The Connection Between Acne and the Skin’s Acid Mantle
Acne begins well before a breakout appears, and a variety of factors contribute to pimples. The main culprits are bacteria, excess oil and pores becoming clogged with dead skin cells, but there’s more to the acne story. If you really want to understand why your skin may be more pimple-prone than others’, let’s talk a bit about chemistry (and the most effective ways to minimize acne)—but don’t worry, there’s isn’t a test at the end of this article.
Why pH matters
pH is one of the first fundamentals you learn in chemistry class, and believe it or not, this indicator of acidity or alkalinity plays a role in your skin—and the development of acne. (See, there is a real-life application for this subject!) To refresh your memory, the pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. A pH below 7 is acidic, a pH above 7 is alkaline and a pH of 7 is considered neutral. The natural and ideal pH of the skin is 5.5, which is slightly acidic,” says dermatologist Hadley King, MD, adding, “Studies have shown that a higher or more alkaline pH is seen more often in people with acne.”
What is the acid mantle?
The skin’s pH is maintained by the acid mantle, which is a slightly acidic protective film on the surface of the skin. Dr. King explains, “This film functions as the final barrier between your skin and the outside world, and it works to keep moisture and nutrients in while keeping allergens and toxins out.” The acid mantle is made up of a mixture of sebum (oil produced by the sebaceous glands), sweat and other good-for-your-skin compounds like lactic acid and fatty acids. According to Dr. King, “These secretions help keep the skin moisturized so it stays soft and supple and doesn’t easily crack or scratch. This protective barrier also contains other acids and proteins with antimicrobial properties, and acts as a shield against bacteria, fungi and viruses that could penetrate the skin.” If you’re wondering what this has to do with acne, keep reading…
What happens when the acid mantle is disrupted
“If the acid mantle is disrupted or damaged and loses its slightly acidic pH, the skin becomes more vulnerable to damage and infection—and this could be a contributing factor to acne,” explains Dr. King. Signs of an unbalanced acid mantle include dryness, flaking, redness and sensitivity. A compromised acid mantle also impedes the skin’s natural exfoliation process, and a build-up of dead skin cells makes it more likely that pores will become clogged and lead to an increase in acne breakouts.
The acid mantle is also responsible for maintaining “good” bacteria on the skin, which helps decrease the “bad” P. acnes bacteria that is known to cause acne. Even more, Dr. King explains, “This ‘good’ bacteria increases the skin’s production of ceramides, which promotes a healthy skin barrier.” This benefits acne directly by decreasing the redness and inflammation associated with breakouts and helping to increase the skin’s resistance to the dryness and irritation that can be caused by topical acne treatments.
Skincare products can help—or hurt
Dr. King explains, “According to my own research, the most effective anti-acne ingredients (i.e. benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid) generally have a lower pH than the skin.” If you’ve ever experienced a tight or dry feeling after trying a new face cleanser, that’s because it disrupted your skin’s acid mantle. “Washing your skin with harsh soap or detergents can reduce the effectiveness of the acid mantle,” she says. Alcohol-based astringents have a similar effect—as do other skincare products with especially high or low pHs.
The good news is, “Skincare products and other measures that maintain the pH of the acid mantle can be helpful in the prevention and treatment of acne,” according to Dr. King. AcneFree’s Oil Free Acne Cleanser features benzoyl peroxide to minimize P. acnes bacteria in a sulfate-free formulation that won’t disrupt the skin’s protective acid mantle, and this acne face wash also contains ceramides to help further reinforce the skin’s barrier. Our Witch Hazel Mattifying Toner is the ideal follow-up because it helps rebalance the skin’s pH after cleansing as it provides gentle pore-purifying benefits along with hydrating aloe vera and an exfoliating boost with glycolic acid. (You can get the ideal acne face cleanser, pH-restoring toner and acne treatment lotion in our skincare kits, which are available for all skin types as well as severe acne and sensitive skin.)
Charcoal and kaolin clay are additional skincare ingredients that can help get rid of pimples while keeping the skin’s acid mantle intact. Safe for daily use or as an occasional exfoliating treatment, AcneFree’s Blackhead Removing Scrub with Charcoal is a gel-based cleanser that contains maximum-strength 2% salicylic acid to minimize breakouts, along with natural jojoba and purifying charcoal to care for your skin. Fragrance-free to minimize irritation, this acne cleanser deep-cleans the pores to make them look smaller, reveals a brighter complexion and most importantly, helps get rid of blackheads. For even better results, use it with the AcneFree Kaolin Clay Detox Mask twice per week. Both an acne cleanser and pore-purifying mask in one, kaolin clay helps purge the pores of the excess oil and impurities that can lead to breakouts, while refining the appearance of oily and acne-prone skin. The creamy formula is also infused with skin-caring ingredients like charcoal, vitamin E and zinc to further detoxify the skin, help prevent acne breakouts and promote a healthy-looking complexion.
Other ways to protect the skin’s acid mantle
There are a variety of other easy ways to protect the skin’s pH and acid mantle. First, avoid over-washing, as too much cleansing is sure-fire way to disrupt your skin’s pH balance (which can make acne breakouts worse). Same goes for over-exfoliating, which physically removes the acid mantle and leads to dryness, flaking, sensitivity and pimples in acne-prone skin.
Dr. King also recommends oral probiotics to help increase levels of “good” bacteria on the skin (and prevent the overgrowth of “bad” bacteria). Dry air due to the climate where you live or artificial heat can also affect the performance of the acid mantle, so using a humidifier in areas you spend a lot of time in (such as your bedroom or office) can have a positive effect on your skin—and your acne—as well.
And as if you didn’t already know you should be eating more fruits and vegetables, these foods tend to be alkaline, so they can help offset the natural acidity of effective acne treatments such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid as well.
Best of all, these simple steps can help restore the skin’s acid mantle in no time at all—and potentially speed up the results you see from your anti-acne skincare regimen!