Ever spared a thought for your skin’s acid mantle? It might just be the best thing you can do for your complexion this summer.
Have you ever spared a thought for your skin’s acid mantle?
Sex and the City’s infamous character Samantha Jones has at one point or another been a modern woman’s alter ego. For me, it was in season five when the audacious 40-something, intent on attending Carrie’s book launch, donned bee-keeper-cum-funeral-attendee veiled headwear to disguise the fallout from a particularly aggressive acid peel. That night, I swapped my alpha-hydroxy acids for a calming and gentle moisturiser.
Thankfully, the Sex in the City era, when heels and hair were lofty and peels were in their infancy, is behind us. Chemical peels and acid-infused products have proven a worthy, and necessary, addition to any effective beauty regimen for cleansing and sloughing away dead skin cells. But the new frontier in skincare, which has dermatologists abuzz, is the skin’s naturally occurring acid “mantle”: a protective layer on your skin altered by pH levels (one being highly acidic, 14 being alkaline).
The term pH, or “power of hydrogen”, refers to the concentration of hydrogen in water. Why should we care? Because our skin is made up of mostly water and it gets knocked either north or south on the pH scale depending on what you put on it. As it turns out, we want our skin to hover in a mildly acidic state – a pH level of four to six is optimum – to ensure the skin’s barrier function is working like a coat of armour between you and outside aggressors like pollution and bacteria. This becomes more and more difficult as we get older, however. “Each decade of life our skin becomes more alkaline, resulting in a variety of undesirable changes and skin disorders ranging from wrinkles to pigmentation and even acne,” says Richard Parker, founder and director of research and development at skincare leader Rationale.
Another factor sending us into alkaline anarchy is sun exposure: it gradually weakens the acid mantle, therefore exposing the skin to aggressors (read: dull, pigmented, acne-prone skin). “The enzyme phospholipase A2 and the protein NHE1 work together to keep the stratum corneum [outer layer of the skin] acidic. And they’re both deactivated by prolonged sun exposure,” says Parker noting sun damage – occurring as early as our teens – kick-starts this process.
Whatever your age, maintaining a sustained acid trip starts with cleansing. Parker, who is heralding the shift towards pH-focused skincare, recommends acidifying products, like Rationale Catalyst Cleanser, that are brawny enough to slough away grime and sun-damaged lipids and spiked with botanicals to rebalance pH levels and barrier function. “Acidifying products and treatments can help to maintain healthy skin pH and a glowing complexion,” echoes Dr Alice Rudd, consultant dermatologist at Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital.
Monthly alpha-hydroxy-acid-based facials (gentle enough to squeeze into a lunch hour) boost overall skin texture, pump up cell turnover, and keep the acid mantle in check. I tried the Enzyme Reactivation Facial at Rationale’s Woollahra clinic in Sydney, which employs lactic, salicylic and pyruvic acids that are dialled up or down depending the client’s needs. In my case, it’s some pesky bumps around my chin that my regular cleansing routine hasn’t been able to nix for the past week. My facialist Emily recommends a low-strength salicylic acid (just 12 per cent, but it can be as high as 20 per cent depending on your concerns), which she paints on my face in long brushstrokes. The only reminder of its acidity is the occasional tingle, which I interpret as a gracious sign that it must be working. By the end of the week my resident pimples have downgraded to tiny dots and my skin feels remarkably more clear and hydrated thanks to its newfound acidic state.
As it turns out, the breakouts I had long blamed on hormonal fluctuations were more likely triggered by my skin’s alkalinity. Parker notes that alkaline conditions harness acne-causing bacteria and as alkalinity increases with age, a complexion previously unmarred by breakouts might experience problems later in life. Moreover, a 2013 study into pH levels in readily available beauty products found that even sampled products that were specifically designed to combat acne had an alkaline pH.
To counter the issue, seek out products that clearly mark their pH level, like Drunk Elephant – the Texas-based skincare line has garnered a cult following for both its efficacy and clever mix of natural and clinical ingredients. Founder Tiffany Masterton says pH was always important to her. “I think most consumers aren’t aware of pH level and if they knew I don’t think that they would buy half the stuff they buy.” The brand’s Pekee bar states the pH level of 6.51 clearly on the packaging, no mean feat for a bar of soap, a product that typically soars well into alkaline territory.
If your everyday cleanser isn’t so transparent, invest in a pHrestoring toner like Obagi Nu-Derm Toner to rebalance levels post-cleanse (we decant it into a mist bottle for easy application). And while the promise of a clear complexion is alluring, when it comes to acid, know your limits. Too many acidic products will only cause inflammation and irritation. A good skin physician or dermatologist can determine where you sit on the scale, nominating steps to amp up or dial down your pH level – sound advice someone should have offered Samantha. CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: DRUNK ELEPHANT JUJU BAR AND PEKEE BAR, $40 EACH; RATIONALE CATALYST CLEANSER, $92; OBAGI NU-DERM TONER, $50.