5 Best Low pH Cleansers (A Dermatologist's Guide) in 2021

5 Best Low pH Cleansers (A Dermatologist’s Guide)

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best low ph cleanser

In a hurry? Here are our top picks:

BEST FOR SENSITIVE, ANTI-AGING

ZELEN Life Cleanser

Cleansing is one of the most important steps in your skin care routine no matter what skin type you are. It must be done twice a day to get rid of dirt, oil, bacteria, toxins, and pollutants.

Otherwise, if left on the skin, these can cause problems such as acne or irritation. Not only is it important to cleanse, but you must also use the right products.

Since your skin is acidic (low pH), you want to choose products that are acidic as well.

This article is devoted to discussing what to consider before buying an acidic low pH cleanser, the best low pH cleansers, and how they were selected, along with some frequently asked questions about low pH cleansers.

Quick summary

bb2-table__imageZELEN Life Cleanser
  • Handmade with organic ingredients rich in anti-oxidants that benefit all skin types
  • Natural antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and oil-balancing properties, helps acne
  • Gentle yet powerful deep-cleansing action
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bb2-table__imageLa Roche Posay Effaclar Purifying Foaming Gel Cleanser
  • Contains anti-aging compounds
  • Anti-oxidant packed prebiotic thermal spring water
  • Decreases sebum production and assists in fighting acne breakouts
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bb2-table__imageEltaMD Foaming Facial Cleanser
  • Deep-cleansing and foaming formula, removes dirt, oil, and pollutants
  • Anti-microbial properties assist in treating acne
  • Pineapple's anti-inflammatory agents helps reduce swelling
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bb2-table__imageCetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser
  • Contains emollient ingredients, helps hydrate and soothe the skin
  • Removes facial dirt and oil, and can also be used on the body
  • Unscented and very gentle for the most sensitive of skin
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bb2-table__imageCOSRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser
  • Boosts collagen production and hydration
  • Saccharomyces ferment nourishes the skin
  • Tea tree oil offers anti-microbial benefits, which can assist acne sufferers
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Before your buy: 4 things to consider when purchasing a low pH cleanser

1. Skin type

This is one of the most important things to consider when purchasing a cleanser. If you get a cleanser that is not appropriate for your skin type, you could make your skin worse.

For example, if you are an acne patient and you do not select a non-comedogenic cleanser, you will make your acne worse instead of better. If you have dry skin and you use an oil-controlling cleanser, you will further dry out your skin and make it worse.

If you do not know your skin type, here is an easy guide:

Dry skin:

  • Looks flaky and dull
  • Feels rough, tight, or stinging

Sensitive skin:

  • Looks flaky, red, and irritated
  • Feels itchy or burning

Oily skin:

  • Looks shiny with blackheads and acne
  • Feels greasy

Normal skin:

  • Does not look dry or oily
  • Does not feel dry or oily

Combination skin:

  • Looks and feels oily in the T zone (forehead, nose chin)
  • Looks and feels dry on the rest of the face

2. pH

Since our skin is slightly acidic (low pH), you want to select a cleanser that has a low pH as well.

Our skin functions optimally at a low pH. If the pH is increased (or made more alkaline) the barrier function is compromised which can lead to water loss and dehydration of the skin and the entrance of microbes that can cause infection.

Bar soap is notorious for having a high pH, so it is best to avoid that and choose a liquid cleanser with a low pH.

3. Ingredients to avoid

There are several ingredients which, are best to avoid especially if you have certain skin types.

Oily skin:

  • It is best to avoid mineral oil and petrolatum as they can clog your pores and make acne worse. Sometimes silicones can clog your pores as well.

Dry or sensitive skin:

  • Alcohol can be too drying and may irritate your skin. Also, dyes and fragrances may irritate your skin or you may be allergic to these ingredients.

4. Ingredients to look for

When you are looking for a cleanser, look for these ingredients based on your skin type.

Oily skin:

  • Look for oil-controlling ingredients, such as alcohol, witch hazel, jojoba oil, or alpha hydroxy acids.

Dry or sensitive skin:

  • Look for moisturizing ingredients, such as glycerin or hyaluronic acid, and anti-inflammatory ingredients, such as sunflower or coconut oil.

All types:

  • The optimal time to start anti-aging ingredients in 20-30’s. This is when your collagen production starts to decrease. Look for antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, that can scavenge free radicals produced by UV from the sun which can damage collagen and lead to wrinkles. Retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids are also good for anti-aging but need to be used with caution if you have dry or sensitive skin.

