In the last 10 years, I’ve probably spent a quarter of all of my earnings on my hair. Between consistent cuts, changing colors, new products, tools, and about a thousand shampoos and conditioners, I’ve forked up a considerable amount of cash to keep my hair healthy and looking good. But I’ve recently discovered that my efforts have likely gone a little unnoticed because I was missing a crucial part: making sure my hair had a healthy pH balance.
“I’ve seen many adverse effects on my clients’ hair over the years from consistent lack of pH balance,” said Nina Lemtir, a previous salon owner and hair and wellness coach. If your hair is feeling just a bit “off,” pH might be to blame.
What is pH?
Taking it back to chemistry class, potential of hydrogen (what we know as “pH”) refers to the activity of hydrogen ions (molecules that carry a negative or positive charge) in a water-based solution. A pH is considered acidic if it’s anywhere between 0 and 6.9, while 7 is neutral and anything from 7.1 to 14 is considered alkaline. The scalp has a natural pH of 5.5, meaning it’s acidic. How does this impact your scalp? Well, our skin is mostly made of water, and the pH can change how our skin retains it, including the skin on our scalp.
Why is a pH-balanced scalp important?
“If you’re not using pH-balanced hair care, you’re likely doing unintentional damage to your hair and scalp,” said professional hairstylist Jill Turnbull. “When you use hair care that is not pH balanced, your hair becomes temporarily acidic or alkaline, depending on the pH level. This causes the cuticle to stay open and become more receptive to damage.”
This is impactful regardless of hair type, but it’s especially important in the natural hair community. To keep your curls moisturized and defined, your scalp naturally produces more oil than straight or wavy hair, making your pH even more acidic. Using a product with a pH of 7 or higher is prone to causing extra frizziness in your curls, scalp dryness, and irritation.
How do we keep our hair pH-balanced?
It’s normal for our hair’s pH balance to sway back and forth a bit due to water (which has a natural pH of 7), our environment, the sun, and more. When our hair is consistently put in an alkaline state thanks to our products, that’s when we experience dryness, irritation, flaking, itchiness, and more.
If you want more of a quick fix, trichologist (someone who studies and focuses on hair health and scalp) Shab Reslan suggested using apple cider vinegar alone. “If somebody wants another natural way to lower their hair’s pH, they could do an apple cider vinegar rinse using three tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and a bottle of water and rinsing their hair with that.”
On the other hand, making sure your regular hair care routine keeps your hair and scalp pH-balanced can reduce frizz, prevent breakage, keep hair looking and feeling moisturized, make your color last longer, and prevent your scalp from getting greasy.
Unless you pH-test all of your products yourself, the only way to know the pH of a product is if a brand provides it or by doing your research from those who have used it in the past. Don’t worry if you feel confused. Many brands still don’t include the pH of their products on their websites, but always check the FAQ for the brand, do your research, and feel free to reach out to the brand for that information if you’re unsure.
Products to Try
Shampoos and Rinses
Using a pH-balancing shampoo once a week can help bring your hair back and keep you from irritation in the future without having to overhaul your entire routine.
You can use this instead of shampoo to clean and clarify your hair without stripping it. Our editor's favorite way to use this is in between washes when you need a quick fix (like after a hard workout class) that's a little more than dousing your hair in copious amounts of dry shampoo.
If you have fine hair, dpHUE just launched a Lite ACV Rinse that is a little less moisturizing and won't weigh your hair down iIt's already a holy grail in our beauty editor's shower).
Pureology is one of those rare, unicorn brands that discloses the pH of its products, and every shampoo in their line has a pH of 5.3 (even below the recommended 5.5!). This shampoo is super moisturizing and soothing on the scalp (thanks to green tea and jojoba oil) but still ideal for fine hair types.
Leave-Ins and Treatments
If you want to add a few other pH-balanced products to your routine, focus on products that stay in your hair, like leave-ins, or low pH treatments that get a long time on your hair (like a mask).
The classic Olaplex No. 3 has a low pH, which is one of the ways it's able to actually repair your hair's damage over time instead of just masking it by making the hair appear more moisturized. Those with extremely damaged hair from relaxers and bleaching swear by Olaplex for bringing their hair back to life.
This scalp serum protects your hair against all those environmental factors (like water, pollution, the sun) and life factors (heat damage, chemical relaxers, coloring your hair) from damage from being in an alkaline pH.