Katie Hennah, Naturopath and formulator of the NueBar range, discusses ways to keep the largest organ of your body healthy - your skin. By choosing pH-balanced, soap-free products like NueBar, you can reduce disruption to the skin microbiome, which is thought to be an important component in immune regulation and maintaining healthy skin. Whilst not curative, choosing pH balanced products may be helpful in reducing aggravation in various dermatological disorders such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and atopic dermatitis.
The skin microbiome
Many people have heard of the gut microbiome (the billions of microorganisms that make up the internal environment of the gut and play a critical role in the health of an individual) but not so many people realise that the skin also has a microbiome.
The skin microbiome is complex and not as well researched and understood as the gut microbiome. However, there is general agreement that the pH of the skin plays an important role in achieving healthy balance and allowing adhesion of beneficial skin microflora.4 Healthy skin generally falls into a pH range of around 5 – 5.5 (mildly acidic) with some research even placing a healthy skin pH at slightly less than 5.4 It is also widely believed that microorganism imbalance is a potential component of many skin disorders.1 This is backed up by facts such as, many common pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes, being reduced by a healthy acidic pH.1 We also know that more than 90% of Atopic Dermatitis patients are colonized with S. aureus on both lesional and non-lesional skin, compared with <5% of healthy individuals.1
How to maintain a healthy skin microbiome
In the case of the gut, we know that we create a healthy environment by eating a diet rich in fibre and beneficial bacteria (cultured foods like yoghurts and sauerkraut); and avoiding things that are known to encourage “bad” bacteria such as excessive sugar and the overuse of antibiotics.
But what should we do to maintain a healthy skin microbiome? The first and simplest thing that you can do to promote a healthy skin microbiome is to avoid disturbing the natural pH of the skin by washing with alkaline substances like soap (pH 9-10).
Of course, the body still needs to be washed, and especially the hands in our current pandemic situation. So instead of alkaline soap, substitute a non-soap wash, something that has the ability to be matched to the pH range of healthy skin. By using a pH balanced wash, you can still clean the body effectively, whilst causing the least disruption to the healthy balance of beneficial organisms that inhabit the skin.7
How come lots of people use soap without any problem?
The body is an amazing self-healing system and has the ability to return to an acidic pH all by itself, even after being washed with soap, so many people under normal circumstances won’t notice any obvious problems from soap use (especially if it is a nicely made one with lots of rich nourishing oils used). However, frequency of washing, harshness of the soap, skin type, allergies, diet, genetics and even climate can play a part in the skin’s ability to restore healthy balance. Because it takes a little time for the microbiome to rebalance itself, frequency of washing is a critical factor. The more often you wash with soap, the more stress you put your skin microbiome under and the harder it becomes for the skin to restore balance. COVID-19 has really put the skin on our hands to the test and many people are suffering as a result.
Others are sensitive to the use of soap even at low use levels. Those with a sensitive skin type, or a family history of eczema or dermatitis will often feel the effects of soap use quite immediately with dryness, itching and other symptoms flaring. For these people a pH balanced washing agent is especially critical.
When you wash the skin with an alkaline substance like soap, you are putting the skin under a form of stress and some bodies will cope with this stress better than others.
But will non-soap washes still kill viruses and bacteria?
Both soap and surfactant-based, non-soap washes (like NueBar) are equally effective at breaking down the outer envelope of viruses and bacteria and washing them away. It is just that non-soap washes will be gentler on the skin and won’t disrupt the pH environment of the skin during the process. But don’t just take our word for it, the ability of soap and non-soap washes to be equally effective in killing COVID -19 was recently confirmed by the ABC’s medical expert, Dr Norman Swan.8
The most important factor in killing viruses is not the kind of washing agent used but the technique and time spent by the washer. So, make sure you wash well, cover the whole surface of the hand, rub all areas of the hand, especially frequently missed areas like nail beds and palms, wash for a minimum of 20 seconds and dry hands well after washing.
Why is soap so alkaline?
Soap is made using a process called saponification. It involves mixing fats with an extremely alkaline substance called lye (also called caustic soda or sodium hydroxide). Lye is so alkaline it will burn your skin if you touch it, and although no lye is left in a finished bar of soap (all of it chemically reacts with the oils to form the soap) it does leave an alkaline trace in the finished product that is impossible to counteract. You can tell a product is made using the saponification (soap) process if the list of ingredients is either primarily a long list of oils and butters and/or it contains the words saponified oils, sodium hydroxide or lye. pH balanced products are made using a completely different process, they use surfactants to do the washing and this process is one that allows them to be altered to match the pH best suited to the application of the product.
