Quick Tips: pH-Balanced Skin Cleansers

If you pay any attention at all to advertisements or product labels, you've probably seen the term "pH balanced" associated with everything from soap to shampoo to astringent. You probably assume it's a good thing. After all, why else would the manufacturers of personal care products so frequently tout it? But what does the term really mean? Here's a quick rundown of how pH balance is defined and what it means for skin cleansers:

Understanding pH

The abbreviation "pH" stands for "potential hydrogen." More simply put, it determines how acidic or alkaline a liquid is. So, on a scale from 0 to 14, below 7 is acidic and above 7 is alkaline. A pH level of 7, such as that of water, is neutral -- meaning the acids and the alkalis in the liquid balance one another out.

Now, the difference between, say, 7 pH and 6 pH may not seem that drastic, but in actuality each number on the scale represents a tenfold change in either acidity or alkalinity. Milk, for example, has a pH level of 6. That makes it 10 times more acidic than water.

The pH of a Cleanser Makes a Difference

Skin has a pH level of approximately 5.5. This slightly acidic quality helps it resist germs and maintain moisture. The ideal cleanser will help break down dirt and oil on the skin without compromising its natural acidity. If a soap has a pH level between 9 and 12 (which many body soaps do) it's likely too alkaline for your skin. It will tackle dirt, but it will also have a drying effect. Lye soap, for example, has a pH of 13. It can clean, but it can also damage and corrode.

A cleanser with a pH a little lower than 9 can help keep skin moist and intact, and most non-soap cleansers achieve such levels. The claim that a cleanser is pH-balanced, however, is mostly just a marketing ploy.

Discovering a Product's pH Level

To avoid an overly alkaline cleanser, you'll want to check out the cleanser's pH. The only problem with this is that you're not likely to find pH information on product labeling. However, if you'd like to find out more about the cleansers you already own, you can test pH at home.

Litmus paper, which you can often find at drug stores and pharmacies, will let you know if a liquid is acid, neutral or base. For a more specific reading, see if you can find pH paper; it will provide you with acid and alkaline levels by a color-coded system.

Now that you're aware of the true meaning of pH and the impact it can have on your skin, you can select cleansers that are helpful, not harmful.

Check out the next page for lots more skin care information.

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  • American Chemical Society. "pH Paper." Chemistry Comes Alive! 2002. (Accessed 8/27/09) http://jchemed.chem.wisc.edu/JCESOFT/CCA/CCA6/MAIN/1ChemLabMenu/Measuring/pH/pHpaper_menu/MENU.HTM
  • Carpi, Anthony, Ph.D. "Acids and Bases: An Introduction." Visionlearning. 2003 (Accessed 8/27/09) http://www.visionlearning.com/library/module_viewer.php?mid=58
  • Draelos, Zoe Diana. "Cosmetic Formulation of Skin Care Products." 2006. (Accessed 8/27/09) http://books.google.com/books?id=MAshluUGiikC&pg=PA279&lpg=PA279&dq=ph+levels+in+skin+cleansers&source=bl&ots=3qD3f4IwbZ&sig=Be5qMihVEmr8fPe3TUx0xKZDRaI&hl=en&ei=wQeXSv2bPIfIMdDChYoD&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2#v=onepage&q=ph%20levels%20in%20skin%20cleansers&f=false
  • Monroe, Val. "What Does pH Balanced Mean?" O: The Oprah Magazine. Nov. 2006. (Accessed 8/27/09) http://www.oprah.com/article/omagazine/val_200611_ph
  • Ophardt, Charles E. "pH Scale." Virtual Chembook, Elmhurst College. 2003. (Accessed 8/27/09) http://www.elmhurst.edu/~chm/vchembook/184ph.html
  • University of California Newsroom. "Researchers Explain Origins of Skin's Acid Coating." 8/16/01. (Accessed 8/27/09) http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/3502

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