There is beauty in balance. The skin, like everything else, requires the synergy of multiple elements to look its best and be its healthiest. The classic Chinese symbolism of Yin and Yang illustrates this universal principle perfectly, even as we use it as our lens here to look specifically at skincare.
When we think of skin health, one of the things often mentioned is pH balance. The abbreviation stands for ‘potential Hydrogen’, which is a chemist’s way of measuring the relative acidity or alkalinity of a substance. Like the harmony of Yin and Yang, a balanced pH results from the constant interplay between acidity and alkalinity (or base) in the system. Also as with Yin and Yang, well-being depends upon this delicate balance.
The scale of pH measurement is conceived as a continuum, running from the numbers 0 to 14, with absolute neutrality (meaning neither acid nor alkaline but perfectly balanced) expressed by the number 7, exactly in the middle. The numbers below 7 show progressively more acidity - with 0 being pure acid - while the numbers above define progressively more alkalinity, pure alkaline being represented in the number 14.
While the human body maintains a slightly alkaline pH of 7.4, the skin has its own ideal pH of 5.5, which is on the acidic side thanks to the protective acid mantle it cultivates. Too much deviation from this and problems quickly show up.
In looking at how this applies to skin care, it is helpful to understand Yin and Yang in terms of some of their individual aspects. Here is a basic chart containing some of the more pertinent ones of each:
Although it is not in the traditional understanding of Chinese theory – biochemistry being a much more modern science – I associate Yin with the alkaline principle, and Yang with the acidic. Because they are relative, the need to maintain a dynamic balance between the two is the same.
The health of the skin tissue requires harmony of Yin and Yang: both calm and movement, softness and tone, moisture and draining, acid and base. Too much or too little of one or the other, and it is out of balance, troubled, and in need of help.
How to increase Yin (moisture, softness, cooling, calming, nourishing)
The Yin of the body, and thus the skin, naturally decreases as we age. Yin is the root – or base - of brightness and life, while Yang it its expression. So a decrease in Yin is a decrease of deepest reserves. These can and should be replenished, and ideally their loss guarded against in the first place by good preventative skin care.
Skin that has lost too much Yin loses the qualities of Yin: its moistness, softness, and evenness. Because there is not enough Yin to balance out the Yang, it winds up tending towards a dry, thin rough and/or red appearance – qualities of unbalanced Yang.
Increasing Yin usually involves adding hydration and nutrients to the skin. Highly emollient formulas and those with high levels of deep nutrients such as oils are the key to this.
Skin which expresses its overbalance of Yang as redness or heat requires cooling substances such as cold water, energetically cool therapeutics (such as cucumber and green tea), and skincare preparations that have been kept chilled.
How to increase Yang (tone, movement, life, brightness)
Yang is the Brightness principle, the life of the face and body. It is kinetic, and thought to carry with it the blood flow and nutrients which nourish the skin. The Yin moisture and softness which is so desirable in skin health becomes stagnant, puffy and oily without the Yang to circulate it and keep it fresh. Skin without enough Yang appears tired and lacks tone and ‘life’.
Yang’s value in skin beauty can be summed up as its association with skin defense and improving circulation. It can be increased in the skin with protective, active, ‘moving’ formulations and techniques. Exfoliation is a very Yang activity – it actively removes surface debris and increases circulation. Extractions - the removal of debris from the pores - is the same, and for the same reasons (plus, the debris inside the pore is Yin, the unwanted kind). Astringent herbals that tighten skin and reduce puffiness are Yang in nature, as is the protective action of anti-oxidants and UV-defenders. Facial massage and exercises, by their active nature, increase the Yang, as do herbs with moving, draining properities.
How to maintain Yin (base):
Because Yin is protected by the Yang of the skin, it can be lost when the acid mantle (the Yang) is stripped or compromised. Hydration can evaporate, redness ( a sign of heat) and roughness can develop. Angry, aggressive breakouts and rashes are associated with a skin pH that is too acidic (below 5.0 or so). Yin, by its very nature of relating to the internal, is about inner abundance and nourishment. So, it is most easily depleted from the inside, by bad or unhealthy habits, stress and lack of sleep. That is why it diminishes with age, and why the skin shows this in lines and wrinkles: the Yin is no longer there to plump them out.
Lifestyle changes are the best defense against loss of Yin in the body and the skin. Because calm, quiet and passivity are Yin attributes, a regular meditation practice is probably the surest way to replenish it. Sleep is Yin-nourishing as well; adequate sleep is incredibly important for complete self-care, including skin care.
How to maintain Yang (acid):
The protective barrier of your skin is known as the acid mantle. It maintains the skin’s integrity by defending it from environmental damage, toxins and germs, which are generally more alkaline in nature and so are neutralized when they encounter this layer of acid. At the same time it seals in moisture and lipids. Anything that introduces too much alkalinity will interfere with its function. The main culprits here are harsh soaps. Only pH balanced cleansers made especially for the face should ever be used. Alcohol and alcohol-based toners can also be very alkaline. As oily skin does tend to be more acidic, it makes sense to balance that with some alkalinity, but many oily skin products are very harsh. A good approach is to use a creamy pH balanced cleanser, then finish with a mild low-or non-alcohol containing toner with witch hazel.
How to remove excess Yin (edema, oiliness):
Removing Yin where there is too much translates into removing puffiness and oil. Aside from dietary considerations which can affect these things, the Chinese principles of 'moving' and draining are the actions which which will help rid the skin of excess Yin. Herbs such as ginger and coix seed are good at moving and draining, and are appropriate topicals for skin when they are balanced by other medicinals to tone down their warming effects. Astringent toners accomplish this too, but must be balanced in terms of pH in order to avoid problems there. A note: You know you have an excess of Yin rather than a deficiency of Yang by how lifeless the skin appears. If it is puffy and congested with a vibrance undearneath, the problem is excess Yin. If it has a lifeless look and lacks tone as well, deficient Yang may well be the root cause of your skin problems. where dryness and redness tend to be the result of excess Yang
How to remove excess Yang (heat, dryness):
Excess Yang can be superficial or can result from deeper imbalances in the body. Dryness, tough texture rashes and redness tend to be the result of excess Yang (as opposed to deficient Yin which shows up as fine or deep lines and thinning easily damaged skin). Again drinking enough fluids and paying attention to nutrition is very helpful here. A complexion with a preponderance of Yang almost has what could be thought of as 'too much' life - ie, it is too active, and in a chaotic, disharmonious way. The solution here is to harmonize it and bring it under calm control. Too much Yang is best addressed by balancing it with Yin - calming, moisturizing things - ,as well as with the Chinese principle of 'clearing heat' which translates to treating the germs and bacteria that cause infections associated with acne and many other skin conditions. Many Chinese medicinals have this as their primary function and are very effective. For severe problems this can be done with prescription antibiotics. Acne with clogged pores is a combination of Yin and Yang, interacting disharmoniously: the redness and inflammation is Yang, while the debris clogging the pore is Yin. Both must be addressed to rebalance the complexion.
Healthiest skin has a deep, clear, balanced glow that is the result of ideal harmony. It has the liveliness and radiance of Yang diffused by the calm hydration of Yin, like moving light shining up through calm water.