Cleansing is an integral part of a skin care routine but did you know that the wrong cleanser can give you problem skin? Harsh cleansers can literally wash away the skin’s acid mantle, compromising the moisture barrier and leaving skin vulnerable to acne, cellular damage, and oil imbalance.

The Acid Mantle

The acid mantle is a thin layer of slightly acidic fats on the surface of the skin that maintains skin homeostasis and creates an inhospitable environment for foreign bacteria and viruses. It’s the skin’s first line of defense against infection and for the most part it does a good job.

The wrong cleanser can damage the acid mantle in two ways. If its too harsh it can strip the natural oils out of the skin and wipe out the moisture barrier. If its too alkaline (too high on the pH scale) it raises skin’s pH and compromises the mantle’s ability to protect from foreign invaders.  The acid mantle just isn’t meant to take this much abuse.

Balancing Cleansers

“Changes in the pH are reported to play a role in the pathogenesis of skin diseases like irritant contact dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, ichthyosis, acne vulgaris and Candida albicans infections. Therefore, the use of skin cleansing agents, especially synthetic detergents with a pH of about 5.5, may be of relevance in the prevention and treatment of those skin diseases.” The pH of the skin surface and its impact on the barrier function.

The good news is that cleanser can do a lot more than clean your skin. A good cleanser not only leaves your acid mantle intact, but can also help rebuild your moisture barrier.

Choosing a pH Balanced Non-Stripping Cleanser

When looking for a cleanser that supports healthy barrier function there are a few guiding principles to keep in mind.

  • A pH of 5.5 is ideal. The skin’s pH happy zone is between 4.5 and 5.5 so ideally a cleanser shouldn’t be higher than 5 to 6.5 and is pushing into compromising territory past 7. Many commercially available cleansers (and a lot of other cosmetics) can have a pH as high as 7-8 and some even go as high as 10. That’s super bad news for your barrier function. Bar soap has a pH around 10 so it should definitely be avoided. Just one use can really compromise your moisture barrier, although it’s not the end of the world since it starts to rebuild in as little as 14 hours.
  • Your Mileage May Vary Not everyone has a sensitive acid mantle so not everyone is sensitive to the pH of their cleanser. But there are also a lot of people who are and probably don’t know it. The only way to know if this is an issue for you is to give it a try. When I made the switch from a really harsh and stripping cleanser to a gentle one I saw a big difference in the condition of my skin.
  • Always read the ingredients. Some facial cleansers labelled as “mild” have a pH of 10. Some cosmetics companies don’t reveal the pH of their products claiming the formulas are proprietary. A good approach is to try a gentle pH balanced cleanser to see if your skin improves and then decide if knowing the pH is a priority for you.
  • Look out for other irritants. Another reason to read the ingredients list is to make sure there are no other potentially irritating ingredients. It helps avoid short term irritation but more importantly helps you get to know your skin better in the long term. Fragrance (both natural and synthetic), silicone, alcohol are common irritants. Some people might be sensitive to fatty alcohol (cetyl/cetearyl/stearyl) which can cause oil imbalance and closed comedones. As always YMMV.

The Best Cleansers for Healthy Barrier Function

The numbers are just for reference not a hierarchy. Each of these cleansers is excellent it just depends what your specific skin needs and preferences are.

  1. CeraVe Salicylic Acid Renewing SA Facial Cleanser

This is a no frills cleanser that has the bonus of ceramides that fortify the moisture barrier and salicylic acid for anti-inflammatory effects. Also good are CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser for dry skin and CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser for oily skin – pH is 5.5

  1. Cosrx Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser

This gently foaming K-beauty gel cleanser has a pH of 5 to 6 and salicylic acid for extra acne fighting power.

  1. Nuxe Rêve de Miel Face Cleansing & Makeup Removing Gel

This soap free formula has a perfect pH of 5 and gently cleans skin while removing makeup in one step. Its extra hydrating and smells like honey.

  1. Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser

Another no frills option with a skin healthy pH of 5 and a price that can’t be beat.

  1. Mineral Oil (unscented & food-grade)

Surprise. Wild card pick. Some people have such a sensitive moisture barrier that even water can be stripping. For those people the oil cleansing method can be a great option since oil has no pH and OCM limits your exposure to water.

Mineral oil is usually recommended as a go-to starter oil since it’s non-reactive and non-comedogenic. You’ll notice that the recommendation is butcher block oil. That’s because it’s made from 100% food grade mineral oil with no added fragrance or thickeners like a lot of cosmetics have.

If you prefer natural beauty the great thing about OCM is that you can use virtually any oil even all natural ones.

Primary Sources

Skin Surface pH: A protective acid mantle.

Functional assessment of a washing emulsion for sensitive skin: mild impairment of stratum corneum hydration, pH, barrier function, lipid content, integrity and cohesion in a controlled washing test.

Effects of soap and detergents on skin surface pH, stratum corner hydration and fat content in infants

Skin pH: From basic science to basic skin care.

The concept of the acid mantle of the skin: its relevance for the choice of skin cleansers.

An innovative approach to the topical treatment of acne.

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