Am I Overwashing My Face?

overwashing face alkaline cleansers cause acne
Quite possibly, yes.
Most of us who have at one point or another struggled with oily skin, or acne, know that it can often feel like we need to be washing our face often to keep oil and bacteria in check. And whilst washing your face is important, most cleansers and water itself can be problematic if you suffer from oily skin.
gentle face washing with manuka and apple cider vinegar low pH

Skin pH

You may remember from chemistry class that water-based solutions (the skin is also composed partly of water) can be measured on the pH scale, with acidic solutions ranging from 0 to 6, alkaline solutions ranging from 8 to 14 and neutral solutions standing at 7 on the scale. Our skin is at its healthiest when it is slightly acidic, generally around 4 to 6, where it is most able to protect itself from bacteria and environmental aggressors and maintain a healthy equilibrium between oil and water.
However, it has been shown that those with oily skin, or those suffering from acne often have slightly alkaline skin, somewhere around 5.5 to 7.5, which creates a breeding ground for bacteria and skin weakness allowing problems like excess oil and acne to grow. These bacteria love an alkaline environment, and unfortunately women will usually have a slightly more alkaline skin than men do.

What should I wash with?

So what does that mean for your washing routine? It means that if you have oily skin and acne, it is important that you look carefully at what cleanser you are using and try to minimise the use of water as you wash (research shows that plain tap water, which normally has a pH of around 8 can increase your skin pH for up to 6 hours post-washing). Unfortunately most commercially available cleaners do not state their pH value, but as a general rule, using traditional soap or bar soap, or anything that uses a soap-based cleansing mechanism of fatty acid (e.g. palmitic acid or oleic acid) + potassium/sodium hydroxide will be providing your skin with a high pH hit and won't be a good friend to your skin at all.

Apart from that, there are several surfactant-based cleansers in the market with varying mechanisms for cleansing (e.g. sulfates, amine oxides, polysorbate esters) which cleanse without relying the soap-based mechanism, but some of which can still be difficult for oily skin. One of the most reliable surfactants of this type that workks well in low pH formulations is cocamidopropyl betaine, so looking for cleansers that include this ingredient fairly high up on the ingredient list (meaning it will be used at higher levels) is a good start.

One of my personal favourites is simply using manuka honey as a cleanser, which is mildly acidic (between 3.5 and 4.5), easily found in health food stores and definitely smells great with no added fragrance! I like to just wipe it off with a wash towel or muslin cloth to minimise the amount of water used.

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Do I need toner?

As it is very difficult to know where your skin pH sits following your wash, adding a quick toning step is also a great idea to make sure that you get that pH down. There are plenty of toners on the market that will do this for you (a good idea is to look for one that contains an acid such as lactic, glycolic or mandelic acid) or you could even make your own by diluting apple cider vinegar in water and using that. If you are using store bought toners, it is a good idea to only use it sparingly (1-2 times a week) as they can contain very high levels of acids and using them too often is too harsh for your skin.

For example, the recipe below for your own toner results in a pH of around 4.5 to 5 whereas some of the commercially available toners can have a pH of around 2.5. Needless to say, applying such a strong toner on a daily basis will leave your skin feeling raw and irritated pretty soon!

This should be done with care (e.g. ½ teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in 100ml of water) to make sure that it is not too acidic as high acidity can cause chemical burns to the skin.

And that's it!

It's really important to make sure that you are not washing your skin with the wrong kinds of cleansers, which can lead to your skin looking and feeling super tight or even flaky afterwards, and which, in the long-term are weakening your skin and priming it for further oiliness.

Start simple with some of the steps below, and remember that your skin is not like the kitchen counter, where getting rid of all the oil is the goal!

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