"pH Balanced" wash-marketing hoax?

Here is an abstract from Vermont soap post about pH in soaps, wonder what you guys think, agree/disagree? 

"There are many questions, claims, controversies and conflicting information about pH and skin. One company claims their product is “pH balanced for skin”. Another company claims their products are made without the questionable chemicals in the “pH balanced” soap product. Basically each camp has a stake in the answer. What is up with this? Here is the real skinny on pH, soap and skin based on real science. Remember 99.72% of cosmetic claims are complete fabrications.

Your skin makes a lightly acidic secretion to help protect itself. This is called the Acid Mantle. Because it is acidic, the most effective way to clean it off, along with excess oils, dirt and germs, is using an alkaline foaming system (soap!). Your skin begins resecreting the mantle immediately. Within 20 minutes it is about 1/3 strength and with 2-3 hours it is back up at full strength. This varies slightly person to person, and there are rare cases of this mechanism failing in very sick individuals. In other words – this is an absolute non-issue. There is no health reason to choose a “pH balanced” soap or body wash product over a natural alternative, assuming pH levels are within say 3.30 or so (like an orange) and 10 (such as a bar soap). It is interesting to note that the mildest cleanser you can use – properly made handmade style bar soaps – also have the highest pH at 10.01. We have testimonials of dry skin conditions disappearing after just a few days of handmade soap use, (Testimonials) so don’t let anybody tell that mildness equals low pH – it just ain’t so!

Poorly quality and mass market bar soaps usually have Free Alkali in them, this is what makes them harsh and drying. Basically, the manufacturers are allowing there to be some left over alkali in the soap. This is good for shelf life and increases lather in “pH balanced” soap or body wash, but is too drying for sensitive or dry skin. Free alkali will find every last bit of natural oils in your skin and saponify them (turn them into soap), leaving you dry and “squeaky clean”. Too high a coconut oil percentage in the formula (coconut oil harshness), along with the usual artificial color and fragrance marketing enhancements also make mass market soaps harsh and drying to many individuals.

The reason this non issue of “pH balanced” soap or body wash became a marketing war, is that detergent products (see the sulfate controversy: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate ), have a pH that is more acidic than soap or other skin care products. Marketers use this to promote their wares over the next guys. Thing is, about 12% of us are sensitive to detergents. Others are sensitive to the preservatives, colors and fragrances used by mass marketers in both soap and detergent systems."..."The proof is in the pH. Organic handmade bar soaps (pH 10.01) have a healthy free fatty acid and triglyceride content. Studies have shown that after being washed with soap and water, free fatty acids help skin recover its natural pH balance faster."

Link: https://vermontsoap.com/the-soapbox/ph-soap-and-skin/



  • I have a lot of questions to this article! Any real scientific evidence or just ‘studies shown’? Skin doesn’t like alkaline products. I don’t understand why removing acid mantle in the first place and then waiting for it to restore itself. Isn’t it easier not stripping it off? Is high concentration of SLS (not mixed with other surfactants) more irritating than a soap? Probably.  But no one uses products containing only SLS. Also irritation isn’t only about the pH, it’s about micelles size, type of surfactant, concentration of surfactant etc. And science aside, nothing would persuade me as a user that gentle amphoteric cleanser is worse than a soap.
  • Well, the 'source' that is quoted is here is a soap company, so I would take everything with a grain of salt. 

    While it's true that the 'easiest' way to clean the acid mantle is to strip it, the phrasing here is clearly trying to sell soap. The closest I've seen to a 'soap being good for the skin' claim was in an academic paper whose research was  funded by a large Japanese company which preferred using fatty acid soap based cleansing, and even then, their claim was that in healthy skin with no pre-existing conditions (acne, eczema, etc), the skin barrier will recover. 

    Honestly, the fact that that page didn't even site a single article nor include any sort of testing itself (TEWL testing on a panel, for example), is extremely sketchy.

