This blew our minds: Surprising facts about the pH level in skincare

Cleanse. Tone. Moisturize. Before skincare layering became all the rage, we were told just a few years ago that this three-step routine were all we needed to achieve great, healthy skin. I understood cleansing and moisturizing, but the 16-year old me wondered what the hell toning was. I did it without really understanding the reason why and for the longest time I went on believing that it was a way to remove deep seated dirt that you miss with regular cleansing. 

But now I know better and I’m here to share with you the real deal on toning and then some! Buckle up, this subject opens up a beauty rabbit hole that leads to a full swing of even more complicated issues. Let’s try to navigate the world of pH balanced skincare, one topic at a time.

What does toner do, really?

The thing about facial toner is that it’s SO frustratingly vague. Cleansing and moisturizing are pretty self-explanatory but toning is another thing. How did the toner come about and why is it touted as an important step in our skincare routine? To better understand what they do for our skin, it helps to look back at the history of this product.

Toners rose to popularity at a time when most people still washed their face with bar soaps or soap based cleansers. While they cleaned your face pretty well, washing with soap disrupted the skin’s naturally acidic nature and elevated the skin’s pH to unhealthy levels of alkalinity. For this reason, toners were introduced to the market as a way to rebalance your skin’s pH level. As the years passed, it became a multipurpose product that was formulated to do a lot more from removing left over makeup to shrinking pores to prepping your skin for your moisturizers and serums. But more on that later!              

A quick review on pH

pH which stands for “potential hydrogen” is a measure of how acidic or basic a water-based solution is. The scale ranges from 0 to 14, with 0 referring to a highly acidic substance, 7 a neutral substance, and 14 a highly basic or alkaline substance. For reference, you can see the infographic below to know which common items fall under what pH level. A healthy adult human’s skin has a natural skin pH from 4.2 to 5.6. 

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A series of pH testing of popular bar soaps show that most of the body cleansers we have today have a pH level of 9 or 10. While the skin on your body can take that kind of beating (although it shouldn’t), the skin on your face is thinner and more sensitive and any disruption on its pH balance would yield dismal effects on your acid mantle. Unbalanced skin becomes more susceptible to dehydration, sagging, dryness, irritation, aging, and bacteria-causing acne. Who knew that a lot of skin problems could be chalked up to our skin not being acidic enough?

Wait, back up. Acid Mantle what?

We’re all too familiar with the “Acidic po ba kayo?” greetings whenever we shop for makeup bases in beauty counters. The correct answer is always yes, but save yourself from the wrong shade foundation by testing the product out before buying. Anyway, back to the topic.

The acid mantle is our skin’s outermost protective layering. It’s a film of skin oils and acids that serves as a natural barrier between the deeper layers of our skin and the bacteria that we come across in our day to day lives. For the longest time, I used to associate the term acidic with a negative connotation. The truth, I’ve discovered, is that the low pH of the acid mantle creates an environment that is inhospitable to infection-causing pathogens and acne-causing bacteria. In short, pH balanced skin is clear, clean, healthy skin!   

Choosing pH conscious skincare

Ideally, all of the products that you use on your face should be pH balanced. But it’s pH conscious cleansing that gets the most attention since it’s generally harder to find cleansers formulated at the proper pH compared to other products. If you’re into Asian skincare, let’s all take a moment to appreciate the Reddit AsianBeauty community for this comprehensive list of cleansers and their pH level. If you’re using Western products, a quick Google search normally does the trick or you can email customer service to know which cleansers are in the right pH range. If you can't find any info on the products you use, you can actually test them yourself!

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Experiment Time: At home pH testing

Remember these things from science class? Litmus papers are used to determine the acidity or alkalinity of a substance. Blue litmus paper turns red when exposed to acid, and red litmus paper turns blue under alkaline conditions. It’s an easy way to test which of your products are acidic or basic. If you want a more accurate reading however, get a pH test strip instead! You can find these in bigger Mercury Drugstore branches, or check chemist supply stores.

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If you lather your cleanser with water before putting it into your face, do the same thing prior to the product prior to testing. Stick a pH strip on your facial wash then compare your dipstick with the colors on your kit.

To use, or not to use toner

Many people argue that in this day and age where gentle pH balanced cleansers exist, the purpose of toner has become absolutely obsolete and it’s now just a ploy to sell people more product. So, to use or not to use? I guess you know the answer by now!

If you’re using a pH balanced cleanser, toner is optional. Otherwise, it’s best to take that extra step to make sure you don’t turn your skin into a basic breeding ground for acne-causing bacteria. But even if you’re into pH conscious cleansing, there are a slew of skincare benefits that you can get from a well-formulated toner. Some toners can act as a final step for cleansing, an exfoliant, a temporary pore shrinker, and even as a lightweight moisturizer. You just have to find which one works for your particular needs!

It all boils down to this:

  • The primary role of toner is to balance the pH level of your skin.
  • Healthy adult skin is slightly acidic and has a pH level between 4.2 to 5.6.
  • Unbalanced skin is more susceptible to dehydration, sagging, dryness, irritation, aging, and bacteria-causing acne.
  • It’s ideal for everyone to use a pH balanced cleanser. Otherwise, use a toner afterwards to retain the natural balance of your skin.

I know I geeked out a lot in this article, but my knowledge is only as good as the Internet tells me – shady websites not included. If you think you might be suffering from chronic skin pH problems, best to still go to a dermatologist to seek answers! I know that after this article, I can never go back to blissful ignorance and I now have to take my product research skills one notch higher (as if I wasn’t as obsessed enough really).

Have you come across the idea of pH conscious skincare before? Let me know how your current skincare routine works!

Source: The pH of the Skin SurfaceSkin&TonicsBeautyholics AnonymousSnow White and the Asian PearPaula’s Choice