The 5 best low pH cleansers

1. ZELEN Life Cleanser

ZELEN Life Cleanser Image

Best features:

  • Great for all skin types
  • Anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial ingredients to fight acne
  • Anti-oxidants to fight premature aging
  • Moisturizers to help dry skin

The best low pH cleanser for:

This cleanser can help every skin type. It has non-comedogenic moisturizers to help dry skin and has acne-fighting ingredients to help oily, acne-prone skin. Also, it has anti-aging ingredients that can benefit men and women of all skin types.

Overview:

The ZELEN Life Cleanser contains all-natural organic ingredients, such as aloe, sunflower oil, and jojoba oil.

Aloe is a great anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial ingredient, which can help with acne while being sensitive enough for eczema patients (1-4). It also has antioxidant properties to protect your skin and help with anti-aging.

Sunflower oil is a good non-comedogenic moisturizer that also has anti-inflammatory properties to calm and soothe irritated or acne-prone skin (5-7). It is also an anti-oxidant to protect the skin.

Jojoba oil is another non-comedogenic oil that has anti-inflammatory properties to help with breakouts while moisturizing the skin (1, 8, 9). It is also an anti-oxidant to protect the skin and prevent premature aging.

This cleanser contains other anti-oxidants, such as lavender oil, rose oil, coconut oil, and tocopherol (vitamin E) to help protect the skin (1, 10-15). It also has other anti-inflammatory ingredients including lavender oil, rose geranium oil, glycerin, almond oil, and coconut oil (1, 10-20).

Glycerin and almond oil also make great non-comedogenic moisturizers.

The good:

  • Handmade organic formula
  • No parabens, sulfates, silicones, mineral oil, petrolatum, dyes, or fragrances
  • Allergy-free (hypoallergenic)
  • pH balanced
  • Cruelty-free and vegan-friendly

Things to think about:

  • Essential oils – could be irritating for some
  • Natural fragrance – could be unappealing to some

Bottom line:

Every skin type can benefit from this versatile organic pH-balanced cleanser.

2. La Roche Posay Effaclar Purifying Foaming Gel Cleanser

La Roche Posay Effaclar Purifying Foaming Gel Cleanser

Best features:

  • Decrease sebum production
  • Stimulates collagen production to help with anti-aging
  • Anti-microbial to help with acne

The best low pH cleanser for:

This is a great cleanser for oily, acne-prone skin that does not alter your skin’s pH. It controls oil and fights bacteria that cause acne. It also contains anti-aging ingredients.

Overview:

La Roche Posay’s Effaclar Purifying Foaming Gel Cleanser is an acne-fighting cleanser that contains zinc pidolate and thermal spring water.

Zinc pidolate can be purifying to the skin because it has the ability to decrease oil/sebum production and to kill the bacteria that causes acne (P. acnes) (21). It can also enhance collagen synthesis to help with anti-aging.

Prebiotic thermal spring water helps maintain healthy skin flora while exerting anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits (22-24). This cleanser helps treat breakouts while combating the aging process.

The good:

  • Allergen-free
  • Free of essential oils
  • Non-comedogenic formula
  • pH balanced

Things to think about:

  • Dryness – Some people found it dried their skin out.
  • Fragrance – Some found the scent unappealing or irritating.

Bottom line:

This cleanser is great for those with acne-prone with oily skin.

3. EltaMD Foaming Facial Cleanser

EltaMD Foaming Facial Cleanser

Best features:

  • Deep cleansing to remove pollutants
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Exfoliating
  • Oxygen infusing bubbles

The best low pH cleanser for:

This cleanser delivers a deep cleaning to help with oily skin while being gentle and soothing.

Overview:

The EltaMD Foaming Facial Cleanser contains a unique blend of foaming apple amino acids and bromelain from pineapple.

The sodium cocyl apple amino acids are a great cleansing and foaming agent (25, 26). These foaming bubbles help to infuse oxygen to give you a deep cleaning that removes dirt, oil, and pollutants.

Bromelain, which comes from pineapple,  is an anti-inflammatory agent that reduces swelling, bruising, and pain (27, 28). These features combined with their anti-microbial properties make it helpful for treating acne.

The good:

  • Sensitivity free
  • Deep-cleansing foaming bubbles
  • pH balanced
  • Free of parabens, sulfates, fragrance, silicones, mineral oil, or petrolatum

Things to think about:

  • Dryness – Some people found it dried their skin out.

Bottom line:

EltaMD’s Foaming Facial cleanser is an excellent choice for oily skin.

4. Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser

Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser

Best features:

  • Soap-free
  • Hydrates and soothes
  • Gentle action, perfect for sensitive skin
  • 2-in-1 (face and body)

The best low pH cleanser for:

This low pH cleanser is ideal for all skin types, but especially for sensitive skin. It is a soap-free, liquid cleanser so it does not alter your skin’s pH.

