pH. Two little letters that have a whole lot of importance. The last time you heard about pH might’ve been in chemistry class. Over the last few years, however, pH has been getting much more attention. And for good reason.
The phrase “pH balanced” is now widely used by skincare companies as a positive selling point, requested by those with skin conditions, and written about by big-name blogs and magazines.
Safe to say, “pH balanced” has ditched chem. lab confinement, left the world of specialty knowledge and reentered our consumerist consciousness as a must-have in skincare products.
So why’s pH so vital to our health and, more specifically, to our skin’s health? Let’s break it down (pun intended). pH matters because…
pH Defends Us From Infection
So, pH is measured on a scale from 0-14 with 0 being the most basic, or acidic (think battery acid), 14 being the most alkaline (AKA lye) and neutral ranking right around the 6-7 mark (i.e. – milk and water).
Our skin is actually acidic at a healthy level of about 4-5, a range of acidity that protects us from infection by killing bad bacteria that thrive in an alkaline environment. By contrast, vital microbes are healthiest in an acidic environment.
Because it goes so far in guarding us from life-threatening infections while supporting life-giving flora and microbes, our skin’s acidic pH is an indispensable part of our immune system.
pH Keeps Our Permeable Skin Barriers Functioning
That’s a mouthful that means that our skin’s low pH regulates our enzyme production. When pH is too alkaline or neutral, these enzymes (called “serine proteases”) essentially eat away at other enzymes. You know, the ultra-important ones that create lipids.
Why does this matter? Because our skin’s barrier is largely made up of lipids, crucially retaining our body’s water so we don’t turn into formless gobs of H20. When the lipids are threatened, our body as a whole (which consists of about 70% water) is threatened.
It Maintains Tight Cellular Cohesion
This point is tied into the last one. As mentioned, low pH regulates proper enzymatic functioning and keeps the cellular structure of our skin – which is made up of lipids, proteins and cells – intact.
When those little protease enzymes digest our lipids, our skin barriers are basically defective. As if this situation wasn’t bad enough, proteases like to feast on our protein rivets, too – those little things tie our cells together.
When low pH leaves the party, these unregulated enzymes with an appetite for destruction can wreak significant havoc. The result is weakened skin due to a vulnerable structure. Think of a defective dam with growing holes and cracks. It’s going to leak water and end up causing some problems.
It Prevents Inflammation
Meet cytokines. Cytokines live in our cells and are responsible for causing inflammation. They break away from cells when low pH isn’t around to keep them in their place. Then proteases show up to activate them. When cytokines continue to produce and activate each other, this chain reaction eventually reaches the immune system. Boom! Inflammation. Think skin conditions like atopic dermatitis (or eczema), psoriasis, rosacea.
Maintaining our skin’s level of acidity at about 5.5 is super important. Low pH is like a superhero in our body’s largest organism – our skin. It protects us by defeating infection-causing bacteria and regulating our enzymes so that our skin barrier stays strong. On the other hand, when it’s neutral or alkaline, the villainous cytokines attack, bringing on inflammation and a host of other issues.