You may have cross across products saying they’re ‘pH balanced’, but what does that really mean? Keeping your skin and hair at their right pH is important for the general healthiness for them — whether you’re dealing with dryness, itchiness, acne, oiliness...what have you. Understanding this whole pH thing is pretty important in taking care of your outer body and can either help it or worsen it — depending on what products you put on it. And don’t forget, when we say skin, we’re also including your scalp. Let’s discuss!
We know our bodies are pretty smart. Skin is naturally designed to fight infection and environmental stressors, and the way it does it is maintaining its pH level. Going back to chemistry 101 (don’t worry, we’ll keep it light), pH works on a level of 1-14: 1 being most acidic and 14 being most alkaline, with 7 being neutral. The natural pH of our skin is 5.5 and your hair strands are naturally at 3.67 — so both of them are on the acidic side. The way the skin keeps the bad stuff at bay is through a thin, protective layer it has called the acid mantle. The goal of ‘pH balancing’ is using products that keep your hair and skin close to its natural pH level.
What is an acid mantle?
So this acid mantle is made up of sebum (from the hair roots down to your pinky toes), which is an oily substance that keeps both your skin and hair moisturized and healthy. But the bad news starts happening when this layer gets disrupted and unbalanced, which can cause a slew of issues.
What disrupts the acid mantle?
Many factors can disrupt the acid mantle, both externally and internally. As we age, our skin becomes more acidic in response to our external environment. Everything that our skin comes in contact with — products, smoke, air, water, sun, pollution — can break down the acid mantle and disrupt the skin’s ability to protect itself.
How can diet affect my pH and the acid mantle?
We all know what you put into your body is just as important as what you put on it, and will show on your external body. Most vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes are all more alkaline. While foods like meat, dairy, and alcohol are more acidic. Having a balanced diet, as we all know, is an important part of not just being healthy inside but also having healthy skin and hair on the outside.
How can you tell if your skin is pH unbalanced?
If your skin becomes TOO alkaline or acidic, you can experience problems. Is your skin dry, sensitive, flaky, prematurely aging? One of the reasons might be that your skin is too alkaline. This may be because you’re using products that are too alkaline — products like bar soaps and foaming cleansers can raise skin’s pH too high.
If your skin too oily and prone to breakouts? Does it become inflamed, red, or sore? One of the reasons could be that your skin’s pH levels have become too acidic. This can happen if you’re over-exfoliating or using harsh chemical peels that dip way below the healthy acidic pH level that your skin needs.
How can you make sure you’re balancing the pH of your skin?
A good rule of thumb is to use products that are on the gentler side. Whether it be a cleanser or an exfoliating acid, you want them to be slightly acidic (close to your skin’s natural pH) and then you want to balance it with a good moisturizer. As we all age, the amount of natural oils our skin produces (sebum) starts decreasing, which can start breaking down our acid mantle — not good! To keep our skin’s barrier strong and healthy, we need to make sure we’re balancing our acidic products with moisturizers and oils. And of course, antioxidants and sunscreens help product our entire body from the sun and other environmental stressors, so don’t forget them!
What about balancing the pH of your hair?
So like we said, all that stuff we talked about the do’s and don’ts of balancing your skin, includes your scalp. But your scalp and hair work together to create your healthiest head of hair. Hair is slightly more acid than your scalp, with a natural pH of 3.67. Similar to skin, the top of your body is also at its best when using slightly acidic products. Remember: alkaline products will cause hair cuticles to open (frizzy, dry). And acidic products help keep the hair cuticle closed (smooth, strong).
How can you tell if your hair (including your scalp) is not pH balanced?
If you have problems with flaky, itchy scalp and dry hair, you might be using products that are too alkaline. A lot of shampoos that have sulfates in them tend to be too alkaline and therefore too harsh for your scalp and hair. On the other side, if your scalp is producing too much oil, you might suffer from ‘greasy’ hair. This can also happen when you’re using harsh (alkaline) shampoos that dry out your scalp and then your skin tries to compensate by overproducing oil.
Bottom line for keeping your hair and scalp balanced: use lower pH shampoos, which keep your hair cuticles closed and smooth and gently cleans your scalp.
If you have curly hair, what should you pay attention to?
If you have curly hair, your cuticles are already partially open. So this means it’s especially important for people with curly hair to return their hair to slightly acidic pH levels. Good quality, natural conditioners will help reset your hair to an acidic level. Natural ingredients like aloe vera juice/gel and apple cider vinegar are also great to keep your hair on the acidic side.
If you have straight hair, what should you pay attention to?
For straight hair folks, you necessarily don’t need extra products that solely focus on keeping your hair acidic. Because of your hair texture, the natural oils/sebum from your scalp can move down your hair strands, creating a natural pH balance. This means that you may not always need a regular conditioner after shampooing — conditioners are usually formulated with an acidic pH.
Our last two cents
Understanding how pH levels affect your outer body is important to keep it healthy, strong, and balanced. There are factors that we really can’t control that do breakdown and damage our skin and hair — natural aging, sun, pollution, water. But our skin and hair products should not be adding to the problem, they should be protecting, balancing, and nourishing our bodies. Now, most quality beauty care products are formulated with the right pH our skin and hair needs. But there are a lot of popular products out there, that don’t do that. And depending on your specific needs and challenges, it’s good to keep a basic understanding of pH levels and how it can either strengthen or weaken your outer body.