? Your skin’s pH levels become compromised, which can lead to a slew of skin problems.
“Foaming washes bring the skin's pH to 10 while non-foaming creamy washes leave the skin at its natural pH," explains Dr. Palep. A cleanser or product containing a high pH could possibly lead to symptoms like dryness, clogged pores, and acne on certain skin types.
The Benefits of Using a Low pH Cleanser
- Typically Non-Drying: Low pH cleansers tend to feature a gel, milk, or cream texture, which might be less drying than a foam (a popular form that high pH cleansers take).
- Better for Those With Eczema: “At the lower pH, the lipids within the skin are preserved, which is better for those who are prone to eczema or dryness,” explains Dr. Palep.
- Protects the Skin's Acid Mantle: The acid mantle is a thin, acidic layer of film (for lack of a better word) that sits on top of the skin. This layer is made up of oil, sweat, and fatty acids, and works to protect the skin from potentially harmful bacteria and viruses that may disrupt the condition of your complexion. According to a 2018 study, low pH cleansers may positively affect skin conditions and improve concerns like acne, eczema, and aging.
That said, not all cleansers that have a high pH are necessarily bad, especially for those with specific skin concerns that can tolerate a more alkaline and drying substance. “Higher pH cleansers are more like detergents that clean the skin thoroughly; these are the best in oily skin which can withstand dehydration of a cleanser that acts like a surfactant,” Dr. Palep adds. “In oily skin, where sebum re-establishes itself within 20 minutes of cleansing, high pH cleansers are acceptable.”
How to Tell If a Cleanser is Low pH
So, we know that a low pH cleanser is the right choice for most skin types, but how do we know when a cleanser has a low pH? If the pH of the product isn't on the label (and you don't happen to have pH indicator strips laying around) then “the best way to tell is whether or not the cleanser is pH balanced is to see if it bubbles or foams, which means it’s a high pH cleanser,” says Dr. Rita Linkner." “If it's cream-based and gentle, then it’s a low pH wash.” So, the fewer the suds, the lower the pH, in most cases. Low pH cleansing formulas to look out for include gel, cream, and “milk” varieties. Additionally, products marked “pH balanced” have been formulated to mimic the skin’s natural pH level, and won’t raise your skin’s pH level.
Dermatologist-Approved Cleansers With Low pH
Dr. Linkner lists Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser among her favorite low pH cleansers. Non-irritating and soap-free, this cleanser won’t strip your skin of the oil it needs to function in a healthy way. Added bonus: It’s available at most drug stores.
Another favorite of Dr. Linkner’s is the Alastin Gentle Cleanser. This cleanser is free of sulfates so it won’t irritate the skin, and is designed to not disrupt the moisture levels all skin needs to stay looking, feeling, and working great.
Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser is pH balanced and safe for use every day thanks to its gentle formula (extra points for being cruelty-free and vegan). This one is also safe on the eyes and won’t irritate as it’s made with the same cleansing agents that are found in contact solution.
Looking for a super low-cost and low pH option? The e.l.f. Bounce Back Jelly Cleanser uses a no-foam formula, a tell-tale sign of a low pH product. At only $6, this product is a good one to keep on hand when your skin needs a gentle touch.
Lambers H, Piessens S, Bloem A, Pronk H, Finkel P. Natural skin surface pH is on average below 5, which is beneficial for its resident flora. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2006;28(5):359-370. doi:10.1111/j.1467-2494.2006.00344.x
Blaak J, Staib P. The relation of pH and Skin Cleansing. Curr Probl Dermatol. 2018;54:132-142. doi:10.1159/000489527