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Maybe you’ve heard of pH in skin care, or you’ve seen the phrase “pH-balanced” on your bath products. But what does it have to do with a healthy complexion? Here’s why you should pay attention to pH in your skin care routine. 

What is pH? Quick science lesson: The pH scale (which is usually between 0 and 14) measures how acidic or alkaline (or basic) something is. The lower the number, the more acidic. The higher, the more alkaline. Pure water has a neutral pH of 7.

According to research from the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, the estimated normal pH for skin is around 4.7. Dermatologists agree that at a level of 5.5, the skin is “balanced,” meaning it has a healthy barrier and optimum levels of bacteria, oil and natural moisture to function at its best. 

Why does it matter? When your skin pH is off-balance—whether too low or too high—the good bacteria that live on your skin protecting your complexion are disrupted. All those healthy microbes thrive in a slightly acidic environment. When your skin is too alkaline, the good bacteria can’t keep the bad bacteria in check, and that leads to inflammation.

That’s why when your skin’s pH is out of whack, you’ll probably feel like your face is out of balance, too. According to dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., skin that’s too alkaline is usually dry, flaky and eczema-prone, while skin that’s too acidic is red, inflamed and acne-prone.

How can I maintain a healthy pH? The good news: Your skin actually does a pretty good job of maintain a healthy pH on its own. The bad? If it’s off-balance, it’s probably because of the products you’re using. 

Products with a high (aka alkaline) pH will leave your skin feeling tight and stripped. (Research shows that most soaps are alkaline.) On the other hand, highly acidic products (like acid exfoliators) will get rid of flakes and brighten your complexion, but they can also be irritating if you overdo it.

Your best bet is to choose products (especially cleansers) that have a pH level similar to your skin (between about 4.5 and 7). If a product doesn’t list the pH on its label (Korean products often do, but many other brands don’t), you can test it yourself with litmus strips—get ’em on Amazon, natch. (Or do what we did and follow @socialskinroutine—who tests popular products—on Instagram.) As for finding out the exact pH of your own face, a dermatologist is your best bet.

Aside from choosing balanced products (and avoiding extremes), try not over-wash or over-exfoliate, either. And don’t forget: Your skin will naturally correct its pH back to a happy level on its own.

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