Understanding pH Levels in Chemical Peels

When buying a chemical peel, understanding pH is very important! If a product does not state the pH level, and no one can tell me what it is, I wouldn’t buy it since I won’t know if it’s going to meet my needs.

Shopping for Chemical Peels

I have to decide the purpose for my peel:

1. If I want a medium or deep peel, which causes obvious peeling of the skin and induces collagen production more quickly, I shop for chemical peel agents with a pH level between .05 - 1.0.

2. If I want a lighter peel to deal with hyperpigmentation, acne, sun damage, spots, fine lines, or moisture retention, which will not necessarily cause detectible peeling, I shop for a higher pH level product, something I can use more often, with a pH level above 1.5 or 2.

Higher pH level chemical peels are effective at inducing collagen synthesis--it just takes longer. If my skin is sensitive, I may also want a higher pH product, which is effective, but it may not irritate my skin as much or cause apparent tissue damage.

Remember, peeling the outer layers of skin is not the real purpose of a medium or deep peel, although it does kick-start the body's healing process faster.

pH Scale

The pH scale measures the acid or alkaline level of chemical peels (and any other substance that is measurable), and it ranges from 0 to 14. As a reference, here are the pH levels of some common substances:

pH Levels

pH is a simply a method of measuring the acidity or alkalinity of measurable substances. When the skin's proteins react with an acid of low pH, the acidic environment destroys the existing tissues, and the body's repair system works to replace the destroyed tissue with new structures. The lower the pH, the stronger the chemical peel.

Don't confuse pH with acid percentage; this is completely different. pH levels in products purchased can be altered--up or down; this is called buffering, but when the percentage is changed, we easily understand what that means: how much of the entire product is actually active vs. inert.

Testing pH Levels

To test my solutions, I use pH strips that measure 0.0 - 14.0 because they are more accurate (show pH level in increments of .02, which is good for testing products) than the pH strips that measure the body's pH level, which usually show pH levels between 4.0 - 8.0.

Anytime the natural pH level of an ingredient or product is altered, it’s called buffering. Buffering can either increase or decrease a pH level. Buffered and non-buffered products can carry the same percentage of an active ingredient, but the pH level is not in its original range.

When I dilute my 50% TCA with distilled water, I am lowering the percentage, not the pH since water is neutral. If I mix my 50% TCA with ammonium hydroxide (ammonia), lye, calcium carbonate, or another highly alkaline base, it will increase the pH and drastically reduce its strength, although the percentage of TCA may be the same as the one I mixed with water.

Let's take a different approach at understanding pH; for example, this 30% glycolic acid has a pH level of 2.1; it has been chemically altered to give it a higher pH level so that the inexperienced at-home user has a safer peel; interestingly, their 50% glycolic acid also has a pH of 2.1, which means that the percentage of acid to other ingredients is higher than in the 30% product—but not the pH. What do you think the outcome of using the first product would be compared to the second?

A leave-on product, such as this 15% Glycolic and Hyaluronic acid serum has a pH level of 3.4, which  allows me to keep this on my skin without feeling that constant stinging, while still benefiting from the acid, although it will take more applications over time to achieve the same results, but there's no down time!


  1. I didn't realize about the ph level - just thought percent was what I need to watch for. thanks!

  2. Hi, really nice article. I have been using 20%sa for a while. And decided to upgrade to 30%sa with a low ph that gives a good peeling. Can you pls recommend one?

  3. Savid, for my skin, this one works well, but SA doesn't really "peel" my skin; I use it to clear acne/unclog pores: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004YOXJTM/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=01140a-20
    I'm not sure if this will link; I'm replying from my phone. If it doesn't link, you should be able to copy/paste to a browser. Take care, ~Gabi