The pH Scale

Demonstrate familiarity with the pH scale

In this outcome we’ll learn about the pH scale and the importance of acids and bases.

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the characteristics of acids
  • Identify the characteristics of bases
  • Define “buffers” and discuss the role they play in human biology

Acids and Bases

The pH of a solution indicates its acidity or alkalinity.


Litmus or pH paper is filter paper that has been treated with a natural water-soluble dye so it can be used as a pH indicator, to test how much acid (acidity) or base (alkalinity) exists in a solution. You might have even used some to test whether the water in a swimming pool is properly treated. In both cases, the pH test measures the concentration of hydrogen ions in a given solution.

Hydrogen ions are spontaneously generated in pure water by the dissociation (ionization) of a small percentage of water molecules into equal numbers of hydrogen (H+) ions and hydroxide (OH) ions. While the hydroxide ions are kept in solution by their hydrogen bonding with other water molecules, the hydrogen ions, consisting of naked protons, are immediately attracted to un-ionized water molecules, forming hydronium ions (H3O+). Still, by convention, scientists refer to hydrogen ions and their concentration as if they were free in this state in liquid water.

The concentration of hydrogen ions dissociating from pure water is 1 × 10–7 moles H+ ions per liter of water. Moles (mol) are a way to express the amount of a substance (which can be atoms, molecules, ions, etc), with one mole being equal to 6.02 x 1023 particles of the substance. Therefore, 1 mole of water is equal to 6.02 x 1023 water molecules. The pH is calculated as the negative of the base 10 logarithm of this concentration. The log10 of 1 × 10–7 is –7.0, and the negative of this number (indicated by the “p” of “pH”) yields a pH of 7.0, which is also known as neutral pH. The pH inside of human cells and blood are examples of two areas of the body where near-neutral pH is maintained.

Non-neutral pH readings result from dissolving acids or bases in water. Using the negative logarithm to generate positive integers, high concentrations of hydrogen ions yield a low pH number, whereas low levels of hydrogen ions result in a high pH. An acid is a substance that increases the concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) in a solution, usually by having one of its hydrogen atoms dissociate. A base provides either hydroxide ions (OH) or other negatively charged ions that combine with hydrogen ions, reducing their concentration in the solution and thereby raising the pH. In cases where the base releases hydroxide ions, these ions bind to free hydrogen ions, generating new water molecules.

The pH scale, which ranges from zero to 14, sits next to a bar with the colors of the rainbow. The pH of common substances are given. These include gastric acid with a pH around one, lemon juice with a pH around two, orange juice with a pH around three, tomato juice with a pH around four, black coffee with a pH around five, urine with a pH around six, distilled water with a pH around seven, sea water with a pH around eight, baking soda with a pH around nine, milk of magnesia with a pH around ten, ammonia solution with a pH around 11, soapy water with a pH around 12, and bleach with a pH around 13.

Figure 1. The pH scale measures the concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) in a solution.

The stronger the acid, the more readily it donates H+. For example, hydrochloric acid (HCl) completely dissociates into hydrogen and chloride ions and is highly acidic, whereas the acids in tomato juice or vinegar do not completely dissociate and are considered weak acids.

Conversely, strong bases are those substances that readily donate OH or take up hydrogen ions. Sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and many household cleaners are highly alkaline and give up OH rapidly when placed in water, thereby raising the pH. An example of a weak basic solution is seawater, which has a pH near 8.0, close enough to neutral pH that marine organisms adapted to this saline environment are able to thrive in it.

The pH scale is, as previously mentioned, an inverse logarithm and ranges from 0 to 14 (Figure 1). Anything below 7.0 (ranging from 0.0 to 6.9) is acidic, and anything above 7.0 (from 7.1 to 14.0) is alkaline. Extremes in pH in either direction from 7.0 are usually considered inhospitable to life. The pH inside cells (6.8) and the pH in the blood (7.4) are both very close to neutral.

However, the environment in the stomach is highly acidic, with a pH of 1 to 2. So how do the cells of the stomach survive in such an acidic environment? How do they homeostatically maintain the near neutral pH inside them? The answer is that they cannot do it and are constantly dying. New stomach cells are constantly produced to replace dead ones, which are digested by the stomach acids. It is estimated that the lining of the human stomach is completely replaced every seven to ten days.

Watch this video for a straightforward explanation of pH and its logarithmic scale.


So how can organisms whose bodies require a near-neutral pH ingest acidic and basic substances (a human drinking orange juice, for example) and survive? Buffers are the key. Buffers readily absorb excess H+ or OH, keeping the pH of the body carefully maintained in the narrow range required for survival. Maintaining a constant blood pH is critical to a person’s well-being. The buffer maintaining the pH of human blood involves carbonic acid (H2CO3), bicarbonate ion (HCO3), and carbon dioxide (CO2). When bicarbonate ions combine with free hydrogen ions and become carbonic acid, hydrogen ions are removed, moderating pH changes. Similarly, as shown in Figure 2, excess carbonic acid can be converted to carbon dioxide gas and exhaled through the lungs. This prevents too many free hydrogen ions from building up in the blood and dangerously reducing the blood’s pH. Likewise, if too much OH is introduced into the system, carbonic acid will combine with it to create bicarbonate, lowering the pH. Without this buffer system, the body’s pH would fluctuate enough to put survival in jeopardy.

An H2O molecule can combine with a CO2 molecule to form H2CO3, or carbonic acid. A proton may dissociate from H2CO3, forming bicarbonate, or HCO3-, in the process. The reaction is reversible so that if acid is added protons combined with bicarbonate to form carbonic acid.

Figure 2. This diagram shows the body’s buffering of blood pH levels. The blue arrows show the process of raising pH as more CO2 is made. The purple arrows indicate the reverse process: the lowering of pH as more bicarbonate is created.

Other examples of buffers are antacids used to combat excess stomach acid. Many of these over-the-counter medications work in the same way as blood buffers, usually with at least one ion capable of absorbing hydrogen and moderating pH, bringing relief to those that suffer “heartburn” after eating. The unique properties of water that contribute to this capacity to balance pH—as well as water’s other characteristics—are essential to sustaining life on Earth.

In Summary: Buffers

The pH scale is a measure of acidity/alkalinity and provides information about how substances tend to act in aqueous solutions. All living processes occur in an ideal pH range. Buffers act together to keep the pH within a certain range, based off the release or absorption of hydrogen ions.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.