Here's Why Apple Cider Vinegar Is Great For Skin - But Use With Caution!
We’re told we should drink it for gut health or—diet culture alert—weight loss. We're also told that apple cider vinegar can lighten dark spots, remove acne scars, and rebalance the pH of both our skin and hair.
But do these claims hold up? Should you start making a delicious salad dressing on your skin? Let’s dig in.
What is apple cider vinegar and how is it made?
First off, the basics. Apple cider vinegar is exactly what it sounds like: a vinegar made from apples.
The bulk of apple cider vinegar is water, which comes from both the juiced apples and from the addition of liquid during the process of converting apple juice into apple cider vinegar. Similar to the cider- or beer-making process, small amounts of both yeast and bacteria are added to the raw juice to kick start fermentation. The yeast breaks down the sugars in the juice to create alcohol. From there, apple cider vinegar is fermented a second time to transform it into vinegar.
After reading all that, it might surprise skincare beginners to learn that it’s become a popular tool in the beauty toolbox.
What is the apple cider vinegar phenomenon?
Apple cider vinegar has been around for literally thousands of years and started gaining popularity with health food circles in the 1950s. By the early 2010s, beauty experts everywhere shouted “no ‘poo’” to anyone who would listen.
The promise then was that apple cider vinegar would let us stop shampooing and give us gleaming, but not oily, strands. And, for those who could handle the funky smell, the home remedy actually worked to add shine and remove dandruff!
On the heels of this success, it wasn’t long before social media boosted the profile of apple cider vinegar and, along with blogs, YouTubers, and celebrity fans, popularized a cute nickname: ACV. Demand has continued to rise alongside the list of things apple cider vinegar could cure.
Yet for all its popularity, apple cider vinegar is not super well studied and it’s hard to back up a lot of these claims.
That said, when scientists have dug in, they’ve discovered that ACV does have benefits… it just might not be a wonder food after all. Experts agree that apple cider vinegar is relatively safe for topical use on skin as long as it’s diluted and can be used as a clean beauty product. Yay!
What are its uses and benefits?
Acetic acid, the main component of apple cider vinegar, has been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria, which is why it’s been a popular natural preservative for centuries. It is for this reason that many believe ACV can help kill off the bacteria that causes acne.
Because apple cider vinegar contains small amounts of citric and malic acid, it can be used similarly to other naturally occurring alpha hydroxy acids. These acids work as exfoliants, clearing off dead skin to improve wrinkles and make skin softer. Different kinds of vinegar contain different amounts of these other acids, so the effects will vary by manufacturer as well as skin type.
Since it takes skin five to six weeks or so to fully shed old, dead skin cells and allow new cells to come to the surface of the epidermis, it will take two months or more to see the full benefit of any alpha hydroxy acid product. Still, many swear by ACV as a cheap, natural chemical peel to treat acne scars and dark spots.
Another easy way to use apple cider vinegar in skincare is as a diluted toner. Because toners prepare the skin to suck up moisture, it’s imperative to follow any toning session with a good moisturizer (we recommend sticking to clean beauty products).
Using apple cider vinegar on hair vs. skin
Skin naturally tends to hover around a pH of 5, about the same as a cup of black coffee. Oily skin reacts to the more acidic pH of sebum while dry skin is more alkaline. Toxic chemicals in makeup, the heavy-duty cleansers in many products, and pollution can all wreak havoc on the skin’s ability to maintain a balanced pH. It’s this desire for balance that makes the toning properties of apple cider vinegar attractive. Plus, bacteria tend to thrive in more alkaline environments.
The scalp also tends to have a slightly more acidic pH and natural oils in hair are often stripped by shampoos and other hair care products. The acid in ACV can act as a toner for the scalp as well, and works well (again mixed with water) for many who are struggling with dandruff.
What are the safety concerns, if any?
Fortunately, apple cider vinegar is pretty safe, but there are a few things to keep in mind when using it cosmetically.
Apple cider vinegar is an acid, so make sure to dilute it with water any time you use it on your skin. (And for those of you doing morning shots of ACV, think about mixing in 2 tablespoons of water to give the enamel on your teeth a break).
Using undiluted apple cider vinegar can cause chemical burns if you’re too heavy handed. Regardless of your skin type, testing on a small section of skin—like a portion of your jawline or right under the chin—is always a good idea before more widespread application. And, after using, don’t forget to moisturize and stick to clean skincare products to reduce further drying.
Don’t use apple cider vinegar if you have a tendency to pick at pimples or blackheads because you could literally be putting acid into an open wound. You should also keep it away from your eyes, because, again, acid. And, if you’re already using other alpha hydroxy acids or retinoids (e.g. vitamin A serum), start out light before piling on too much of another acid like ACV.
Apple cider vinegar is also a popular home remedy for sunburn thanks to its antiseptic qualities. But the acid can end up irritating inflamed or swollen skin, leading to more ouch. If you’re dealing with a sunburn, avoid potentially burning the skin even more by sticking to a cooling remedy, like aloe.
When used in small, appropriate doses and diluted with water, apple cider vinegar works well for many applications. Limiting ACV as a skincare routine to a few times a week will ensure you’re not over exfoliating the skin or disrupting the skin’s naturally occuring microbiome.
Leah M. Charney is sassy yet classy and is always seeking a beauty routine to match. She delights in both the science and aesthetics of the clean beauty movement.
Antimicrobial activity of apple cider vinegar against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans; downregulating cytokine and microbial protein expression | National Library of Medicine