In relationships, three little words can make all the difference; in health and beauty, it’s two letters. In fact, pH — the scale on which acidity and alkalinity are measured — affects almost everything in our world. Our pH levels relate to energy levels, weight and even how well skin-care products smooth our fine lines.
What pH is
The word "pH" stands for "power" and "hydrogen": the more hydrogen ions in a substance, the more acidic it is. The ideal pH level for blood falls within the narrow range of 7.35 to 7.45 — if it dips below 7.2, the body will go into shock. It’s a balance that sounds tenuous, but according to Sam Graci, a nutrition researcher and the author of The Bone-Building Solution, "The body is exquisitely designed to keep us alkaline." The problem is that nearly everything we do pulls us in the opposite direction. "A great metaphor is when people say that they’re burned out," says Graci, "because when you’re overworked, your acid levels go through the roof." Stress creates acids, as does exercise: moving too quickly — even sleeping — ups our blood’s acid content.
"We can’t control our cellular reactions," says Heather Osler, a homeopath in Toronto, "but there is one area that we do have control over: what we eat." Osler estimates that most North Americans have a diet that’s 80 to 90 percent acidifying, with meat, sugar, white-flour products, alcohol and caffeine playing starring roles. Alkalizing foods, such as fruit, vegetables and herbal tea, are the supporting cast. "It is the balance of these foods that is important," says Osler. But challenges still lurk within the aisles of Whole Foods Market: vegetables that are overcooked become acidic, and certain whole grains are acidic to begin with.
The last thing you want is to send your blood on an acid trip: when blood and the body fluids that surround cells are too acidic, our bodies search for what Graci calls "antacid sponges" — essentially, any mineral-rich food is alkalizing — which act as buffers and soak up acids. But when those minerals aren’t there, our bodies compensate by leeching them from other sources, like bones and teeth, which can lead to osteoporosis, osteopenia, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. "Cancer cells can only grow in an acidic environment," says Graci. As Osler points out, "Being too acidic promotes the development of chronic illnesses, viruses and bacteria, which thrive in this setting."
What it can do
An acidic pH level also drastically affects how we look. To deflect acids from vital organs, our bodies may store them in fat cells. And if there is a surplus of acids, the body will create a surplus of fat cells to house them. This also accelerates aging because the kidneys have to work overtime to process the toxic debris created by acids.
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Bigger jeans and deeper wrinkles — it’s enough to make you want to trade in your espresso machine for a juice press. "Our insides are absolutely related to how we look on the outside," says Graci. "Bad hair days, bad skin days — they’re all tied to being too acidic."
In dermatology, pH has risen from buzzword to gospel. The latest weapons in the
anti-aging arsenal — creams and peels — rely heavily on pH levels for their effectiveness. "It’s all about the mix of glycolic acid and pH levels," says Dr. Sheldon Pollack, a dermatologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. Essentially, the lower a product’s pH level (if the product contains glycolic acid), the more powerful its anti-aging effects. When a cream or peel touches the skin (which is slightly acidic itself), the "extra" acid exfoliates the skin, which encourages collagen growth to fill in wrinkles. Pollack recommends a daily application of a high-performance cream, such as NeoStrata Ultra Smoothing Cream, which has a pH level of 3.5 (the lowest level available over the counter in Canada), and a glycolicacid concentration of 10 percent.
If pH levels are big news for your skin, they’re also big business. Dr. Barry Cohen, an American cosmetic surgeon based in London, launched his own anti-aging skincare brand, pH Advantage, and opened a medical spa in Harvey Nichols using these products — at press time, he had inked deals to open similar spas in Hong Kong and New York, as well as in the Trump casinos in Las Vegas.
For Cohen, pH is a living; for us, it’s a fact of life. A few days after we’re born, our skin settles into a core pH level — which can range from four to six among individuals — but it changes constantly. "If you swim in a chlorinated pool, your pH level will be different when you come out," says Cohen. "If your skin’s pH level is between four and six, you could change it to seven with a bar of Irish Spring," says Dr. Sandy Skotnicki-Grant, a dermatologist and founder of the Bay Dermatology Centre in Toronto.
Cohen says that, ideally, topical products should have a pH level of three. Skotnicki-Grant recommends using cleansers that have lower pH levels, such as Dove, Cetaphil and La Roche-Posay’s Lipikar Syndet range. And what about toners, which claim to balance the skin’s pH levels? "Most derms aren’t huge on them," says Skotnicki-Grant. "They help a bit, but mostly I think of them as another [product] to sell."
Skotnicki-Grant recommends asking your dermatologist about your skin’s pH levels and developing a skin-care regimen around them. Graci suggests having a doctor test your blood for acidity. (GREENS Plus sells pH strips for at-home testing.) The bottom line? "Your pH levels are one of the best overall indicators of health," says Graci. We can’t afford to be neutral about them.
A pH primer: Four things you should know
1. The more hydrogen ions in a substance, the more acidic it is.
2. Acidity falls on the zero to 6.9 end of the pH scale, neutral is seven, and alkalinity ranges from 7.1 to 14.
3. Because pH levels are measured on the logarithmic scale, every whole number represents a tenfold change: the difference between a pH level of four and five is that the five is 10 times more alkaline than the four; the difference between a pH level of five and six is 100 times greater.
4. People with chronic health conditions, like diabetes and eczema, have a higher skin pH level and, as a result, are at higher risk of bacterial infections.
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