Previously I’ve talked about several aspects of hair care that are important if you want to treat your strands to a little TLC. These include porosity; hair texture (such as coarse or fine) and water quality (hard water can dry out the hair). Now there’s another factor that I’m learning can make a big difference to the health of your hair. Today’s topic is about pH balance.
What Does pH Mean?
So what is pH? pH stands for potential of hydrogen. It means the number of charged particles (ions) in a water-based solution. This charge sits somewhere on the pH scale and makes the substance either positive or negative or in other words, acid or alkaline. Your skin, hair, bloodstream – in fact your whole body works on a finely balanced pH system, which is vital to your health. See the chart below for a visual reference.
From the chart, you’ll see that the pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. Substances with more positive ions are known as cations and those with negative ions are called anions.
At the bottom of the scale come the acidic substances. These include lemon juice (around 2) and vinegar at 3.
Sebum, the natural oil produced by your scalp, and your hair ranges from about 4.5 to 5.5. But this can vary – bearing in mind that everybody’s head is different. So hair is slightly acidic.
Slap-bang in the middle at 7 on the pH scale is ordinary tap water, which is perfectly balanced – although this can vary slightly if you have hard water, which can have a higher pH.
At the other end of the scale from 7 upwards you have alkaline, also known as base substances. These include baking soda, hair colours and, of course, relaxers.
At the lowest and highest ends of the scale you can do real structural damage to your hair. The lowest, sitting at 0 is battery acid and the highest is drain cleaner. At these extremes, the hair’s protein will break down and the hair will start to dissolve.
It’s best to avoid extreme swings in your hair’s pH as this can weaken your hair. There’s a fantastic YouTube video on hair pH from GreenBeautyChannel, it’s well worth a look.
pH affects water based substances (and, of course, includes water itself), so it applies to most of the store-bought moisturising products you use on your hair, which have water as an ingredient. It does not concern oils as they are not water based and do not have a pH.
How Does pH affect my hair?
Generally you should aim to use products that are slightly acidic and lie within the hair’s natural pH range of 4.5 to 5.5. The same applies to your skin, which ranges from around 4.5 to 6. However, this is variable depending on the individual and their health.
I’d advise that to ensure that your products are working in harmony with your hair, you should try to keep your products within the pH range of around 4 to 7 – unless, of course, you’re using a chemical treatment to colour or perm your hair, which requires a massive pH shift in order to work effectively.
A lower pH will make the hair’s cuticles – or outer layer – contract. Remember, the cuticle is the protective layer of the hair that serves as a shield for the delicate inner hair protein molecules; otherwise known as the cortex.
The cuticle, as you know, is made up of scales that in healthy hair, lie flat and protect the cortex. When the cuticles lie flat, the hair also has more of a sheen because light is able to reflect off the surface.
Products that are slightly acidic will help to flatten the cuticles, making the hair smoother and protecting the cortex. After moisturising, this will help it to trap in the water/nutrients you’ve added. Flattened cuticles ease detangling as they’re less likely to snag on adjacent hair strands.
Alkaline products lift the cuticle and cause the hair to swell. After using products with a higher ph, your hair may initially feel soft but in time alkaline substances can dry out the hair and can cause it to harden and break. Additionally, a higher pH can promote the growth of bacteria.
Shampoo bars often have a higher pH. A higher pH level can cause irritation and lead to an itchy, dry scalp.
Some same-brand shampoos and conditioners work in conjunction with each other with the shampoo gently lifting the cuticle to wash away the dirt and the conditioner moisturising and closing the cuticle again.
You can add ingredients to your favourite shampoo or conditioner to balance out its pH. For example, you could try using a little aloe vera if you find that your product is too alkaline. It’s a very fine balancing act though. You should only add a little at a time and be sure to check it first with a pH tester before you apply to your hair. Just beware: if you do choose to add ingredients to your products, make sure you do it in a separate container as it could throw the preservatives out of whack and you could find your products going off more quickly.
Adjusting your products’ pH can be risky business, as the pH scale doesn’t increase one-fold. A jump from say, 3 to 4 on the scale is in fact a 10-fold increase in acidic molecules. It’s called a logarithmic scale, which means that actually there’s a huge difference if you were to jump from one pH level to another. For example, the difference between 5 and seven on the scale would mean that there’s 100 times more acid between the two, or 10×10. So just the tiniest change in pH can have a huge effect. It’s probably better to find a shampoo that works with your hair – some of them are pH balanced for the best effect.
Here are some of the ingredients you’ll see on your products that will help neutralise the pH:
Ascorbic acid – acidic; it lowers the pH
Citric acid – acidic; just a little of this will lower pH
Sodium hydroxide – this has a pH of over 7 and is alkaline
Triethanolamine – this has a high pH and is often used in products to balance pH.
Do We Really Need to Bother With pH?
You may be asking yourself whether there’s any point in getting too technical about your hair. You choose your hair products based on how your hair responds, and that works for you.
There is some debate as to just how much pH affects the hair. Some vloggers say they have seen big improvements in the condition of their natural hair and length retention since paying more attention to the pH of the products they use.
But bloggers such as the Natural Haven cite research that says there’s no real change to the hair structure between the ranges of 4 to 9.
pH is just another aspect of your hair care to keep in mind when you’re growing out natural hair. Knowledge is power, after all. It can help you choose your products or determine why your hair is still dry and tangly, despite your best efforts. To my mind, it stands to reason that the skin and hair are happiest when they are balanced within their normal pH range.
It’s not just about your hair either. pH can also be influential when it comes to the state of your skin. A pH imbalance makes your skin dry skin, and greater alkalinity may be the cause of breakouts.
I’m certainly going to spend more time looking at the pH of the hair and skin products I’m using, since I’ve been experiencing dry hair and breakage that I just couldn’t pinpoint.
I’ve had lots of fun with my pH testing strips over the past few days…I really should get out more. No, really! I’ve had some surprising results and some results that were pretty much what I expected.
You can get pH strips online for as little as 99p so it’s worth a little investment to find out more about how your products work.
Do you test your products? If you do, have you noticed a difference in your hair or skin? Let me know what you think of this blog by commenting below.
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