Some acne solutions, like baking soda for pimples, have been around so long that we accept them as common knowledge, but this isn’t usually the case. Because they’ve been around forever, we tend to trust them more, but this is actually the reason many of these treatments don’t work. They attempt to treat acne while operating under outdated information about acne. For instance, 20 years ago, we didn’t know that acne is primarily an inflammatory condition—instead, most dermatologists blamed bacteria or oil production. Although these are also key factors to acne formation, they are not the root of it all, so treatments that revolve around reducing bacteria or curbing oil production but don’t address inflammation are much less likely to work. Older remedies rarely took inflammation into account, which is why they are usually less likely to work, not more. This line of reasoning also applies to the idea that baking soda is good for acne: it may work for a few people, but in general, there are many other treatments that will be much more effective.
Myth or Fact: A baking soda acne scrub can gently exfoliate skin and get rid of blackheads.
This is definitely a myth.
Anything with “scrub” in the title should not be described as gentle. Our skin is incredibly sensitive, and any kind of scrubbing is likely to irritate the skin. Before we realized that all acne starts with inflammation, skin irritation wasn’t considered such a big deal, but now we know that one of the best ways to prevent acne is to prevent irritation.
Irritation and Acne
Acne starts with inflammation, but bacteria and oil production also play major roles, and skin irritation aggravates two of those three factors. A wide variety of things can irritate your skin: picking at acne, scrubbing the skin, using harsh skin care products, even coming into contact with pollutants or bacteria in the air. When irritated by any of these things, the skin tries to protect itself in two ways.
First, it triggers the inflammation response. This is supposed to prevent the irritant from penetrating deeper into the skin or spreading to other areas of the skin. This inflammation can cause redness and slight swelling, but first and foremost, it causes the pores to constrict, which almost always leads to issues with acne.
The second way the skin defends itself from irritation is through oil production. Although oil can lead to acne, it is also an important aspect of our skin. A thin layer of oil provides a slight barrier between our skin and the world (and its many irritants). But when our skin is too dry, or something breaks through that protective layer, the skin releases an extra burst of oil. This is meant to add extra protection, but because the skin is also inflamed, this extra oil can easily get trapped in the pores instead.
When oil gets trapped in a pore, it typically causes blackheads if the pore is still slightly open, or whiteheads if the pore is completely closed. This is why the best acne treatment prevents irritation, and why baking soda acne scrubs are never a good idea.
The Problem with Baking Soda Acne Scrubs
The reason it’s a myth that baking soda acne scrubs can gently exfoliate the skin is because it is far too harsh. There’s nothing gentle about the word “scrub,” and most forms of scrubbing lead directly to increased acne. Adding baking soda to the mix only intensifies that effect. Baking soda is a harsh ingredient that works very well in cleaning teeth or pots and pans, things that are far less sensitive than the skin. Baking soda for pimples can exfoliate the skin, but it cannot do so gently, so it generally causes more problems than it solves.
There are some gentle exfoliating agents, like sulfur or salicylic acid, but even those are only gentle when used in very low concentrations. At Exposed Skin Care, we know that avoiding irritation is the most important step when creating a successful acne treatment product, so our Clarifying Mask contains just 3% sulfur, making it a truly gentle exfoliating product.
Myth or Fact: Baking soda balances the pH of the skin.
This is a fact! Unfortunately, it’s actually not that great for acne.
Some people recommend using baking soda for acne because it is a basic, or alkaline, substance, so it can prevent the skin from becoming too acidic. The problem with this is that the skin is actually supposed to be acidic, and when the skin becomes too neutral or alkaline, it becomes more susceptible to acne.
Understanding the pH Scale
Everything can be ranked somewhere on the pH scale, which is a measurement of a substance’s concentration of hydrogen ions. Basically, if a substance has a high concentration of hydrogen ions, it has a low pH, and if a substance has a low concentration, it has a high pH. The reason this matters is because pH indicates how acidic or alkaline a substance is.
On one end of the spectrum are the very acidic substances, like battery acid. These have a pH somewhere between 0 and 1. On the other end are the very alkali substances, like lye, which has a pH between 13 and 14. In the middle is water, which has a pH of 7 and is considered neutral. Everything has a natural pH, and when its pH is forced to shift, it typically has negative effects.
The pH of Baking Soda and the pH of Your Skin
One reason some people believe baking soda for acne is a good idea is because it has a pH between 8 and 9, making it mildly alkaline. When applied to the skin, it can keep the skin from being too acidic. At first, it seems to make sense—after all, acids are harsh, and we’re supposed to treat our skin gently, right?