Sulfates and skin irritation
Soap is not the only thing that can causes irritation to sensitive skin. Surfactants also vary in their harshness and tendency to irritate. Sulfate-based surfactants are cheap and high foaming, but they are also well known for their potential to irritate the skin. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Cocosulfate (SCS) and Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES) all fall into this category. NueBar products are all 100% sulfate free and if you are prone to sensitivity a sulfate free product is definitely something that you should be looking for.
Maintaining a strong barrier function
Adequate hydration is another crucial factor in the ability of the skin to maintain a strong barrier function. 6 The application of natural plant based oils to the skin to keep it supple and moist has a long traditional history in many cultures and oils like Coconut, Cacao, Shea, Olive and Argan all have long histories of topical use as moisturising agents. All of these oils are rich in essential fatty acids and antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-itch properties. The richest of these oils are the ones that are the least processed and refined using simple cold pressing extraction techniques which maximise the antioxidant properties of the oils.
By applying natural plant oils such as these to the skin it ensures rich hydration which assist the skin to maintain a strong barrier function which in turn helps it to be less susceptible to break down, irritation and inflammation.
Assisting the skin to do its job, naturally
The skin is our first defence against the world. We can support the skin to do this crucial job with simple, natural measures that work with it, rather than against it. Mildly acidic washing agents that don’t disrupt the natural microbiome; the avoidance of harsh irritants and providing extra assistance in the form of natural, rich moisturising agents with high levels of essential fatty acids and antioxidants to keep it smooth, supple and strong. All of these simple measures will create a great base from which the skin can more easily achieve its own natural balance and optimal health.
NueBar's Solid Wash, Face, Shampoo and Conditioner bars, which are all pH balanced to a healthy range suitable for the skin, hair shaft, and scalp, are sulfate free to reduce irritation and are rich in moisturising oils to give back moisture.
If extra moisture is needed our Moisturising bar, rich in Organic Cacao butter, Organic Shea and Aloe Vera is excellent for protecting and restoring dry skin on the body and hands.
1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3535073/ Nat Rev Microbiol. 2011 Apr; 9(4): 244–253. The skin microbiome. Elizabeth A. Grice and Julia A. Segre.
2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2746716/ Br J Dermatol. 2008 Mar; 158(3): 442–455. Skin microbiota: a source of disease or defence? AL Cogen, V Nizet and RL Gallo. Br J Dermatology. 2008 Mar; 158(3): 442-445
3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1980979 Acta Derm Venereol. 1990;70(5):429-31. Differences in the skin surface pH and bacterial microflora due to the long-term application of synthetic detergent preparations of pH 5.5 and pH 7.0. Results of a crossover trial in healthy volunteers. Korting HC1, Hübner K, Greiner K, Hamm G, Braun-Falco O.
4 Int J Cosmet Sci. 2006 Oct;28(5):359-70. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-2494.2006.00344.x.
Natural skin surface pH is on average below 5, which is beneficial for its resident flora. Lambers H1, Piessens S, Bloem A, Pronk H, Finkel P.
5 J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2014 Oct;134(4):818-23. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2014.08.005.
Emollient enhancement of the skin barrier from birth offers effective atopic dermatitis prevention. Simpson EL1, Chalmers JR2, Hanifin JM3, Thomas KS2, Cork MJ4, McLean WH5, Brown SJ5, Chen Z6, Chen Y7, Williams HC2.
6 Am J Clin Dermatol. 2018 Feb;19(1):103-117. doi: 10.1007/s40257-017-0301-1.
7 The effect of an acidic cleanser versus soap on the skin pH and micro-flora of adult patients: a non-randomised two group crossover study in an intensive care unit. Duncan CN1, Riley TV, Carson KC, Budgeon CA, Siffleet J.
8 Link to Norman Swan video
The Relation of pH and Skin Cleansing https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30130782
Curr Probl Dermatol. 2018;54:132-142. doi: 10.1159/000489527. Epub 2018 Aug 21.
The Relation of pH and Skin Cleansing.
Int J Cosmet Sci. 2008 Aug;30(4):277-83. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2494.2008.00448.x.
Irritancy ranking of 31 cleansers in the Indian market in a 24-h patch test.
J Cosmet Dermatol. 2019 Jun;18(3):857-861. doi: 10.1111/jocd.12758. Epub 2018 Aug 29.
Effects of four soaps on skin trans-epidermal water loss and erythema index.
Intensive Crit Care Nurs. 2013 Oct;29(5):291-6. doi: 10.1016/j.iccn.2013.03.005. Epub 2013 May 10.
The effect of an acidic cleanser versus soap on the skin pH and micro-flora of adult patients: a non-randomised two group crossover study in an intensive care unit.