The Key to Great Skin
There’s one condition to blame for everything from zits to wrinkles, but most women don’t even know they’re suffering from it: an out-of-whack pH level. The fix: Determine your skin’s status so you can even things out–and score a radiant complexion
Yoga classes, life coaches, spiritual retreats, work-from-home Fridays—what haven’t we tried to reach that most elusive of goals: balance? But as we’re busy searching for that middle ground in our lives, we don’t give a thought to what it means for our skin.
Turns out, our skin functions (and looks) best in a middle-ground sweet spot too. Throw off its pH levels—by using the wrong products or eating the wrong foods—and your dermis will let you know it’s pissed. . .via wrinkles, inflammation, extreme sensitivity, or acne. (One thing this means for skin-product label readers: The phrase “pH balanced” is far more than a marketing slogan!)
Let us explain—in case you snoozed through pH day in chemistry class: Introduced back in the early 1900s, pH stands for “potential hydrogen” and is used to describe the acid-alkaline ratio of a substance, which ranges from 0 (the most acidic) to 14 (the most alkaline).
Why should this mean anything to you? Because the health of your body—and skin—is directly linked to maintaining the right balance between acidity and alkalinity.
“The skin’s barrier, which is known as the acid mantle, is responsible for keeping in lipids and moisture while blocking germs, pollution, toxins, and bacteria,” explains Patricia Wexler, M.D., a New York City dermatologist. “To work its best, the acid mantle should be slightly acidic, at a 5.5 pH balance. When it’s too alkaline, skin becomes dry and sensitive; you may even get eczema. You may also experience inflammation, which inhibits the skin’s ability to ward off matrix metalloproteinases [MMPs], the enzymes that destroy collagen and cause wrinkles and sagging.”
In fact, according to a 2010 study published in the British Journal of Dermatologythat tracked women’s skin over an eight-year period, women with an alkaline stratum corneum (the skin’s outermost layer) developed more fine lines and crow’s-feet—and were more prone to sun damage—than those with acidic skin.
Though it’s rarer for skin to be overly acidic, the result is often angry breakouts (even for those of us who rarely get a pimple). When skin deviates too far south of that magical 5.5 number, it’s also stripped down to the point of being red, inflamed, and painful to touch.
Thankfully, equalizing your skin is significantly easier than balancing your life—without a therapy session in sight. First, determine your skin’s likely pH level by taking our quick quiz, then learn how to get it back on track. All it takes is a few simple and inexpensive tweaks to your beauty routine and your diet.
Answer these questions to find out where you fall on the pH spectrum.
1. How does your skin feel after cleansing?
a) Soft and smooth
b) Tight and dry
c) Still slightly oily or not thoroughly clean
2. How often do you moisturize your face?
a) At least morning and evening
b) Once a day
3. Has your skin become sensitive to products you regularly use, including makeup and creams?
a) No, it feels normal, like always.
b) Once in a while
c) Yes. It seems like it reacts to everything I put on it lately.
4. How often does your skin have dry, flaky, rough patches?
5. Do you notice that your skin looks duller and has more lines in the morning?
b) Yes, usually
c) It’s a very rare occurrence.
6. Is your skin excessively oily and prone to breakouts (whereas it wasn’t in the past)?
7. Does your skin often look red and feel irritated?
b) It stings only after applying products.
8. Does your skin look plump, moist, and dewy?
a) Almost always
c) It’s plump, but more greasy than dewy.
If you answered mostly b’s, your skin’s pH is. . .
Too high. Your chronic dryness and wrinkling likely mean your acid mantle is being dismantled—you’re too alkaline, baby. With its protective lipids removed, your skin is falling prey to bacteria, UV rays, and harsh ingredients. Take a close look at how (and how often) you’re cleansing, scrubbing, and hydrating. You need to make sure that your skin can ward off the damaging factors that are making it look older than it should.
If you answered mostly a’s, your skin’s pH is. . .
Just right! Your skin (and its pH) live in a shiny, happy place not inhabited by premature aging and wrinkles. Having skin this good isn’t an accident, so kudos to you for gold-star moisturizing and exfoliating, and using the right products. Stay on the same course and you’ll continue to glow.
If you answered mostly c’s, your skin’s pH is. . .
Too low. Your regular oiliness, breakouts, and sensitivity point to acid overload. Chances are, you’re OD’ing on the peeling products (think acids) in an effort to sop up excess grease. And while this type of exfoliation can make for a healthy complexion, your skin is suffering from too much of a good thing. Your mission: Use products in moderation instead of abusing them (and your skin).
PH testing strips (at drugstores) claim to take the guesswork out of decoding the acid/alkaline mix of products (and your body). We tested them to see if you should start stripping.
Trimedica Alkamax pH Test Papers (15-foot roll), $16
How it works: Smear your product onto the pH strip, then check it against the color-coded scale provided. The lighter the color, the more acidic it is; the darker the result, the higher the pH.
The doctor says: “These strips can read watery products, but a cream or lotion might be difficult to test since it’s thicker,” says Graf.
Phion Diagnostic pH Test, $12
How it works: Dip it into pee or saliva for a few seconds and get an instant reading of your internal pH within 0.25 increments. It even tells you where you rank (too acidic, too alkaline, or optimal).
The doctor says: “Saliva pH is the best way to get a reliable internal reading, so this test is a good bet,” says Graf.