Understanding Your Skin's Acid Mantle (& How To Keep the Perfect pH)

Raise your hand if you've heard talk of the skin's "pH" or "acid mantle" and thought, whaaat? What does 8th grade science have to do with my skin? Turns out, everything. In fact, our skin has a layer of sweat and sebum called the 'acid mantle' that's built in to protect us from harmful bacteria, fungi, free radicals, and more. In other words, the pH of your skin - and skincare - has everything to do with getting your most beautiful skin ever. So today, we're throwing it back to 8th grade science and getting scientific, in the name of your skin. Get ready to learn all about your skin's precious acid mantle, why it's important, what it means for your skincare, and how you can achieve the perfect pH. 

What exactly is the skin's 'acid mantle'?

Your skin's acid mantle is made up of two things - sweat and sebum. Sebum is the natural, waxy oil that your skin produces to protect it and form a waterproof barrier on it (so you don't lose water to the environment or absorb any harmful water-based pathogens - genius!) And sweat is, well, you already know what sweat is. Both of these are normal, natural and necessary to healthy skin.

When sweat and sebum combine, they form a very thin, acidic film over your skin called the acid mantle. This "mantle" works as a barrier to protect your skin from harmful intruders and environmental factors like pollution and U.V. rays. It also helps keep all the good stuff in, like helping the skin retain moisture, which for all of us, is a major yas. 

Let's talk numbers - aka. your skin's pH level.

Remember those little, colorful strips used in science class to measure the pH of a lemon compared to a cup of water? These are called litmus strips and they measure the pH of any aqueous liquid - that is, any solution that contains water. With that visual in place, let’s discuss their relevance today.

pH stands for “potential hydrogen” and describes the acid-alkaline ratio in a given substance. pH measurements range between 1 and 14. The lower the number, the more acidic. The higher the number, the more basic. 

Skin with a pH reading of 5 or below (ideally between 4-4.5) is considered healthy. This means that our skin is naturally acidic (hence, acid mantle) which allows it to effectively fight off harmful bacteria.

So how does skincare come into play? 

Good question. Obviously no one is disturbing their precious mantle on purpose, but unfortunately, many conventional skincare and body care products do just that. A skincare routine that is either too basic or too acidic disrupts the natural balance of your skin.

By now you know that the skin's acid mantle is a necessary component of healthy skin. When that protective layer is dissolved or disrupted by your skincare, your skin becomes vulnerable to intruders and the imbalance triggers a whole host of uncomfortable reactions.

More specifically, products that are too basic de-mantle your acid mantle by stripping the skin of it's natural sebum and raising the skin's pH. These products age your skin quickly, causing chronic dryness, redness, and visible lines and wrinkles. 

Products that are overly acidic lower the skin's pH (make it more acidic) causing the skin to produce excess sebum and causing angry breakouts. In this case, your skin is getting too much of a good thing (acid) which causes imbalance. 

Other common symptoms of a compromised acid mantle include: an uncomfortable feeling of tightness after cleansing, increased sensitivity, chronic inflammation and breakouts, and flaky skin. 

Commonly used products that disrupt the skin's pH:

  • Bar soaps: often have a pH of 9+ (wayyy too basic to be used on your face!)
  • Foaming, bubbly cleansers that leave skin feeling 'squeaky clean': same as above
  • Acid peels: can be overly acidic and cause over-exfoliation
  • Chemical exfoliants: risk of over-exfoliation; Salicylic, Glycolic and Malic Acids in particular may be too harsh for sensitive skin
  • Retinol treatments: potent, synthetic retinol may turn over skin cells too quickly, leaving the acid mantle compromised
  • Powerful antioxidants (ie. L-Ascorbic Acid): same as above

If you're experiencing uncomfortable skin symptoms like the ones we mentioned, take a look at your skincare routine for any of the above products that may be throwing your skin out of balance.

How To Achieve the Perfect, Balanced pH

Of course we all want a balanced pH and healthy acid mantle. But how to achieve it? Here are a few tips to keep your skin balanced and beautiful:

  • Sometimes, it's simply overuse of an otherwise great product (ie. over-exfoliating, overuse of retinol) that causes imbalance, so taking a breather can make all the difference. 
  • Replace harsh, irritating products with gentler alternatives that work with your skin’s pH and don't strip it. To start, replace your foamy, 'squeaky clean' cleanser with a nourishing oil cleanser like The Giver Ritual Cleanser & Makeup Dissolver (Learn all about the miracle that is oil cleansing here.)
  • Use a toner or mist to 'reset' your skin's pH after cleansing. You want a mist that's alcohol-free like our Still Waters Soothing Ritual Facial Mist
  • Use a lightweight, Linoleic-rich oil serum or moisturizer to supplement your skin with soothing fatty acids. Our Balancing Act serum was created just for this!
  • Exfoliating is a good thing, but some acids are too harsh for more sensitive complexions. Look for gentle acids like Lactic Acid or Mandelic Acid that work beautifully for all skin types.
  • Opt for gentler versions of your favorite, powerful antioxidants. Naturally-occurring, whole-plant retinol treatments like our Age Gracefully serum are much gentler than their synthetic counterparts and equally as effective.  

That's it! You’re an A+ science student and can fully go on and glow now, choosing the right skincare routine to keep your pH and acid mantle in tip top shape. Let us know below how you achieve the perfect pH.