Is the term “pH balanced” just a marketing ploy?

Is a pH balanced skin care product the answer to dry, irritated skin?

The temperature drops, the wind blows, and our skin dries out. The forced air heat in our homes either by radiator, furnace or wood stove takes the life out of our skin. And our preoccupation with washing our hands also disrupts the delicate acid mantle that protects our skin. However, nowadays, dry, irritated skin seems more common than ever before in the summer too. And soap itself has become a dirty word.

The origins of soap 

Cleaning the little beasties off our skin with a soap product began in Babylon around 2800 BC, where clay pots have been uncovered with inscriptions, or recipes, for “fat boiled with ash”. Egyptians began the tradition of daily bathing while Moses the Israelite included personal cleanliness into religious laws. Legend has it that the name soap came from Mount Sopa in Ancient Rome, where animal fats sacrificed on wood fires were mixed with the clay soil near the Tigress River creating a “soap” that easily cleaned clothing.

Sopafication, or the act of making soap, is the chemical reaction when oils, water and alkali are mixed together. The common oils are animal fats, palm oil and coconut oil. Water running through ashes, hard wood, plantains, palm leaves etc. creates a potassium hydroxide solution which, when added to an oil or fat, creates bar soap that lathers and loosens dirt and grime.

According to the American Cleaning Institute: “an alkali is a soluble salt of an alkali metal like sodium or potassium. Originally, the alkali used in soap-making was obtained from the ashes of plants, but they are now made commercially. Today, the term alkali describes a substance that chemically is a base (the opposite of an acid), which reacts with and neutralizes an acid. The common alkalis used in soap-making are sodium hydroxide (NaOH), also called caustic soda, and potassium hydroxide (KOH), also called caustic potash.”

In this process the glycerine is removed from the soap. Glycerine is a humectant found readily in the skin. Glycerine attracts water from the lower levels of the skin and the environment helping the skin stay hydrated. A soap by-product, glycerine is highly valued in lotions and moisturizers. Without the humectant properties of glycerine and the addition of synthetically-made caustic salts, the soap becomes harsh and dry to the skin. “Free alkali” (a little bit of the salt) is often left in commercial bar soap to increase its shelf life. These trace amounts of “free alkali” when mixed with the oils on your skin start the sopafication process all over again to make your skin feel “squeaky clean”. However this squeaky clean sensation leaves skin vulnerable to bacteria, the environment, and over production of follicle-clogging oil as the dermis frantically attempts to replace the destroyed acid mantle.

So does a pH balanced product hydrate our skin more than a soap-based product?

A product that is pH balanced is supposed to help replace the missing hydration and oils in ours skin. Briefly, pH stands for “potential hydrogen” and a pH number measures from 0 to 14 how acidic or alkaline a liquid is – anything above 7 is alkaline and anything below 7 is acid. Water has a pH level of 7, meaning it’s neutral. Skin is said to be acid ranging between pH 4.5-5.5, or at least the outermost layer is, which helps your skin retain moisture and keep germs out. Present wisdom suggests that soap with a high alkaline content will strip the skin of its natural oils leaving it irritated and dry.

Heather Brannon, MD states, “Surfactants in cleansers are broadly divided into soap-based surfactants and synthetic detergent-based surfactants (syndets). Soap-based cleansers are more alkaline (pH 10) than syndets (pH 7 or less). It appears that the higher pH of soap bars is a major factor in the increased irritation seen with these cleansers, however the exact mechanism is still unknown.”. Natural soap makers question the thought process behind these claims, feeling that the pH argument is only a marketing ploy.

The natural soap industry fights back…

Natural soap makers argue that it is not the pH that causes dryness and irritation “but the synthetic detergents and other chemicals used in soaps, shampoos and other cosmetics. These synthetic additives strip the skin of their natural fatty acids and oils, inhibit the natural moisturizing factors of your skin, and actually prevent it from managing its own pH balance. Furthermore, many of us are very sensitive to these synthetic additives and detergents” states Ida of Chagrin Valley Soap and Salve. Larry Plesent at Vermont Soap believes “the reason this non-issue became a marketing war is that detergent products (i.e. containing sodium lauryl sulfate), have a pH that is more acidic than soap products. Marketers use this to promote their wares over the next guy. The thing is, only about 12% of us are sensitive to detergents. Others are sensitive to the preservatives, colors and fragrances used by mass marketers in both soap and detergent systems.”

Removing the glycerine from the soap and adding synthetic foaming agents gives the “squeaky clean” feel that ultimately leads to mass purchases of moisturizing products. Funny, by removing the glycerine from soap products the soap makers created a new moisturizing market.

Having a lot of trouble with dryness this winter season?

Try our Joyous Challenge for 30 days! Purchase a natural soap, use it for 30 days and report back on the results. Leave a comment here on the Business of Skin Blog about your results and receive a FREE Joyous Cinnamon Lip Plump Lip Balm, all natural of course!

About the author:

Tanya Gioia, owner of Joyous Skin, is a 10-year aesthetician in the arid mountains of Colorado. She has been working with a certified herbalist to create a natural skin care line that gently replaces rapid transdermal water loss due to harsh climate conditions, perfect for those mountain-lovers! Look for her new natural black soap coming out this month, which has incredible benefits for problem skin, especially acne.


American Cleaning Institute  History of Soaps and Detergents

Brannon, Heather MD, What Soap Does to Your Skin

Ida’s Corner, Chagrin Valley Soap and Salve

Larry Plesent, Vermont Soap Co.


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