Unfortunately, there’s a very important detail missing from this argument: the skin’s natural pH is between 4 and 5, making it moderately acidic, and this acidity isn’t a bad thing. Think about a lemon. The acidity of lemon juice doesn’t make the lemon bad, it’s what makes a lemon a lemon. Our skin is the same way. It’s just naturally acidic, and trying to change that can cause issues. Skin that is too alkaline is typically dry, sensitive, and may even develop eczema. So even though it’s true that baking soda can “balance” the pH of your skin, that does not mean baking soda for acne is a good idea.
In rare instances, the skin can become slightly too acidic, typically due to overuse of acidic skin care products, ironically. In these cases, it is typically much more effective to scale back on the use of acidic products than to apply an alkali like baking soda.
Myth or Fact: Baking soda strips away excess oil on the skin.
This is a fact, which is why some people with very oily skin see positive results from baking soda.
Although inflammation and bacteria play an important role in acne, many people see increased acne as a direct result of increased oil. This is especially common in teenagers, who are typically producing more oil due to hormone fluctuations. Excess oil can lead to all kinds of acne because it clogs pores and feeds bacteria, so any inflammation at all can set off a breakout. This is why we don’t recommend baking soda for acne when trying to get rid of excess oil.
How to Cut Down on Oil Production Safely
Some people with a very oily skin type may show some improvement when using baking soda for acne, but we believe there are better options. Although baking soda may work for some, it could also be causing irritation.
When baking soda is applied to the skin, it dries out some of the excess oil, which could clear up acne. But the baking soda may dry out too much oil, and remove that protective layer we discussed earlier. Without any protection, the skin is extra sensitive to any kind of irritation, and the dryness itself could be irritating. This means acne could return shortly after using baking soda, making it seem like it simply wore off and you need to apply more, when the reality is the opposite.
There are better options when it comes to reducing oil. Acne light therapy or salicylic acid can produce better, safer results.
Acne light therapy involves shining either a red or blue light directly on the skin for a short period of time in order to kill bacteria or reduce oil production. Blue light is more effective in killing bacteria, so if you’re looking to break up blackheads or curb oil production, red light will likely be more effective, although there are more and more options that combine both blue and red light.
Salicylic acid is a popular acne treatment ingredient because it has been proven to break up blackheads and whiteheads and exfoliate the skin without causing irritation. The trouble with many acne treatment products is that they try to cure acne instantly, which requires very high concentrations of acne-fighting ingredients. This leads to irritation and can actually perpetuate acne. At Exposed, we use responsible concentrations of salicylic acid (between 0.5% and 1%) in several of our products, such as our Facial Cleanser and our Clear Pore Serum.
Myth or Fact: Baking soda and apple cider vinegar makes a great DIY acne treatment.
Myth! Do not try this at home, kids!
If you’ve ever had a clogged sink or bathtub drain, you may have searched Google for some DIY answers so you could avoid buying expensive drain cleaner or hiring a plumber. One of the first solutions that pops up is baking soda and vinegar. As a general rule of thumb, if something is strong enough to cut through all the gunk caught in a sink pipe, it should not be used on your skin.
The best reason we can think of for why baking soda and apple cider vinegar ever became a possible acne solution is because of the acidity in apple cider vinegar. It could balance out the alkaline nature of baking soda so as not to disrupt your skin’s pH too much. But baking soda and apple cider vinegar are both incredibly harsh ingredients, especially when combined, and should not be used on your skin.
Myth or Fact: Using baking soda for acne can clear your skin in just 10 days.
You probably already know this is a myth. We recommend being skeptical of anything that promises clear skin in under a month.
This is a popular myth floating around the internet, and it may have gained traction because baking soda’s harshness can produce quick results in particularly oily skin. Dry skin will likely show no improvement at all from using baking soda for acne—in fact, those with dry skin may see a significant worsening of their acne in just 10 days. And any improvement garnered from baking soda is quickly overridden once the harshness starts to irritate the skin. There is a slight chance baking soda may improve your acne in 10 days, but it will almost definitely make it worse in 20.
Myth or Fact: Baking soda for acne stings slightly when applied, which means it’s working!
Many sources say that burning or stinging sensations mean that an acne treatment product is working, but we aren’t sure how this ever caught on. Burning and stinging are clear signals from your skin saying that it is being damaged. Damaged skin is definitely not healthy skin, which is bad enough, but damaged skin is also usually irritated skin. And now we know that irritated skin is acne-prone skin.