The Acid Mantle and pH of Healthy Skin Redux! Now with added sources!
Check out the old post HERE.
The Acid Mantle isn’t a new thing – a quick google search reveals tons of articles and a sparse wikipedia page and I’ve found studies from the 1920’s – it’s just not something commonly talked about or considered when discussing grocery store aisle skincare. You’ll find products claiming to be “pH balanced” but not detailing what pH the product is. “pH balanced” usually means it falls neutral on the pH scale (at a 7.0) but we all know that claims on bottles aren’t always fact.
The Acid Mantle is a thin film or layer that lies on top of and protects your Lipid Barrier. The lipid (or moisture) barrier is super important to the top layer of skin (the epidermis). It helps prevent moisture loss (transepidurmal water loss or TEWL) and protects the lower layers of skin from environmental pollutants, irritants and microorganisms.[wiki] It’s like a arrogant medieval gate-keeper.
It’s made up of dead skin cells, fatty acids, lipids and ceramides. When the lipid barrier is healthy and happy it keeps your skin properly moisturized and protected. When it’s damaged or pissed off, it tends to overreact by over-producing sebum and oil to make up for the TEWL and it lets all sorts of bad stuff in the castle.
Now, here is where the acid mantle comes in. It’s aptly called the acid mantle because it should be at a 4.0-5.9 on the pH scale. source
Which, if you remember correctly from high-school chemistry, is actually on the acidic side. Why is the skin naturally, and happily, acidic? Because (bad) bacteria and microorganisms hate it. It’s your skins way of making your face an inhospitable habitat for alien bacteria and flora to thrive and flourish. (and what happens when bacteria flourishes? Acne!) Most baddies that want in your skin are alkaline, so the acid pH level works as a neutralizer.
Oily skin usually has a lower pH, and drier skin has a higher pH. When the pH of your skin is lowered or raised too much, your lipid barrier can’t function properly.
What Can Alter Your Barrier?
- Using Alkaline Products [source]
- Skin Moisture (sweat, sebum, etc)
- Skin Irritants
- Topical Antibiotics
- Occlusive Dressings
- Soaps, Detergents, Cosmetic Products [source]
Soap is almost always alkaline (especially thick white bar soaps), but soap is also the best at removing oil and dirt so that’s why it’s (used to be?) a skincare staple. Have you ever noticed that usually the first piece of generic advice from a doctor is to use “oil-free soap”? Oil is the main cause of acne, so we need to remove that and not add any more to it, but if we can develop a synthetic detergent that has the ability to perform in tandem with our acid mantle, wouldn’t that be best?
Once you notice your lipid barrier or acid mantle is damaged, it can take 14-17 days for it to fully recover. First off, stop doing whatever it is that’s damaging your skin. Treat your skin like a baby’s bottom and care for it gently. Stop any exfoliation, start using awesome sunscreens and make sure it’s drowned in hydration like a fish. Look for products with a pH between 4.5-5.5 [source]
If you need to continue treating skin problems like acne or wrinkles, be gentle and patient. Let your skin get accustomed and used to harsher products that are made specifically for skin. Use occlusives like mineral oil or petroleum jelly to avoid any unwanted moisture loss (TEWL). Take it slow and plan for future acid mantle problems to watch out for.
I’ve had several people message me and tell me that skin pH and the acid mantle is a marketing ploy developed by skincare companies to scare consumers and sell pH developed skin cleansers. I have included sources, research, articles and common experiences to show that I’m not pulling this out of my bum. Damaging your skin pH will not kill you, but it will make the journey to healthy skin more difficult. I am not a doctor or scientist, I provide my own research and opinions for consideration.
The acid mantle is a term used for a thin
layer on top of your skin that protects your skin some several
irritation factors, including over-production of bacteria, moisture loss
and other environmental pollutants. When tested, healthy skin reads between a 4.0-5.9 on the pH scale ,
which is acidic, with the exception of infants and people over the age
of 80, who both have more alkaline pH skin. The acidity has been shown
to be beneficial to the resident (friendly) flora on the skin and for protecting the skin.
Skin which has a more alkaline pH becomes dry and sensitive and less
effective at resisting irritants, and there is lots of evidence of the
correlation between skin diseases and high skin pH. Studies show that
tap water(which is 7.0 on the pH scale), synthetic skin detergents (at a
5.5 on the scale) and alkaline detergents (usually above a 9.0 on the
pH scale) all raise skin pH, with tap water having the least increase in
skin pH, followed by 5.5 detergents, with alkaline soaps having the
most increase in skin pH. Skin pH returns to “normal” levels within hours,
but effects caused by having an damaged acid mantle can last days.
Products with a more acidic pH have been determined to be a better
choice for cleansers over tap water and alkaline soaps because synthetic detergents are more effective at removing oil, sebum, dead skin cells and debris than tap water alone.
Natural skin surface pH is on average below 5, which is beneficial for its resident flora.
pH and Skin Care By Monika-Hildegard Schmid-Wendtner, Hans Christian Korting
Skin Surface pH: A protective Acid Mantle By Gil Yosipovitch, MD, and Howard I. Maibach, MD
Functional assessment of a washing emulsion for sensitive skin: mild impairment of stratum corneum hydration, pH, barrier function, lipid content, integrity and cohesion in a controlled washing test. By Bornkessel A, Flach M, Arens-Corell M, Elsner P, Fluhr JW.
Skin pH: from basic science to basic skin care By Ali SM, Yosipovitch G.
Effects of soap and detergents on skin surface pH, stratum corneum hydration and fat content in infants By Gfatter R, Hackl P, Braun F.
The concept of the acid mantle of the skin: its relevance for the choice of skin cleansers. By Schmid MH, Korting HC.
“Sebum, Sweat, Skin pH and Acid Mantle” By Dr G. Todorov
Further Reading (and or watching);
The Naked Chemist “Understanding the Acid Mantle”
WiseGeek “What is the Acid Mantle?”
Kerry Benjamin “Why Protecting Your Acid Mantle Is Important” (“licensed esthetician and skincare expert”)
docte Botanical Research “Functions of the Acid Mantle”
Veronica Gorgeois Youtube Video “Skin, pH and the moisture barrier (and why it’s important)”