    I do agree that low pH cleansers being good for skin is BS, but that's just because typically the harshness of a cleanser is a function of how strong the surfactant binds to surface skin proteins. The minimal binding point on the pH scale for each surfactant is different, so it would be impossible to make a blanket statement about pH.
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    edited October 2018
    Here are my comments.

    I agree that "pH balanced" is mostly a marketing hoax. 

    1.  This is written by a company that is selling soap so right away I'm going to discount the veracity of their claims. They have a stake in making you believe something beneficial about their products. That's not to say it's wrong, it's just that I don't automatically believe it just because they say it's true.

    2.  I know they were trying to be funny with the line about 99.72% of claims are fabrications. But the reality is that it is illegal to make false claims. Large companies will have support for all the claims they make. Or the claims are classified as "puffery" which are not expected to be believed and so don't require proof.  (e.g. this is the greatest product in the world)

    3.  "most effective way to clean it off,,,is using an alkaline foaming system (soap!)" - There is no proof for this and it is quite likely wrong. 

    4.  "the mildest cleanser you can use – properly made handmade style bar soaps" - This is just false. There are plenty of synthetic surfactants that are more mild than a soap.

    5.  "We have testimonials of dry skin conditions disappearing" - Testimonials aren't evidence of product performance. Writers could be hired or consumers that like the brand. It has nothing to do with how well the product actually works.

    6.  Artificial color has zero impact on product harshness 

    7.  The claim that natural oils saponify is dubious and unproven.

    8.  "12% of us are sensitive to detergents" - this is just a made-up stat.

    9.  "Studies have shown..." - evidence asserted without proof can be dismissed out-of-hand. What studies show this?

    This whole explanation seem biased, disingenuous and manipulative. It's soap marketing with a healthy dash of competitor bashing and fear mongering.    
  • I am well aware that individual studies don't prove anything, but I once spent a month using nothing but cold process soap in the shower and then a month using nothing but a synthetic body shampoo that I designed, and I could find absolutely zero difference in skin condition. Both worked just fine. I wonder if there are any studies as to this, in large numbers of people?
    Cosmetic Brand Creation. Concept to name to IMPI search to logo and brand registration. In-house graphic design inc. Pantone specs. Cosmetic label and box design & graphics.
  • They claim all that BS
    because they won't say:

    "We don't know how, and it seems to be impossible to make soap acidic enough to be gentle to the skin, without it decomposing back to the free fatty acids, so we hope you believe all this pH 10 is good for you BS"

    Is that cold process soap?
    Because hot process soap can achieve pH 9, and the harshness difference is clearly noticeable.
  • MarkBroussardMarkBroussard Member, Professional Chemist
    I would not call "pH balanced" a marketing hoax.  As the skin typically has a native pH of 4.8 to 5.2, pH balanced means exactly that ... the product is formulated to have a pH within the range of the skin's natural pH.  Where's the "hoax" in that?

    The skin recovers much more quickly from an acidic disruption of the acid mantle barrier than from an alkaline disruption.  That's a simple fact.

    Many people simply don't like the squeeky clean stripped feeling of natural soaps.

    I find it amusing that a company is bashing marketing claims of competitive products with a document in which they are likewise making marketing claims.
    Chemist/Microbiologist formulating in the Organic & Naturals arena under ECOCert/Natural Products Assn/Whole Foods/National Organic Program guidelines focused skincare & haircare products. 

    See website for details www.desertinbloomcosmeticslab.com
  • SibechSibech Member, Professional Chemist
    - The claim leftover alkali in soap increases lather in pH balanced soap is pure nonsense, as this would increase the pH, not reduce it.

    - Going with the "natural" vibe I doubt they use chelators in their "natural" soap. Which means that people with heavy water may have some residual soap scum leftover on the skin (or in your towel) and certainly in the shower and drain.

    @Perry I would actually qualify "this is the greatest product in the world" as a measurable quantity requiring a little elaboration (in sales numbers or worldwide statistics for instance, unlikely, impractical but strictly speaking doable). Although personally, I would read that as hyperbole.

