Cleansers do not stay on your skin long enough to reach deeper layers, but they do play a critical role in your daily skincare routine. Most obviously, they clean your skin of dirt, excess oil, makeup, and other debris that could otherwise become trapped inside your pores and cause all sorts of skincare woes, including acne.
However, many people do not know that cleansers play another equally important role. The right facial cleanser can slightly lower your skin's pH, which comes with numerous benefits.
What Is Ph?
pH stands for "power of hydrogen" and measures the acidity vs. alkalinity of a solution of water + something. pH 7 is the neutral point. Anything below it is an "acid" and anything above it a "base" (or alkaline).
The pH of your skin's protective barrier (acid mantle) is around 4.7. This sits slightly on the acidic side of the pH scale, which runs from 0 to 14, with 0 being highly acidic and 14 highly alkaline. Water is considered to be neutral, falling directly in the middle of the scale at 7.
This protective barrier has two essential functions:
- It keeps water into your skin so that it stays soft and hydrated
- It keeps germs, bacteria, and pollutants out of the skin, preventing inflammation, infections and irritations
When your acid mantle is intact, your skin is moisturized and healthy. But when it starts to crack, your skin becomes dry, sensitive, and more prone to irritations, inflammation and subsequently acne and aging.
So you just need to make sure it stays intact, right? It's not so easy. Anything you put on your skin has its own pH, which affects the pH of your skin. What you use on your face can destroy this protective barrier. Cleansing is one of the biggest culprits.
Why does the pH of your cleanser matter?
Cleansing changes the pH of your skin. Even normal tap water alone is enough to do the trick. A 1999 study compared the cleansing powers of tap water, liquid soaps, and bar soaps and found that:
"Each cleansing agent, even normal tap water, influences the skin surface. The increase of the skin pH irritates the physiological protective 'acid mantle,' changes the composition of the cutaneous bacterial flora and the activity of enzymes in the upper epidermis, which have an acid pH optimum."
In other words, every time you wash your face, you're raising the pH of your skin and disrupting the acid mantle. You're removing too much oil, making holes in the shield, and weakening its natural defenses.
When you disrupt the acid mantle, bad things happen:
- Moisture evaporates, drying out the skin
- Skin feels tight
- Skin can't protect itself from the environment and becomes more sensitive
- Germs and pollutants get in, irritating skin
- Bacteria proliferate, causing inflammation, sensitivity and acne
Higher PH = Acne Heaven
There's a reason why your skin's acid mantle is acidic. An acidic pH is NOT bacteria-friendly.
But when you raise the pH several notches, bacteria suddenly find the perfect environment to increase and thrive.
A 1995 study tested the impact of cleansing on acne-prone skin. Scientists asked patients with inflammatory acne lesions to use either soap or an acidic cleanser for three months.
The results? Only one month later, the group using soap had way more lesions than before. The group using an acidic cleanser had the opposite result: they had fewer lesions than before!
Bottom Line: High pH soaps make acne worse, while acidic cleansers help clear acne up.
The reason? As this study shows, when you wash your face with soap, C. Acnes (the new name for the bacteria that causes acne) increases. You have a lot of those nasty buggers on your skin. But when you switch to an acidic cleanser, the amount of C. Acnes bacteria on your skin falls significantly.
In other words, an acidic cleanser makes your skin inhospitable to C. Acnes and other bacteria. So if you're washing your face a lot with the wrong type of cleanser (harshly loaded with surfactants and usually foaming) in the hope of getting rid of shine and pimples, you're only making things worse. 🙁
Foaming cleansers are usually the worst culprits because they use surfactants (ingredients that help water mix with oil and dirt so they can be rinsed away) that raise the skin's pH. For a list of safe, low pH foaming cleansers, click here.
You've probably heard the pH of your skin eventually goes back to normal after cleansing. That's true. But it takes its sweet time to do so. More than 90 minutes, sometimes. In the meantime, your skin will be overly oily or overly dry.
And that's just the short-term effects. Studies show that washing your face with a high pH cleanser regularly (and you do wash your face every day, don't you?) has a cumulative effect and increases the time your skin takes to recover.
You've probably noticed this first hand, especially in winter. The more you wash your hands (or face, for that matter), the drier they get. It's the same for your skin. That tight feeling you get after washing is a tell-tale sign your acid mantle is compromised.
This may also be why the rest of your skincare routine isn't working anymore. If you're using hyaluronic acid serums, hydrators, and co and you find your dry skin isn't getting any better, chances are your cleansing habits have badly disrupted your acid mantle. Until you fix that, your skin will never go back to normal.
What are the benefits of using a low pH cleanser?
Using a cleanser formulated for your unique Dermal Diagnosis, that slightly lowers your skin's pH can do three important things:
- Increases the effectiveness of other skincare ingredients in your regimen.
- Loosens the "glue" that holds skin cells together.
- It makes your skin less hospitable for acne-causing bacteria.
A lower pH helps to remove the "glue" that binds skin cells together. This helps to shed old cells from the surface so that fresh new ones can take their place, resulting in younger and healthier looking skin!
Finally, bacteria such as Cutibacterium acnes (the new name of acne-causing bacteria) cannot thrive in low-pH environments. So using a cleanser that lowers your skin's pH can also help keep acne at bay by minimizing bacteria.
Which cleansers lower your skin's pH?
Alpha hydroxy acids (ex. Glycolic acid) cleansers lowers the skin's pH and therefore help exfoliate and rejuvenate the skin. Renewal Facial cleanser contains Glycolic acid in the optimal pH. Depending on your skin type, you may have to slowly introduce a glycolic acid cleanser to your regimen, using it only a few times per week to start.
Some sensitive skin types – such as those who struggle with acne, rosacea, and stinging/burning – may not tolerate Glycolic acid well. Instead, look for other low-pH cleansers that meet the unique needs of your Dermal Diagnosis. Ex. Pore Control cleanser that contains Salicylic acid or Medi-Zinc cleanser that contains Zinc Pyrithione.
The pH of your cleanser matters. Choose acidic cleansers that don't compromise your skin's acid mantle, and watch your skin say goodbye to dryness, sensitivity, and pimples.
Each product in your Dermal Diagnosis treatment plan has a specific purpose. Using the right cleanser preps your skin for the ingredients that follow while also gently sweeping away dirt and debris.
Wishing you great and healthy skin!