Overview:

Cetaphil’s Gentle Skin Cleanser lives up to its name.

It is a lotion-like cleanser that gently removes dirt and oil even in people with sensitive skin. It is unscented so it is safe for sensitive skin. It contains very few ingredients, which have not changed over time.

The formula is simple but effective.

It contains a surfactant cleanser called sodium lauryl sulfate (1). It is great at removing dirt and oil.

Two of the ingredients are emollients, stearyl alcohol and acetyl alcohol (1, 29). These are 2 of the good alcohols that do not strip your skin like isopropyl alcohol does. Not every alcohol will harm your skin. Stearyl and acetyl alcohol actually help to hydrate, soften and soothe your skin.

The good:

  • Free of essential oils
  • Non-comedogenic
  • Non-irritating, hypoallergenic formula
  • Free of fragrance, mineral oil, petrolatum, or silicones

Things to think about:

  • Parabens – These can irritate some people
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate – This can irritate some people
  • Not good for very oily skin

Bottom line:

This is a great soap-free cleanser for all skin types, but especially for those with sensitive skin.

5. COSRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser

COSRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser

Best features:

  • Good for acne sufferers
  • Anti-aging properties
  • Powerful action without the irritation

The best low pH cleanser for:

This cleanser works great for acne-prone skin without stripping it. It is gentle and effective because it is loaded with anti-inflammatory ingredients.

Overview:

COSRX’s Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser is rich in acne-fighting ingredients, such as beta hydroxy acids, tea tree oil, and anti-inflammatory ingredients, like Saccharomyces ferment and Cryptomeria japonica extract.

Tea tree oil has long been studied for the treatment of acne due to its anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties (30-32). It has been shown to as effective as benzoyl peroxide in treating acne but without the same irritating side effects. It is a gentle alternative.

Betaine salicylate is related to salicylic acid (SA), which is a staple in the acne treatment armamentarium (33). It is a beta hydroxy acid just like SA but not as irritating. So, just like SA, it decreases oil production and exfoliates dead skin cells but it does this gently.

Saccharomyces ferment is popular in Korean skincare.  Fermentation releases minerals, amino acids, and vitamins so they are readily available to nourish the skin (34). They also exert anti-inflammatory effects.

Cryptomeria japonica is an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial ingredient that can be useful in the treatment of acne (35, 36).

This cleanser has a whole host of other amazing ingredients to help the skin. Pueraria lobata has been shown to increase collagen production, aid in moisturization, and inhibit photoaging (37). Ulmus davidiana is an anti-inflammatory ingredient that also helps moisturize the skin and inhibit photoaging (38).

Evening primrose is an anti-inflammatory ingredient that has been beneficial in the treatment of eczema and psoriasis (39). Pinus palustris is also anti-inflammatory and has been used in the treatment of burns (40). Nelumbo nucifera has anti-inflammatory properties and is also astringent and emollient that can protect the skin from UV damage from the sun (41, 42). Styrax japonica aids in the hydration of the skin (43).

The good:

  • Low pH
  • Free of fragrance, mineral oil, petrolatum, silicones, parabens, or sulfates
  • Non-comedogenic
  • Anti-inflammatory properties

Things to think about:

  • Essential oils – These can irritate some people.
  • Scent – Some people find the scent unappealing.

Bottom line:

This is an excellent gel-based cleanser for oily, acne-prone skin which also soothes irritated skin.


How we chose these products

These 5 low pH cleansers were chosen for many reasons. These are all highly trusted brands that deliver quality products by using evidence-based ingredients. Some have been around for a long time.

Extensive research is conducted on these ingredients and products to ensure they are top quality before they made it to this list. Also, there are numerous good reviews on all these products and very few negative reviews.

In this group of cleansers, you can find something for every budget. They range from expensive to reasonably priced. You don’t always have to spend a lot of money to get a good cleanser if you know what ingredients to look for and you select the right one for your skin type.

They are all low pH cleansers, so they will not upset the acidic nature of your skin. This acidity keeps the barrier function of the skin working properly and keeps your skin healthy.

These cleansers all contain quality ingredients and you can find one to benefit every skin type. Not only do they cleanse the skin, but some target oily skin to prevent blackheads and acne.

Some contain antioxidants to help protect the skin and prevent premature aging. Some have anti-inflammatory properties to calm and soothe sensitive, irritated skin and moisturizers to hydrate dry skin.

Frequently asked questions

frequently asked questions 2-min

Do I have to wash my face twice a day if I have dry skin?

Washing your face twice a day is important. It is important to wash your face in the morning to remove the oil and dead skin cells that have been generated during the night. It is equally as important to wash your face at night to remove the dirt, oil, dead skin cells, bacteria, makeup, toxins, and pollutants that have appeared during the day.