    I would argue that something along the lines like "This perfume gives you wings" or "Nourishes the soul" is more puffery as they are literally impossible.

    Dabbling Formulator — Qualified Cosmetic Safety Assessor — experienced in claim substantiation & EU regulatory affairs.
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    @Sibech - Interestingly, the "gives you wings" probably isn't a great example. Red bull was recently sued and found guilty of making that exact claim without proof. https://www.nbcnews.com/business/consumer/red-bull-drinkers-can-claim-10-over-gives-you-wings-n221901

    But the "greatest product in the world" is considered puffery by the FTC.  https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/games/off-site/youarehere/pages/pdf/FTC-Ad-Marketing_Looks-Good.pdf  "Greatest" means something different to everyone so it's considered puffery. If you said something like "best selling" then that's a quantifiable claim which would require proof.

    @MarkBroussard - yes, calling it a hoax is too strong. I would say that the importance of it as a distinguishing marketing characteristic is overblown. Practically all standard cleansers would be "pH balanced."

  • SibechSibech Member, Professional Chemist
    @Perry You are completely right they used that claim, I believe they settled the case and didn't (strictly speaking) lose the case.
    If memory serves me right it wasn't a lawsuit about the figurative "gives you wings" but actually the underlying claims of improving concentration etc. that was disputed.

    I'm glad that the FTC considers "The best" and similar claims hyperbole or "puff", although even if they didn't it could likely be circumvented by adding "Probably" before the statement.
    Dabbling Formulator — Qualified Cosmetic Safety Assessor — experienced in claim substantiation & EU regulatory affairs.
  • Which means that people with heavy water may have some residual soap scum leftover
    And likely to experience a home invasion from people in CBW suits looking for the nuclear reactor!
    Cosmetic Brand Creation. Concept to name to IMPI search to logo and brand registration. In-house graphic design inc. Pantone specs. Cosmetic label and box design & graphics.
  • We make soap, so I guess my opinions will be dismissed. Anyway, my tuppence worth.

    (1) I'm old scientist guy (pushing my 70's) and in my time there was credible published research supporting the typers of claims made by Vermont Soap. This research is old, and has not been digitalised, so you will not find it on scientific literature databases. (wow, that now totally discredits me)

    (2) You may be surprised at the pH of many commercial soaps as shown in this extract below. We make cold process soap and they are usually around pH 9.5.

    (3) Old science: (i) a higher pH with soap facilitates the cleaning process (you know, one end attracts water, the other end dirt), (ii) the mantle regains its normal pH fairly quickly, and (iii) no long-term affects of high pH soap with normal skin. I have seen recent published research covering (ii) and (iii).

    (4) The higher pH does not require preservatives to be used, see ISO 29621 Low microbial risk cosmetics

    (5) So where does that leave me? We produce cold process soap for our own brand and other brands, and it sells well. These products have large long-established customer bases. The demand is there, so we keep producing.

    Dr. Mike Thair
    Cofounder & Chief Formulator
    Indochine Natural
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    @mikethair - I can understand your defensiveness but I think you may have misunderstood some of the comments here or at least mine. The fact that you sell soap doesn't automatically negate your opinion as I suggest above about the Vermont soap company. 

    I don't think there is anything wrong with soap. There is clearly a market for it. People like it, it's been around for centuries and it works for cleaning skin. 

    My objections are all about their unfounded claims & lack of support. They also have a heavy dose of unfairly bashing their competitors which I find objectionable.  
  • You guys are awesome! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, this was a very informative discussion for me.
  • SibechSibech Member, Professional Chemist
    edited October 2018
    @Belassi Yes, I mean heavy, D2O indeed... Not hard water with high levels of calcium and magnesium (Woops).

    @mikethair while it may not have been digitalised, it is probably still accessible and I, for one, would love some references to look up (any excuse to go the nearest university library is valid in my opinions) if you happen to have them at hand.
    Dabbling Formulator — Qualified Cosmetic Safety Assessor — experienced in claim substantiation & EU regulatory affairs.
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