Does a Product's pH Level Really Matter?

Short answer: Yup.
Publish date:
August 28, 2015
beauty science, ph levels, Ph Balance

The other day, I was browsing Reddit's AsianBeauty subreddit (totally not what you think—it's about Asian skincare products), when the topic of pH balance and products came up. Now, I'm aware of how important it is to use products that fall within a "healthy" pH range, so as not to disrupt your skin, but I'll admit that I'm not always so conscious of this magic number when trying or buying new products.

The discussion, however, which does come up frequently on that subreddit and in other online skincare forums, made me want to adjust my current skincare standards. It also inspired me to do some additional research both online and via some 1:1 time with a dermatologist who knows what's up.

The topic is quite comprehensive and research is still underway. However, the skincare world has come to some important conclusions, so let's dive in.

Your Skin's pH Level

Let's start at the very beginning. Your skin's pH level refers to the acid content of your skin. This number varies depending on the person and can even change minute by minute or body part to body part, but it generally comes in at or around 5.5 or just under.

For the record, the pH scale runs from 0 (super-duper acidic) to 14 (super-duper basic/alkaline), so you can see that 5.5 comes in slightly acidic, but near a neutral seven.

  • Acidic examples: Battery acid and lemon juice. DO NOT PUT LEMON JUICE ON YOUR SKIN, PEOPLE.
  • Basic example: Pumpkin Spice Latte (had to, and btw I live for #psl). But seriously, lye and bleach are good examples. DO NOT PUT BLEACH ON YOUR SKIN, PEOPLE.

You want to keep your skin as close as you can to this ~5.5 level. Too basic and you'll experience dry, scaly, itchy, sensitive skin; too acidic (which is less common than too basic) and you'll strip your skin. This can result in super-sensitive, painful skin. It may even result in blisters and ferocious breakouts. No, thanks.

Choosing The Right Products

So what does this information translate to when it comes to choosing and using the right products? Dr. Joel Schlessinger, dermatologic surgeon and contributor at RealSelf, says that there are definite limits in what is an acceptable pH level in your products. And yes, you will find some products that land outside of this acceptable field, so be wary.

"Those that are within the two to eight range are generally what we find will work with skin," he says. "It is probably best to simply try these types of products out on your skin and see what feels good—what seems to help cleanse your skin and what works for you."

Note that the far ends of that healthy two to eight spectrum aren't necessarily ideal. The closer to 5.5 you are, the better. The goal is to keep your skin at a healthy, normal pH range.

Dr. Schlessinger also says that you shouldn't be swayed by factors such as "sudsing," which seems to be a big selling point for some products.

"Major 'sudsing,' as we know it now, is a feature of an ingredient called sodium lauryl sulfate, and most cleansers are trying to get this out of the products due to significant allergies and irritations," he notes. "[Lauryl sulfate] is being replaced by a host of newer and better options, but the end result is that the foaming you may associate with that 'clean' won't be happening as much in the future. That is truly a good thing."

Testing Products

A quick Google search involving your product + "pH level" may give you the answer you're seeking. However, if you want to convert your bathroom into a science room—or if you're having a hard time finding a pH level of a certain product with a quick search—you may find it beneficial to have some pH strips on hand.

You can find these all over the place, but Amazon is always an easy option. They have some for sale on the cheap, starting at around $3. Bonus: You will look really smart using them. Science goggles optional, and definitely not necessary.

Additionally, you can "feel test" products by using them and then answering a few questions about how your skin feels afterward.

  • If your skin feels tight, dry or sensitive, you're probably using a product or products that are too alkaline.
  • If your skin is left feeling greasy or unclean, you're likely experiencing an overkill of acid.
  • Ultimately, you want your skin to feel soft and smooth.

Have you ever considered the pH level of a product when shopping skincare? Does this information make you want to change your current skincare regimen? If you've been conscious about pH levels, what are some of your favorite products to use?