If you use the right face cleanser for dry skin, you will not further dry out your skin. In fact, the right ingredients will add moisture to your dry skin and help it.

Why can’t I use bar soap on my face?

There are 4 different types of cleansers, one of which is true soap or bar soap. These are a mixture of fat and alkali which has a pH of about 9-11. They are fantastic at removing dirt and oil, but they also strip away too much of your natural oils and can dehydrate your skin.

They are too alkaline for your skin, which is naturally acidic. By changing the natural pH of your skin, it can lead to problems with a barrier function. Our skin’s barrier serves to prevents dehydration and keeps out harmful microbes.

What does low pH mean?

pH is a measure in the chemistry of the concentration and activity of the hydrogen atoms in a solution. It is measured from 0-14, with 7 being neutral. Numbers below 7 are acidic, and numbers above 7 are alkaline or basic.

The lower the number, the higher the concentration of hydrogen atoms, and the more acidic the solution is. Our skin functions best at slightly acidic levels, at about 5. If you alter the pH of the skin, it will not function properly.

It will lead to dehydration, inflammation and irritation, lack of shedding of dead skin cells, and infections from pathogenic microbes. It can worsen certain skin conditions like acne and eczema.

Do I need anti-oxidants in my cleanser?

Anti-oxidants are important to scavenge up free radicals that come from the sun and pollution so they do not damage your collagen. Free radicals have unpaired electrons, so they are always searching for an electron to steal from some other molecule.

If it does not get an electron from anti-oxidants, then it will steal it from collagen and subsequently cause the destruction of the collagen. Collagen gives structure and firmness to your skin to maintain its youthful appearance.

When these free radicals destroy your collagen, it leads to sagging and wrinkles. Plus, some anti-oxidants have other properties as well, such as vitamin C. While it is a potent antioxidant, it also helps lighten dark sunspots and stimulates collagen production.

What are the benefits of cleansing my skin?

In addition to the obvious reason for cleansing your skin, which is to remove dirt, oil, and bacteria, it also provides a clean palette upon which you can apply your other products, such as anti-oxidant serums.

It offers better penetration of the products that you will apply next so that they work better for your skin. If your skin is covered with a layer of dirt and oil, nothing will penetrate. There is no point in wasting your time or money on products if they do not have the opportunity to work correctly.

What is double cleansing?

The double cleansing method for washing your face is twofold. The first cleanser is oil-based that will remove makeup as well as dirt and oil. These oil cleansers consist of non-comedogenic oils, such as sweet almond or sunflower oil, so they will not clog your pores and cause acne.

The benefits of using oil are that it will attract unwanted oil to remove it and it is better at breaking down makeup products. If you do not like the idea of using oil on your face, micellar water works well too and it is less messy than using oil. Some may find micellar water more irritating than an oil cleanser.

The second cleanser will remove whatever dirt and oil are remaining to ensure a super clean palette. This cleanser is selected based on your skin type. So if you have dry skin, it will hydrate it. If you have oily skin, it will help treat your acne.

Can I test the pH of my products?

If you are not sure what the pH of your products is and it does not tell you the pH on the label, you can purchase pH test strips inexpensively on Amazon and test it yourself. It is simple, quick, and easy to do.

You just dip the test strip in your product for the appropriate amount of time and the paper will change color. You compare the color to the chart they give and it will tell you the pH of your product.

Conclusion

Cleansing is crucial to the health of your skin. It is the most basic but often underappreciated or overlooked step in your skincare routine. Choosing the right cleanser for your skin type is also important.

Determining your skin type is the first step in selecting most products especially cleansers. The next step is to read labels and choose good ingredients based on your skin type. Next, selecting a cleanser that has a low pH to keep your skin acidic and functioning properly is important too.

Once you have found your perfect cleanser, make sure you are cleansing twice a day to keep your skin clean and healthy.

Are any of our top picks your new perfect cleanser? Let us know in the comments.

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About The Author

Dr. Jennifer Trent MD FAAD
Dr. Jennifer Trent MD FAAD

Board-Certified Dermatologist

Dr. Trent completed a 6 year combined BS-MD at the University of Miami with an undergraduate major in biology and a minor in chemistry. She completed her internship in Internal Medicine and her residency in Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital. Dr. Trent is a world recognized dermatologist, who has published over 40 articles in peer-reviewed journals. She also co-authored a textbook on dermatologic diseases and therapy, which was published by McGraw-Hill Co, Inc. She has had the opportunity to present her clinical research several times at national medical meetings. Dr. Trent has been the recipient of several awards for research, teaching and clinical practice, including the prestigious Young Investigators award for research from the American Academy of Dermatology as well as the coveted Castle Connelly Top Doctor award.

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