Despite being a seriously important part of your skin’s ecosystem, the acid mantle is rarely discussed. Maybe it’s a good time to understand what it is, why it matters and how to treat it right.
What is an “acid mantle” and why should I care?
Before we get any further, let’s talk about what, exactly, the acid mantle is. Simply put, it’s the protective barrier that covers your skin. Made up of natural oils (sebum produced by your sebaceous gland), amino acids and sweat, it’s super-thin, slightly acidic and a vital part of protecting your skin from bacteria, viruses and other bad stuff that may try to invade. Which means a damaged acid mantle is…no bueno. When yours isn’t functioning the way it should, it leaves your delicate skin open to invasion.
To really understand how it functions — or doesn’t — we have to talk pH for a second. What’s pH? It’s how acidic or alkaline something is and it’s measured on a scale from 1 (most acidic) to 14 (least acidic), with 7 being the middle (neutral). Our skin generally has a pH between 4.5 and 6.2 (slightly acidic). Except when we mess with it by using super-acidic products. Or by using too many products. Or by scrubbing so much you physically remove the stuff that’s meant to be protecting your skin.
When you subject your acid mantle to any (or all) of these things, you’re doing damage. And when your acid mantle is damaged, it can lead to dehydration, excess oil while your skin works to repair that dehydration, acne, sensitivity, inflammation, flaky skin, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, and a whole host of other things you’d probably rather not deal with.
How do I know if mine is damaged?
Check out that terrifying list above. If you’re dealing with any of that stuff regularly or out of the blue, take a close look at your skincare routine. The number one culprit of a damaged acid mantle are products that are too high on the pH scale.
Another way to check is to pay really close attention to what your skin feels like right after you cleanse. With a healthy acid mantle, your face will feel perfectly clean after washing but it won’t take long for the acid mantle to build back up — your skin will feel soft and pliable. If, after cleansing, your face feels really tight/stretched, itchy, red or otherwise angry, chances are high your acid mantle is damaged.
Of course, there are environmental factors that may be out of your control here, but if you suspect something is going to town on your acid mantle, it still pays to revisit your products to make sure they’re effectively counteracting whatever is doing the damage.
How can I fix it/treat it better?
Reconsider your skincare routine. Anything that includes alcohol — super drying — or harsh essential oils should go. Ditto for cleansers that get super-foamy. (I, too, am guilty of thinking a lot of suds = cleaner skin, but high pH ingredients are necessary for that kind of lather, which ultimately do more harm than good.) Paring down your routine will also help: more is not always better when it comes to products.
Be careful with exfoliants and definitely stay away from harsh physical exfoliants like scrubs. Instead, opt for chemical ones like glycolic, lactic and salicylic acids (they’re gentler). But only use them once a week if you’re dry/sensitive — three times max if you’re oily.
Seek out ingredients like hyaluronic acid and plant-based glycerin, which are super hydrating and can help repair the skin barrier. And make sure to apply them as immediately as you can after cleansing to contain hydration.
The good news is that most of the time, a damaged acid mantle isn’t permanent. If you stop using the damaging products, it can repair itself in a couple of weeks. (Isn’t the skin incredible?!) Let your acid mantle do its thing. Then maybe buy it a nice, neutral pH thank you gift.