There is a thin protective layer on the top of your skin right now. It is a mixture of sebum (your skin’s natural oil) and sweat from the sweat pores.

And not to worry, this doesn’t make your face sweaty – just soft to the touch.

This thin layer is your skin’s first shield against the environment, protecting it from harmful bacteria and fungi, toxins, pollutants, and oxidative damage.  

That means you have a free anti-aging layer on your skin produced by the skin itself – every single day!

Washing, or even worse, scrubbing your face first thing in the morning is a very bad idea because it removes the acid mantle, leaving your skin more vulnerable and exposed to damages throughout the day.

In this article, I want to explain how to have healthy skin by supporting the optimal functioning of the acid mantle.

WHY IS IT CALLED ‘THE ACID MANTLE’?

Simply because it makes your skin’s surface slightly acidic, covering your skin like a veil.

The pH scale indicates how acidic or alkaline an aqueous solution is, where 0 is the most acidic and 14 most alkaline. Anything below 7 is acidic, and above 7 is alkaline. If your skin is healthy, it should have a pH of about 5.5 (generally from 4 – 5.9).

And this simple thing is VERY important for your skin’s health!

WHY DOES THE SKIN SURFACE NEED TO BE ACIDIC?

REASON #1 Harmful bacteria and fungi cannot survive in the acidic environment of our skin, they like it alkaline much better

The acid mantle boosts the immune system of the skin. It does so by creating an acidic environment in which foreign microorganisms cannot survive.

Additionally, the oily substances on our skin play a role in activating certain cells of the immune system, strengthening the local skin defenses. If the acid mantle is disrupted, the skin becomes more permeable to the pathogens and other irritants, which can result in a skin infection or irritation.

REASON #2 The acid mantle protects the skin cells underneath, promoting a strong skin barrier

The skin barrier is a VERY important concept when it comes to healthy skin. It is basically is the top layer of your skin, consisting of dead skin cells (corneocytes), held together by a matrix of lipids (a ‘glue’ that holds the cells together).

This robust structure is what makes the skin so impermeable to many substances, keeping the skin healthy.

Taken together, the acid mantle and skin barrier offer everyday protection from damaging environmental influences. This, in turn, has a major effect in supporting healthy and naturally youthful and radiant skin.

REASON #3 The acid mantle keeps the skin soft and supple by preventing water loss

Sebum, which makes up the acid mantle, is a mixture of oily substances that coat the surface of your skin. As oil and water don’t mix, the water has a hard time passing from inside your skin through the sebum layer on the top of your skin.

This traps the water inside, keeping your skin properly moisturized!

And skin oils are particularly good at that – they repel the water very efficiently, and keep it where it needs to be: inside your skin.

REASON #4 Certain enzymes responsible for important skin processes, including natural exfoliation, are active only at pH ~ 5

Changes of skin’s pH affect the activity of certain enzymes in the skin, and consequently interfere with (at least) the following important processes:

  • Skin’s normal exfoliation process (called desquamation).

  • Breaking down the excess sebum in the skin

  • Activation of enzymes responsible for the synthesis of epidermal lipids

  • Restoration of the skin after a mechanical or chemical damage

Natural exfoliation process is very important because it keeps your skin not only clear but also naturally smooth and glowing, not just right after you exfoliate!

WHAT DISRUPTS THE ACID MANTLE?

1. Use of products with a high pH

Soaps and facial cleansers with surfactants are the main disruptors of both the skin barrier and the acid mantle.

They may leave your skin feeling “squeaky clean,” but that really translates into “acid-mantle-stripped” feeling. Healthy skin can recover rather quickly – after several hours or so (some reports say even 24 hours). Daily use of alkaline products, however, gradually wears off your skin and its ability to regenerate the new acid mantle.

2. Environmental assaults 
  • Sun exposure

  • Extreme temperatures & winds

  • Dry air

  • Pollutants

  • Air conditioning (causing dry air)

LONG-TERM DAMAGE CAUSED BY TOO HIGH PH OF THE SKIN

1. The skin becomes too alkaline, which disrupts the important skin components, processes and defense mechanisms, making your skin dull and lifeless

2. Chronic skin problems including acne, roughness, flaking, irritation, and dehydration

3. Premature skin aging

Alkaline skin leads to accelerated aging: more fine lines, wrinkles, dullness, and hyperpigmentation – faster!

