Why You Absolutely Should Not Use Baking Soda as an Exfoliator

Stop putting baking soda on your skin. Let me repeat that: Stop putting baking soda on your skin. Baking soda exfoliation is a total favorite of the home remedy set. I’ve seen it in a ton of places, including this article on what Emma Stone uses on her skin, and every time, it makes me cringe a little. Baking soda isn’t just ineffective, it’s actually damaging to your skin. Don’t believe me? Read below and see the science.

Baking Soda + Water is ALKALINE

Let’s start with a little chemistry lesson. Forgive me, chemistry buffs, since this will be information you already know. We’ll start with the Brønsted-Lowry concept, which says that acids are proton donators that are able to give a proton (the hydrogen cation or H+), and bases are proton acceptors that are able to receive a proton (H+). Bases neutralize acids by bonding with the acid’s hydrogen ion (General, Organic, and Biochemistry).

But, like it or not, the world is not a simple, black-and-white place of acids and bases. Thrown in there are also amphoteric molecules (ions). “Amphoteric” means that a substance has the ability to react with both acids and bases. And some of these amphoteric substances are also amphiprotic, which means they can donate and accept a hydrogen ion. Baking soda’s chemical name is sodium bicarbonate, and bicarbonate is an amphiprotic ion, so it can both take and lose a hydrogen ion. So, this means that baking soda reacts with acids and bases by either donating or accepting a hydrogen ion. But bicarbonate is a stronger base than it is an acid, so it’s more likely to accept a hydrogen.

When you’re making baking soda exfoliator, however, you’re mixing it with water, so the question is what’s the final pH of bicarbonate (HCO3-) and water (H2O). Here’s the chemical formula:

HCO3- + H2O → H2CO3 + OH-

See what happens there? Because it’s a stronger base, it tends to create HO-, rather than H3O+. What this means is that when you dissolve sodium bicarbonate in water, the solution tends to be more alkaline.

See That It’s Alkaline for Yourself

To really prove this, I decided to test it out and mix baking soda with water and test the pH to show you.

When we mixed baking soda and water (more than you’d use for a scrub) and tested it, the pH was about 8.

So Why Is Something Alkaline Bad for Skin?

The pH of the products you use is super important for maintaining healthy skin. Here’s how the pH scale works: It runs from 0-14 with 7 meaning neutral. Anything above 7 is considered alkaline, or a base, and anything below 7 is considered an acid. The skin naturally falls somewhere around 4.5 to 6.5, and is maintained by sebaceous glands, sweat glands, and normal skin flora, among others. This skin acidity is called the “acid mantle” (Exogenus Dermatology).

When you apply a product with a high pH, aka something alkaline, negatively disrupts the skin barrier. A study on skin products found that using an alkaline cleanser, even once, can do damage to the skin (Dermatology). An alkaline cleanser disrupts the skin’s acid mantle (affecting the skin barrier), and changes the bacterial flora composition on the skin and the activity of the enzymes in the upper layers of skin, as these have an optimal pH level. And the damage is cumulative: The longer you use it, the more damage it does to your skin.

So, with baking soda and water, you’re already disrupting the acid mantle, but you’re also manually exfoliating, making it even more damaging and drying.

Because of this, you want mildly acidic products, which help the skin hold moisture and also improve the skin barrier. But it’s important that they’re mildly acidic, as you can, in fact, go too low. If you go too low with products, you risk skin irritation, sun sensitivity, and hyperpigmentation (International Journal of Cosmetic Science). That’s why we don’t recommend that you use straight lemon juice on your skin, for example.

Verdict: Trick

Skip the baking soda skin exfoliating and stick to something gentler with a lower pH. This is why I highly recommend sticking to professionally formulated products for your beauty routine. It’s not that I don’t love a good home remedy, but I think it’s easy to become misinformed and misuse products like baking soda in ways that does more harm than good. 

by Natalie Bell

4 thoughts on “Why You Absolutely Should Not Use Baking Soda as an Exfoliator

  1. Jenna R. says:

    I use baking soda as an exfoliator and my skin looks better then ever. I also use unrefined coconut oil. Do you think the coconut oil helps to reverse whatever damage the BS does? I’ve seen a range of pHs from 5 to 7.5 for unrefined coconut oil, so not sure about that.

  2. confused says:

    Ive been doing a lot of research on this and I’m now frustrated and confused on this issue. There seems to be two camps of people one half that for whatever reason is in favor of processed and chemical products and has an obvious bias against natural/diy recipes. The other half are also just as ignorant as the former and grab onto this with no research or because at first glance its natural and leave it at that. I am not satisfied with either side. This article seems to be the most coherent but it still doesnt address one thing in my mind. Why wouldn’t you use baking soda as an exfoliant but make sure you follow up with an acid restoration. the same premise as with the “no poo” method. no one under that method only washes with baking soda its imperative to follow up with an acid rinse. quality ingredients aside i dont see this addressed ANYWHERE. all i see is DONT DO IT ITS ALKALiNE, but so? with chemical peels or manual exfiolation it is intentional and controlled injury to get a certain result. even if used sparingly why wouldn’t one be able to use baking soda follower by a diluted acid?? thanks

    • Heh says:

      You shouldn’t use baking soda and then follow up with acid because the damage is already done. What you’re suggesting is akin to cutting yourself, and then thinking because you put a bandaid on it the cut will immediately heal itself and disappear. That’s not how it works.

      Using baking soda plus an acid is just damaging your skin, and then applying a “bandaid” but still having to wait for it to heal. If you are doing this too frequently, it probably never fully heals and at some point down the road you end up with dry, irritated skin. Instead you could just use a Ph balanced chemical exfoliator that doesn’t damage your skin in the first place, and does a better job of exfoliating.

  3. Jen says:

    I just used a baking soda and water mixture to make a paste for spot treatment. I left it on for 15 minutes and washed off. I’m a bit confused because I saw so many positive reviews on it, and now after I use it, I find a negative. :( What exactly will using it once do?

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