When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Is it a fresh, bright, and cheerful face smiling back at you? Or do your eyes immediately gravitate toward those somewhat not-so-favorable aspects of your visage?
You know what we’re talking about here. Those things like acne, fine lines, and uneven skin tone and discoloration. Any of that ring a bell?
If so, don’t worry. You’re not alone. These issues plague pretty much all of us, regardless of our age or our gender, and it can understandably be super discouraging to see them crop up on your own face.
We all know that true beauty comes from within and it’s what’s on the inside that really counts, but there’s also nothing wrong with wanting to look your very best. However, there’s no need to go to extremes to get there. So take a step back from the mirror, draw in a deep breath, and put that gorgeous smile of yours back on your face.
There are plenty of solutions for some of those minor imperfections that may be bugging you. And no, it doesn’t require going under the knife or burning your face off with harsh lasers. Instead, a little bit of gentle exfoliation can make a world of difference.
This exfoliant, an alpha hydroxy acid that goes by the name of “lactic acid,” is an absolute game changer in the beauty realm. Seriously, though. It’s going to completely transform the way you view beauty and self care – as well as how you see yourself, too.
What is Lactic Acid?
If you’re kinda familiar with root words, then you’ve probably gleaned by now that the word “lactic” is derived from the Latin word for milk. In other words, lactic acid comes from that tall glass of moo juice that you like to dip your grandma’s chocolate chip cookies into.
Of course, there are vegan alternatives, too. These are derived from stuff like beets, cornstarch, and other sugary plants. In turn, this makes this acid incredibly versatile for vegetarians, omnivores, and those of you who prefer plant-based milks over their bovine counterparts. (1)
But now that we’ve got that out of the way, the question still remains: what is lactic acid? And more importantly, what does lactic acid do for skin care, beauty, and all those other vexing issues we pointed out earlier?
In the most basic of terms, lactic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). AHAs are a kind of chemical exfoliant, which means that it gently sloughs off those outer layers of your epidermis. From there, it reveals that younger, healthier, more supple skin lurking just beneath it. (2)
Excited to learn more about these awesome benefits of lactic acid? Well, we’re pretty stoked to tell you all about them, as well as show you how and when to use lactic acid in a skincare routine. So, without further ado, let’s go ahead and dive deeper into how to start using lactic acid for skin benefits today!
Five Incredible Lactic Acid Benefits for Skin
It’s one thing to point out all of the amazing lactic acid benefits for skin care, and it’s another one entirely to let the science speak for itself. If you’ve been on the fence about introducing lactic acid in your beauty routine, why not consider these five compelling (if we do say so ourselves) benefits of using it?
Benefit #1: Lactic acid is a powerful (yet gentle!) exfoliant.
Since lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid, that means that it has the power to help remove old, dull, dead skin on the surface of your epidermis. However, unlike some other chemical exfoliants, this one has a larger molecular weight. (2)
This means that it’s much gentler on your skin. The reason for this is because it can’t penetrate as deeply as something like, say, glycolic acid, but it can go deeper than something like citric acid. The result is a nice balance between reliable exfoliation and something that can lead to more severe irritation. (3)
Benefit #2. If you’re looking for more hydrated skin, lactic acid can help.
Lactic acid has a fairly nifty chemical makeup that allows it to trap and hold a fairly high amount of water within its structure. This means that instead of stripping and drying your skin out, it can actually help impart more water into it. Less dehydrated skin equates to softer, more supple skin. (4)
Benefit #3. Lactic acid is great for boosting collagen synthesis.
As we get older, our bodies stop producing as much collagen as they used to. This can lead to increased skin laxity and more sagging. In turn, you’ll start to notice a somewhat “droopy” appearance on your face, as well as the presence of more fine lines and wrinkles. (5)
However, using lactic acid can help increase your body’s production of collagen. This collagen can help improve the tautness of your skin, leading to a more firmer, lifted appearance. Your fine lines will also start to fade, too, leading to an overall more youthful appearance. (6)
Benefit #4. You can soften the appearance of melasma with lactic acid, too.
Commonly called “liver spots,” melasma are those dark gray or brown blotches that can appear from seemingly nowhere on your face. Typically caused by either UV damage or pregnancy, they can be fairly unsightly and may start to take a toll on your self-esteem every time you look in the mirror. (7)
Using lactic acid, though, can help dramatically fade the appearance of those splotches on your face. You can either blast them to oblivion with a lactic acid peel, or you can slowly and gently fade them over time through the gradual use of a lower strength lactic acid treatment. (8)
Benefit #5. Lactic acid can treat a variety of skin conditions.
