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 of us stop at the ingredients list when it comes to finding the right skincare products; however, there's another notable detail that we ought to consider when shopping for a cleanser: pH.
"The pH is a scientific indication of how acidic or basic something is,” says Dr. Sapna Palep, adding, “The skin's pH runs from four to six." This means that the skin is slightly acidic and naturally aims to stay that way in order to function at its best. To learn more about how our skin’s pH (and the pH of the products we put on that skin) can make a huge difference in the way it looks, feels, and functions, we turned to Palep and dermatologist Dr. Rita Linkner.
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. She is also the clinical instructor for the department of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Check out the best derm-approved low pH facial cleansers, ahead.
Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser
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.
Alastin Gentle Cleanser
Another favorite of 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.
Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Hydrating Cleanser
Simple yet effective, Neutrogena's Ultra Gentle Hydrating Cleanser is a crowd-pleaser. Its creamy polyglycerin formula is super hydrating, making it ideal for dry and sensitive skin types. Although it doesn't come with any buzzy skincare ingredients, it gets our vote for leaving skin soft and refreshed—and at an affordable price, no less.
Drunk Elephant Beste No.9 Jelly Cleanser
We think you're ready for this jelly: Drunk Elephant Beste No.9 Jelly Cleanser, that is. It's a lightweight gel that counts soothing and hydrating cantaloupe extract and glycerin among its ingredients and has got a pH of 5.5. “At the lower pH, the lipids within the skin are preserved, which is better for those who are prone to eczema or dryness,” explains Palep.
Farmacy Clean Bee Ultra-Gentle Facial Cleanser
Our obsession with Farmacy's nature-loving skincare products is real. For instance, take its Clean Bee Ultra-Gentle Facial Cleanser (which we wrote about before, by the way). It washes and nourishes skin using ingredients like hyaluronic acid and honey. FYI: If you like this product, we encourage you to check out the brand's Sweet Apple Clean Makeup Meltaway Cleansing Balm—you won't be disappointed.
E.l.f. Bounce Back Jelly Cleanser
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. And according to a 2018 study, low pH cleansers may positively affect skin conditions and improve concerns like acne, eczema, and aging. At only $6, this product is a good one to keep on hand when your skin needs a gentle touch.
The Inkey List Oat Cleansing Balm
One of our editors, who is prone to breakouts (not to be confused with skin purging), tried out this cleansing balm and praised it for its gentle, yet powerful, makeup removing abilities. Boasting anti-inflammatory properties thanks to star ingredient colloidal oatmeal, the lightweight cleanser can also help to reduce redness. We'll go so far as to say that this balm is the bomb.
Kate Somerville Delikate™ Soothing Cleanser
Although it's a bit pricey, this cream cleanser is enticing. It's packed with skincare superhero ingredients—amino acids, ceramides, ginger root extract, and cucumber seed oil, to name a few—that support a healthy skin barrier. Your dry, sensitive and/or irritated skin will be relieved.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Cleanser
Derms love La Roche-Posay—and so do we. This daily face wash cleanses skin while keeping its moisture and pH level in check. Formulated with niacinamide, glycerin—and let's not forget, the brand's "magical" prebiotic thermal spring water—it can help to hydrate skin and combat discoloration. Consider it the "Fountain of Youth" for your body's largest organ.
Atopalm Moisturizing Facial Cleansing Foam
Although foaming cleansers tend to carry a high pH, that's not the case with Atopalm's Moisturizing Facial Cleansing Foam. With a pH of 5.5, it cleanses skin without stripping it of moisture. Meanwhile, good-for-your-skin ingredients—bisabolol, lactic acid, hyaluronic acid, and bitter orange extract— soothe, gently exfoliate, hydrate, and brighten skin, respectively.
Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser
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.
JLo Beauty That Hit Single Gel-Cream Cleanser
Are you after the JLo glow? Us too. Hailing from her eponymous skincare line, this luxurious gel-cream is a face wash that promises a radiant complexion. And in case you were wondering: "Non-foaming creamy washes leave the skin at its natural pH," claims Palep. That Hit Single also unclogs pores (that would be the glycolipids at work) and nourishes and protects skin given the squalene and host of antioxidants in its formula. Needless to say, it hits all the right notes.
Are high pH cleansers bad for skin?
Not necessarily, 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,” explains Palep. “In oily skin, where sebum re-establishes itself within 20 minutes of cleansing, high pH cleansers are acceptable.”
How can you know when a cleanser has a low pH?
“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.
Prakash C, Bhargava P, Tiwari S, Majumdar B, Bhargava RK. Skin surface pH in acne vulgaris: insights from an observational study and review of the literature. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017;10(7):33-39.
Blaak J, Staib P. The relation of pH and skin cleansing. Curr Probl Dermatol. 2018;54:132-142. doi:10.1159/000489527.