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What Does pH Have To Do With It?

By Megan Griffith

Reviewed for medical accuracy by Dr. Jaggi Rao,
MD, FRCPC Double board-certified dermatologist

Acne is the most common skin disorder1 in the United States today. 40-50 million people visit the dermatologist for just this disorder every year, according to a study done by the American Association of Dermatology. This begs the question, WHY? Even experts haven’t whittled down the exact answer to this question, but it’s apparent that the balance of pH both inside the body and on the skin is a very important factor.

beautiful fair skin
Is your skin pH balanced?

What Is “pH”?

“pH” stands for “potential of hydrogen”. This “potential of hydrogen” is what determines the acidity or alkalinity of a substance. The pH of a substance is measured on a scale of 1-14. Substances with values lower than 7 are considered acidic and those above 7 are considered alkaline or basic. A value of 7 is a perfect neutral.

The human body is a fairly neutral entity coming in at about 7.4. Small fluctuations are normal, but everybody is different. The skin of the human body measures in at an acidic 4.5-5 though. This is a very important factor in regard to acne and many other skin disorders.

pH And Bacteria

Of course, it’s been proven that acne is often caused by Propionibacterium acnes bacteria that become trapped beneath the skin. As it begins to multiply and grow, as bacteria do, it becomes an infection2. This infection then begins to show above the skin’s surface and becomes a comedone or “a pimple”. Of course, when the skin is at its natural optimum acidity of 4.5-5, it’s better able to protect itself and the rest of the body from bacteria, allergens and other pollutants in the environment. This pH factor alone would greatly reduce the number of bacteria on the surface of the skin3, as more alkaline environments are a favorite breeding ground for bacteria.

There are many ways to balance the pH of the skin to its normal pH value. From diet to skincare, pH levels can be affected both positively and negatively4. For instance, when someone has a bladder infection, it’s normal to advise them to drink cranberry juice. The reason for this is that cranberry is a very acidic berry and quickly changes the pH of the body, especially the urinary system of the body. After a short time, the person suffering the bladder infection often begins to feel relief, as the acidic environment stopped the growth of the bacteria causing the infection and are flushed away. It is exactly the same idea that protects our skin from bacteria and other environmental factors.

How To Normalize pH

Inside the Body – Eating foods that begin to normalize the inside of the body5 as well as using skincare products that return the acidic pH to the skin is the first step to healthier skin. There is a layer of protection on the skin called the “acid mantle”. Here is where most of the warfare on bacteria and allergens takes place. The acid mantle is built by the functions of the body and skin and for that structure to be built correctly, the building blocks must also be correct.

Diets consisting of foods that are processed, artificial sweeteners, heavy meats, and dairy products are considered acidic. These are foods that are considered a Western diet. It’s not at all uncommon that many people include these foods in their daily diets. By eating foods that are more alkaline such as dark leafy greens, cucumbers, green beans, garlic and even lemons and limes you can help to balance the inside of your body6. This will allow it to begin functioning properly and part of that function is to create an acid mantle for the skin. As the acid mantle is returning to normal there will be a healthy change in the skin. Skincare products can completely cancel this improvement if not chosen properly though.

On the Skin – Most bar soaps (even those labeled as “facial bars”) are extremely alkaline7. They usually measure in on the scale around a 10-11! Even though the skin feels oil-free, fresh and clean after using these soaps, the truth is, they have stripped away the acid mantle. It takes about 16 hours for the body to replace the acid mantle completely, but by then, the face has already been washed again and the cycle can never really complete, leaving the skin vulnerable to the environment and bacteria as well as either over or under producing oil in order to compensate for the stripping away of its own natural moisturizing factor. Overproduced oils and sebum is again a breeding ground for bacteria.

Choose skincare products carefully for treating acne conditions. Look for products that will balance the pH of the skin after cleansing and exfoliating8. Even look for full lines of products that are pH balanced for the skin, as Proactiv products claim to be. The right products will promote the healthy construction of the acid mantle to protect your skin9 from further bacterial infection. It will also cause the skin to relax and not feel the need to overproduce oils in order to protect itself. Healthy skin will begin to prevail over acne and healing can begin.

Although there is a lot of research and many articles on pH and acne, it’s still not well understood. As dermatologists and skincare researchers become more and more convinced of its importance though, it will gradually get more important to skincare manufacturers as well. Knowing the truth about pH and realizing its effects on the skin may be the next battle to be won in the war on acne.

References:

  1. Picardo M, Eichenfield LF, Tan J. Acne and Rosacea. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 7(Suppl 1):43-52.
  2. Tan AU, Schlosser BJ, Paller AS. A review of diagnosis and treatment of acne in adult female patients. Int J Womens Dermatol. 2017 Dec 23;4(2):56-71.
  3. Myhre BA, Demianew SH, Yoshimori RN, Nelson EJ, Carmen RA. pH changes caused by bacterial growth in contaminated platelet concentrates. Ann Clin Lab Sci. 1985 Nov-Dec;15(6):509-14.
  4. Ratzke C, Gore J. Modifying and reacting to the environmental pH can drive bacterial interactions. PLoS Biol. 2018 Mar 14;16(3):e2004248.
  5. Schwalfenberg GK. The alkaline diet: is there evidence that an alkaline pH diet benefits health? J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:727630.
  6. Anton SD, Lu X, Bank G, Heekin K, Saha D, Dubyak PJ, Hausenblas HA. Effect of a novel dietary supplement on pH levels of healthy volunteers: a pilot study. J Integr Med. 2013 Nov;11(6):384-8.
  7. Tarun J, Susan J, Suria J, Susan VJ, Criton S. Evaluation of pH of Bathing Soaps and Shampoos for Skin and Hair Care. Indian J Dermatol. 2014 Sep;59(5):442-4.
  8. Pluetrattanabha N, Kulthanan K, Nuchkull P, Varothai S. The pH of skin cleansers for acne. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2015 Mar-Apr;81(2):181-5.
  9. Lambers H1, Piessens S, Bloem A, Pronk H, Finkel P. Natural skin surface pH is on average below 5, which is beneficial for its resident flora. Int J Cosmet Sci.2006 Oct;28(5):359-70.
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Henry Reply

Hello, I am an Esthetician and I have a client that is on a alkaline diet and the acne is hard to control. What does the alkaline diet do to the skin? She has redness, flushing and acne in the chin and cheek area. The only treatment that helps is sonopheses, it calms the skin for two weeks then the flair up begins again. At the celluar level, is the skin getting the proper nutrients? Are there any products for alkaline skin, please advise. Thanks

June 19, 2017 at 11:07 pm Reply
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Dolores Reply

She may have food allergies. Anything that interrupts or aggravates the gut, will manifest on the face. She would benefit from seeing a naturalpathic doctor or a holistic nutritionist.

August 11, 2017 at 8:59 pm Reply

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