As I’ve said before, my teen years were spent doing my best to annihilate any and all traces of acne. I used products full of chemicals and harsh ingredients that stripped my skin of its natural oil. In short, I ruined my skin’s acid mantle, and as an adult, I’m paying the price.
Quick recap of the acid mantle (just in case we weren’t paying attention in chemistry class): ”The acid mantle is a very fine, slightly acidic film on the surface of human skin acting as a barrier to bacteria, viruses, and other potential contaminants that might penetrate the skin.” – Wikipedia. In short, oil—or sebum—mixed with sweat creates the acid mantle. I like to think of it as my skin’s armor, protecting it from battle. “Since blood is slightly alkaline (7.4), pathogenic bacteria that become adapted to the pH (potential of hydrogen) of the skin and are able to reach internal tissues will encounter an environment to which they are less well adapted. This combination of acidic exterior and alkaline interior is one of the body’s non-specific host defenses against bacterial pathogens.” – Wikipedia
As a teenager, I had very oily skin, and I remember my dermatologist telling me that I’d “grow out of it.” My mom would say, “This means you won’t get wrinkles.” I never really grew out of breaking out, although I did find ways to temper the oiliness. And while oily skin can help in preventing fine lines because of the added hydration, the truth is that every human being gets wrinkles: it’s part of life, and it means that we’ve been blessed to live long enough to show our age on our skin.
But I digress. Back to the acid mantle: so things like swiping pure alcohol onto my face and using acid washes and skipping moisturizer altogether have left my face extremely sensitized. While sensitized skin is not the same as sensitive skin, they share common traits, like irritation triggered by ingredients and diet. As “they” say, ”hindsight is 20/20.” If I knew then what I know now, I would have been kinder to my skin—and my acne. But at least I can work toward repairing it.
First step is regulating the skin’s pH balance. Water is neutral with a pH of 7, so anything below that is considered acidic and anything above is considered alkaline. The ideal pH for skin varies depending on who you ask, but a safe spectrum is between 4.7 and 5.7. While we’re always looking to alkalize our internal body, we actually want our skin to be mildly acidic to protect it against bacteria and environmental stressors, but keep healthy flora. Overly acidic skin causes inflammation—think acne and eczema—while alkaline skin can cause a host of other issues like yeast and bacterial infections. Balancing the pH is certainly a balancing act, and while diet and lifestyle play a crucial role, so too do the products we use on our face.
So when we’re trying to sort out skin issues, it’s imperative to look at the pH balance of our skin and, in turn, to make sure that our acid mantle is getting the ingredients it needs to flourish. Essential fatty acids (EFAs), full of omega-3s (aka alpha-linoleic acid) and omega-6s (aka linoleic acid), are ideal for a healthy acid mantle. (Omega-9s, aka oleic acid, are also important for the health of our skin. Our bodies produce omega-9 but don’t produce omega-3 and omega-6, so we must get these EFAs through diet and topical application.) Ingestible solutions are foods like salmon, nuts, seeds, and grains, but topically we can find EFAs in ingredients like avocado oil, flaxseed oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil, to name a few. Other ingredients that help to repair the acid mantle are ceramides, peptides, and moisture powerhouses like hyaluronic acid. Steer clear of pH disruptors like exfoliation.
Of course, this means not fearing applying oil to our skin, which, for us acne-prone folk, can certainly feel counterintuitive. But I’m here to tell you, I’ve tried it the other way—entirely stripping my skin of oil—and it really did affect my texture, tone, and hydration. Not to mention removing oil from my skin is how I damaged my acid mantle in the first place. And now I’m doing reparative catch-up. I am incredibly discerning on what oils I will apply to my skin, because, let’s face it, I am still acne-prone, and not every oil is meant for me. But these products have really helped to repair my skin, making it look plumper, feel more hydrated, and have an overall healthy glow that I thought I’d lost in my teens.
Sidenote: when my skin is going through a hyper-sensitized moment (dry patches, redness, rash-like pimples), I immediately stop all masking and exfoliating and turn to my trusted good-for-you ingredient-rich skincare products, making sure to keep my routine SIMPLE. Cleanse, moisturize, SPF.
This exclusive collab is the winner of Project Poosh. It uses patented tech to turn distilled water into a concentrated face mist with soothing, hydrating, and anti-inflammatory minerals. It’s so gentle, I can use it twice a day—I do it after cleansing but before my other products, and not only does it help balance skin’s pH, it also makes my serums and creams more effectively hydrating. Just add distilled water to the refillable bottle, wait 20 seconds, and spritz. (P.S. A single bottle can last for up to a year.)
The only cleansing oil I let touch my face: it’s made with four simple and clean microbiome-friendly ingredients, free of fragrance and essential oils (a big non-no for my sensitized skin). I use this as my first cleanse, especially when I’m wearing makeup, as it’s a gentle and effective makeup remover.
Gentle truly is the operative word here. This cleanser is also free of fragrance and essential oils, and aids in restoring harmony to the skin’s pH. It’s a foaming wash, but it won’t upset the acid mantle. I like to use this as my second cleanse, after the oil cleanser.
I’ll add three or four drops to my serum or moisturizer as a health anti-aging booster of sorts. Again, no fragrance or essential oils and zero irritation.
This is my current go-to serum that offers my skin delicious, reparative ingredients like olive oil (omega-3s), hyaluronic acid, and wild organic chicory (peptides). I’ve been using this serum for six weeks, long enough to notice an intense glow with zero breakouts. It’s a true unicorn product—and it doubles as an eye serum (my eye repair of choice!).
In total transparency, since I’ve been working to repair my acid mantle, a lot of my skin’s natural oils have come back (YAY!), so I’m once again on the oilier side of the skincare spectrum. But for dry patches or certain times of the month (hello, hormones) that seem to make my skin freak out, I use four to five drops of this highly concentrated face oil and pat it onto my skin, neck, and décolletage and … wow, my skin instantly plumps and brightens—so much so that people actually notice and say “Did you just get a facial?” I’ve only stuck with a handful of face oils in the past, but most of the formulas contained essential oils and filler ingredients that ended up tearing down my acid mantle instead of repairing it, so I’d end up tossing them, breaking out, and cursing my skin. (I’m sorry, skin! It was me, not you.) I can say with complete certainty that this face oil is a Holy Grail product for anyone looking to reset their skin.
The only SPF I use. Period.
And that’s all. Simple, clean, effective. Obviously, find the products that work for you and the ingredients that will make your skin healthy and happy. I’m not a doctor, just a skincare enthusiast with a propensity to break out, but I always suggest seeing your dermatologist before trying a new skincare routine.
Up next, be the first to know our weekly content and sign up for our Poosh newsletter.