A 2010 study published in the British Journal of Dermatology showed that after eight years, women with an alkaline outer layer developed more fine lines and crow’s feet and were more prone to sun damage than those with more acidic skin.

WAYS TO SUPPORT THE PROPER FUNCTIONING OF THE ACID MANTLE

The DON’Ts:

1. Don’t wash your skin with soaps (they are highly alkaline!) or regular cleansers (foaming cleansers contain detergents that strip the acid mantle, among other damaging actions)

2. Don’t overexfoliate – 1-2x a week is more than enough. Beware of how many exfoliating products you actually use, like exfoliating toners, serums, etc.

3. Don’t wash too frequently – no need to wash the skin in the morning if you cleansed it the night before

4. Avoid harsh mechanical scrubs, which can cause tiny micro tears in the skin

5. Avoid steaming your face

6. Try to minimize the sun exposure (10-15min of daylight each day is usually recommended for the vitamin D production)

7. If possible, avoid harsh weather conditions like strong winds and extreme temperatures. If not, protect your skin with a top layer of oil suited for your skin type.

The DOs:

1. Gradually switch to the oil cleansing method and facial oils.

2. Use products with slightly acidic pH (5.5) if you must use them at all (especially cleansers!). You’d be surprised how many products are too alkaline for the skin, expensive or not.

3. Exfoliate only with gentle natural exfoliants. My favorite is ground oatmeal (ground in a coffee grinder, for example), great for a gentle exfoliation – calming the skin and leaving it nice and soft! Other good choices are gentle exfoliating serums or clay masks.

4. Wear a toxic-free sunscreen with a physical filter – even on a daily basis, especially if you are a lot in the sun.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As you can see, the acid mantle is very very important for the overall health and appearance of your skin.

And yet, most of us are disrupting it every day with our skin care, not even knowing.

People whose skin’s pH is slightly acidic, between 4 and 5.5 (even 5.9) have overall healthier skin that is less prone to chronic skin problems and premature wrinkles.

I hope this made you appreciate the wonderful things your own skin does every day to keep itself in top shape. Let our skin care only support these processes, not disrupt them.

In radiant skin health,

Sara

REFERENCES

Surfactants & the skin

1.            Korting HC, Hubner K, Greiner K, Hamm G, Braunfalco O. Differences in the Skin Surface Ph and Bacterial Microflora Due to the Long-Term Application of Synthetic Detergent Preparations of Ph 5.5 and Ph 7.0 – Results of a Crossover Trial in Healthy-Volunteers. Acta Derm-Venereol. 1990;70(5):429-57.

2.            Mauro T, Holleran WM, Grayson S, Gao WN, Man MQ, Kriehuber E, et al. Barrier recovery is impeded at neutral pH, independent of ionic effects: implications for extracellular lipid processing (vol 290, pg 215, 1998). Arch Dermatol Res. 1998;290(7):405-.

3.            Schmid MH, Korting HC. The Concept of the Acid Mantle of the Skin – Its Relevance for the Choice of Skin Cleansers. Dermatology. 1995;191(4):276-80.

4.            Hillebrand GG, Liang Z, Yan X, Yoshii T. New wrinkles on wrinkling: an 8-year longitudinal study on the progression of expression lines into persistent wrinkles. Brit J Dermatol. 2010;162(6):1233-41.

5.            Kronenberg M, Havran WL. IMMUNOLOGY Oiling the wheels of autoimmunity. Nature. 2014;506(7486):42-3.

Acne & high pH

Sparavigna A, Tenconi B, De Ponti I, La Penna L. An innovative approach to the topical treatment of acne. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. 2015;8:179-185. doi:10.2147/CCID.S82859.

Singh S, Mann BK, Tiwary NK. Acne cosmetica revisited: a case-control study shows a dose-dependent inverse association between overall cosmetic use and post-adolescent acne. Dermatology. 2013;226(4):337–341.