Remember the tagline that Secret® used in all their anti-perspirant commercials in the 90s? “Strong enough for a man but pH balanced for a woman.” If it hadn’t been for those commercials, I’m not sure I would have ever known pH balancing was an option. Or how wide-spread the practice of balancing pH in personal care products
But now that I am trying to live a healthier and more chemical-free life, I’ve started to noticed that a lot of cleaning products – from laundry detergents to shampoos – say “pH balanced” on their packaging? What is up with that?
So what is pH?
It’s been a long time since I sat in high school chemistry and learned about pH so, before I looked into this topic, I decided I needed a little refresher. Simply put, pH is a way to talk about the concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) and hydroxide ions (OH-) in a liquid. Water is considered neutral, with a pH of 7. If a liquid has more hydrogen ions that water, it has more positive charge, and it is basic (aka alkaline). Eggs, baking soda, bleach are examples of things with a basic pH. On the other hand, if a liquid has more hydroxide ions, it has more negative charge, and it is acidic. While the foods we eat are mostly acidic, most of us immediately think of citrus fruits like lemons and limes.
While our bodies are predominantly made of water, the pH levels in our body vary. Our blood is mildly basic, with a pH of around 7.5. Our skin, on the other hand, has a natural pH zone of 4.5-5.5 (which is the pH of foods like tomatoes, coffee, and bananas). And this is where things get interesting when talking about using personal care products. When you throw off the pH by making it too basic, you reduce your skin’s ability to heal itself from the environment (UV, pollutants, etc) and microbes (bacteria, yeast, etc) that we are exposed to daily. If you skin’s defenses are low, you become more susceptible to dermatological ailments like eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis, etc.
The same is true for your hair. According to a study in the International Journal of Trichology (trichology is the study of the hair and scalp), our scalp’s natural pH is around 5.5 but our hair shaft’s zone is much more acidic, at about 3.7 (the pH of an apple).
The problem is that many cleansing agents and soaps have a basic pH: most are between 8-9 and some even as high as 12! The basic nature of these ingredients allows them to bind to the impurities (dirt, natural oils, build-up of products, etc) and help detach them from your hair or skin so that the water can wash them away. But, think about it, even the water, with its pH of 7 is too basic for your skin and hair. So, in order to bring the pH back down to the natural zone, cosmetic companies “balance” the pH in their products with acids (which actually benefits the companies because many acidic ingredients serve as good preservatives too, thus increasing the shelf life of the products).
And, BOOM! You have a pH balanced product that leaves your body at its optimal defense level.
Or does it?
Here is where my research made me stop and think twice about even the most natural of the natural products I use.
Most soaps, shampoos, skin creams, even the organic ones, just say “pH balanced” but they don’t tell you what the pH is balanced to. For example, the study I mentioned above tested 123 shampoos and found that all the children’s “tear-free” shampoos had a pH of 7. Which makes sense because, if the soapy water with a pH of 7 gets into a kid’s eyes, it won’t sting.
But also interesting is that, in a basic environment, the hair has an increased capacity to absorb water. More water gets inside the hair shaft and can disrupt the balance of the hair’s structural components (keratin) at a deeper level. As a result, hair becomes less elastic and more fragile. Does your hair break easily? It could be because the pH has been altered.
And, remember when I mentioned negative and positive charges? Exposing your hair to a higher pH, even if just washing it with pure water, throws off the balance of these charges. Ever heard of static electricity? It is caused by an imbalance in charges. Throw off the pH of your hair and you don’t need a ballon to cause it to stick up. It will do it on its own.
So what is a person to do?
About a month ago I started using a coconut oil-aloe hair mask which I really like. My hair feels so soft and the curls really look healthy and tight. But I have noticed that my scalp is still itchy and I wondered whether it was because the oil was too heavy. But now I’m thinking that the pH must be off. So I just ordered my pH paper to test it out and spent some time looking up recipes for “the perfect DIY pH balanced all natural no-poo shampoo“. If you have done this you will know that there are a lot out there. The two that most intrigue me because of their simplicity and ingredients are:
- rye flour posted by Sonya Kanelstrand (hoping I can find rye flour at the organic shops in Bordeaux)
- coconut milk and aloe posted by Robin at Thank Your Body (she makes a large quantity and freezes it in ice cube trays)
Note: Some people suggest lowering the pH of your hair and scalp using an apple cider vinegar rinse. Ida at Chagrin Valley Soap & Salve Company suggests using anywhere from 1/4 cup (for dry hair) to 1 cup (for oily hair) vinegar to 2 cups water for the rinse.
I’m planning on giving these recipes a try and will keep you posted on my findings.
Thanks for reading!
References (not linked to above):
The Shampoo pH can Affect the Hair: Myth or Reality. Dias et al., Int J Trichology. 2014 Jul-Sep; 6(3): 95–99. Accessed online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4158629/
Food and Foodstuff – pH values. http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/food-ph-d_403.html
The importance of pH balance in beauty products. http://www.curlynikki.com/2012/03/importance-of-ph-balance-in-beauty.html
Natural skin surface pH is on average below 5, which is beneficial for its resident flora. Lambers et al., Int J Cosmet Sci. 2006 Oct;28(5):359-70. Accessed online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18489300