Can someone please tell me what it means to “balance my skin”?


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Photo: Gett Images/Peter Muller

I’ll go ahead and confess that any time I hear an esthetician or dermatologist talk about “balanced skin,” I’m left wondering what the heck that even means. pH as it relates to skin care is complicated, confusing, and without fail, whisks me back to high school chemistry class, where we’d go over the difference between beakers full of alkaline and acidic solutions. Now, as more-and-more tubes and bottles in my skin-care regimen tout pH-balance as a key perk, I wondered why I need to care about it in the first place.

First thing first: Let’s break down what all this science-y stuff actually means. In case you don’t remember from high school—which, I’m going to be honest, I definitely needed a refresher—the pH scale runs from 0 (acidic) to 14 (basic). Healthy skin has a natural pH level of between 4 and 5.5, so your skin operates on the slightly acidic side of things and the goal is to use products that will help keep it that way.

That’s exactly why so many key ingredients and actives are acids. Need to moisturize? Slather on a hyaluronic acid. Want to brighten? Get to work with the L-ascorbic acid. Feeling like you want to resurface skin? Try an alpha-hydroxy or beta-hydroxy acid. That retinol? Yep, it’s retinoic acid. And the list goes on and on (and on).

Despite this, we tend to start our skin-care regimens by sending our complexions to the opposite end of the pH scale. “Most soaps that you use on your face are somewhere between a pH of 9 and 14, which is killer on your skin—it’s not good,” says dermatologist Dr. Ellen Marmur, founder of NYC’s Marmur Medical and Marmur Metamorphosis Skincare. “We’ve complicated our skin-care routines by starting off with things (like water-resistant makeup!) that need a harsh soap, with a pH of 10, to take off. That’s not compatible with healthy skin.”

Essentially you’re creating a situation where your skin is at the wrong end of the pH spectrum and to help remedy the situation, you have to reach for a toner to “balance your skin.” Alas! The meaning behind the madness. This high-and-low acidity product combo, it turns out, is not so good for your skin. “It’s like a daily morning and night roller coaster for your skin,” says Dr. Marmur. “You’re doing a chemistry experiment on your skin, which is a living organ, every day.”

Instead, you want to use products that fall around the acidity level of skin to help keep things on an even keel, and nowadays, it’s not such a tall order. There are soap-free cleansers that hover closer to the pH of skin and serums and moisturizers that strengthen the barrier rather than aim to bounce it back to normal from harsh soaps.  “Everything on your skin should be pH balanced. Your cleanser should be balanced, your serum and moisturizer should be balanced, your makeup should be balanced, your sunscreen should be balanced,” she explains. With that in mind, here are 6 pH-balanced products to keep your skin from feeling like a science experiment.

In addition to your skin, we’ve also got a full list of pH balanced vaginal products you should be using on your lady parts, too. And, fun fact! A pH imbalance on your nails may be what’s causing your polish to chip—you can read more about it here

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