The Acid Mantle. No, this isn’t the name of some heavy metal band or rap group or the latest suspense thriller book or movie. But it is an important part of the anatomy of our skin. Extremely important.
Recently, in an essential oil safety group I co-admin, questions arose surrounding the skin’s acid mantle. I was surprised that many had never heard of “acid mantle” before and did not know what it is. But then I realized that this is probably not unusual and there really is no reason why the general public would know much about the acid mantle. I wanting to take a few minutes to make this a teachable moment by explaining as simply as I can what the acid mantle is, what it does and why it’s important.
Human Skin – Our Personal Defense Shield
The “acid mantle” is the term given to the acidity of skin. It is basically an imperceptible thin viscous fluid layer or “film” covering the skin that makes it acidic at a pH (potential of hydrogen) of 4.5 to 6.5, averaging at 5.5. It’s comprised of sebum, perspiration/sweat and a gram-positive and coagulase-negative staphylococci bacterium that is a part of our normal flora, typically living on the human skin and mucosa, called Staphylococcus epidermidis (S. epidermis). It is this “film” that makes up the protective barrier we need to protect our skin, especially the first skin layer, the stratum corneum, and ultimately, our entire body. It has many protective functions, one of which is to kill unwanted bacteria along with keeping substances out of skin layers and the internal body.
The acid mantle can be disrupted and compromised and the protective layer even stripped away by products or prolonged contact with substances that are too acidic or too alkaline, by sunlight, diet and also excessive sweating. When this happens, it can lead to dryness, flaking, irritation, redness, increased skin problems such as contact dermatitis, some types of acne and other skin abnormalities, etc. and decreased antibacterial defense, meaning an increased risk of infection and illness.
Disruption in the skin mantle (or the skin’s pH) causes the skin cells of the outer most layer of the skin, known as the stratum corneum, to be compromised. These skin cells are knit together like bricks with a “glue” holding them together, creating a “protective wall”. This brick and mortar-like wall is part of our protection system to outside invasion, forming a permeation resistant barrier that slows and prevents penetration of substances to reach the other, deeper layers of skin and ultimately, the internal tissues of the body. Much like a brick wall on your house is a barrier to wind, rain, cold, and heat penetrating and seeping into the inside of your home. When the acid mantle is disrupted or stripped away, this allows the “glue” holding the skin cells of the stratum corneum to be compromised and break down. Without the “glue”, the skin cells cannot stay knit together in a uniform brick pattern with and they now have “cracks” between them, leaving us with open free-flow pathways in our protective wall. With the skin cells no longer “glued” together in a brick & mortar fashion, those “loose” skin cells can also slough off prematurely, leaving even larger gaps for pathogens to get through. Yes, there are some molecules that are small enough to find teeny tiny openings and create a pathway in that carefully designed and fully functioning barrier, but these are very few in number and it is a slow process as these molecules wind around to find that free flowing path to follow. Plus, not everything has a small enough molecular structure to find a pathway. Otherwise, when we bathe, shower or swim, we would soak up water like a sponge and never need to hydrate our body by drinking water…..ever. Most molecules are stopped at the stratum corneum and simply washed away when we shower or bathe.
All of this is why you will hear me say often that the skin is one of the body’s first defense and protection agents against illness, infection and toxins and is one of our top health and wellness allies along with internal nutrition, hydration and good habits. Our skin is part of our immune system and toxic overload protection team. It doesn’t just keep our inside stuff like blood and tissue in. It’s the job of our skin to help keep stuff out that we are exposed too externally which can be harmful to us or doesn’t belong. If our acid mantle is intact and our skin is healthy, we don’t have to be concerned with environmental toxins absorbing through our skin. They have to work too hard to try to penetrate and usually do not have small enough molecules to get through anyway. This is why we need to keep our skin healthy and happy by using appropriate well-formulated skin cleansing agents that clean our skin but do not strip away or disrupt our acid mantle and good skin care products with suitable pH value that’s compatible with our skin’s pH (average skin pH is 5.5). Please, stop using baking soda, milk of magnesia, lemon juice or vinegar on your skin, regularly or otherwise. Seriously….STOP! You are not doing your skin or yourself any favors and are actually causing harm. It’s ultimately setting us up for a world of compromise if we use products on our skin with unsuitable pH values, especially leave-on or prolonged exposure products, or products that cause distress to the skin. This includes frequent or overuse of products that “micro-scratch” the skin or are too abrasive (Be careful with those scrubs, girls. Not 3+ times per week and not too scrubby with sharp-edged abrasives.) and using antibacterial products regularly or often. Those substances help break down and disrupt the acid mantle, kill the good bacteria that fights off bad bacteria and cause microscopic injury to the stratum corneum, ultimately exposing, compromising and causing unseen damage, distress and irritation to our skin. This, in turn, compromises our immune system. Betcha didn’t see that one coming, did ya’? Everyone wants to know how to build or “boost” the immune system. Loving your skin and caring for it well is an excellent way to assist in that. Our skin really is one of our lead defense warriors, fighting fiercely for us on the front lines!
Now…. here is the good news. Although we want to avoid disrupting the acid mantle to begin with, once it does occur, it is quickly repaired and regenerated. Avoiding and/or limiting exposure to substances that can alter the skin’s pH and break down the protective barrier goes a long way to protecting our skin and us. It allows for our wonderful body to repair itself quite nicely and function as it’s designed to. Using good skin care products with pH that is compatible and beneficial to the skin, opting for gentle skin cleansers, limiting abrasives and exposure to acidic or alkaline substances, eating a well balanced diet, drinking enough water (which has a neutral pH), protecting the skin from excessive and harmful sun exposure, and generally making good choices for the body and skin are a must.
The skin’s acid mantle and our skin itself are constantly renewing and regenerating. They can and will balance and repair themselves given the right tools. Only you can provide those tools, both from the inside and the outside. To do that, you need to be informed and well-versed in what is and isn’t good for the skin. It’s my hope that I can help you with that through articles like this one and answering questions through my Facebook page and the Ask the Formulator series you will find here.
So, did you learn anything here today? Drop me line or two in the comments to tell me about it or ask questions about this topic. or pop on over to my Facebook fan page to comment there. I’d love to hear from you and get feedback about how this or other articles I write are helping you.
Until next time, enjoy the Ahhh moments, y’all. They really do renew you inside and out.