Last but not least, lactic acid is a great tool to have in your beauty kit if you suffer from certain skin conditions. It’s been found in a wide assortment of medications used for eczema (atopic dermatitis), rosacea, and keratosis pilaris (“chicken skin”), proving lasting and effective results from these conditions. (9, 10, & 11)
Possible Side Effects of Lactic Acid
There are so many incredible lactic acid benefits for skin health and beauty, making it a fantastic addition to any skincare regimen. However, just because it’s a self-care powerhouse doesn’t mean that you should just slather it on carelessly. There could be a few side effects of using it that you need to be aware of (2).
- Redness, irritation, and itchiness
- Possible acne breakout (if oily)
- Swelling and puffiness
- Mild to moderate skin peeling
- Sun sensitivity
- A burning sensation
One thing to keep in mind is that lactic acid does make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, especially in the beginning. When introducing lactic acid – or any AHA into your skincare routine – you want to be extra careful about using a high-SPF sunblock. (12)
The last thing you want to do is undo all of your progress and hard work by barraging your face with unnecessary UV damage. That’s a one-way ticket to photodamage, which can lead to even more fine lines, coarse skin, melasma, and even skin cancer. (13)
How to Choose a Product
When it comes to choosing the best lactic acid product for your skin, there’s a few things you’ll need to keep in mind. The big three are:
- How sensitive your skin is.
- What your long-term skincare goals are.
- And how much experience you have with it.
If you have really sensitive skin, it’s best to start with a lower-strength lactic acid (or reach for a mandelic acid serum, which is a bit more gentle). Concentrations can range as low as 0.5 percent in strength and up to 30 percent or higher. A lower strength can be great for daily use, whereas a higher one should be used more sparingly. (14)
That segues into our next important point, though. What exactly are your long-term skin goals, and how do you plan to achieve them? If you’re just looking for something like mild exfoliation, then a lower strength dose of lactic acid should do the trick.
Some of you, though, may want to try a chemical peel with your lactic acid. In the right hands, a chemical peel can be a great way to slough off that dull, dead skin to reveal the brighter, healthier layer beneath it.
Let us go ahead and warn you with a caveat on this, though. If you’re going to experiment with chemical peels, do your research, check with your derm or your esthetician beforehand, and have something alkaline (or “basic”) on hand to neutralize it once you’re ready to remove it. (15)
And finally, that brings up our last point. If you’re a total skincare novice or you’re just now starting to build up your skincare routine, it’s always better to start small and go slow with it. You can always add a higher concentration of lactic acid later on down the road.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is It Good to Use Lactic Acid on My Face?
Is it good to use lactic acid on your face? Friends, it’s not just good to use lactic acid on your face. It’s downright great to use it on your face.
In fact, don’t feel like you should stop there, either. Many people have used lactic acid on their bodies, too. Like we’ve already mentioned before, it’s incredible at clearing up a skin condition called keratosis pilaris, or that so-called “chicken skin” that some of us are prone to.
You can even use it on your legs and your armpits, too, if you’re prone to ingrown hairs after shaving. Of course, you don’t want to put it on your extra-sensitive parts, but pretty much everything else is fair game for usage. (16)
How Often Should I Use Lactic Acid on My Face?
When it comes to determining how often you should use lactic acid, the answer is that your mileage may vary. If you’re a total AHA newbie, we recommend starting with using it about twice a week or so, until your skin gets used to it.
Once you build up a bit more of a tolerance to it, feel free to up the ante and start using it every other night. If your skin isn’t too sensitive and it feels like it’s taking it without issue, then there’s no harm in using it every single night.
Of course, this is based entirely upon you and your unique skincare needs. If you start to notice signs of irritation or over-exfoliation, then just dial it back a little. Once the irritation subsides, then feel free to gradually start increasing your usage of it once more.
Does Lactic Acid Clear Skin?
If you’re prone to clogged pores, congestion, and hormonal breakouts, then you’ll definitely want to start incorporating lactic acid into your skincare routine- but for acne-prone skin you will want your lactic acid blended with an anti-bacterial acid like mandelic. Not only does it help give you smoother, more hydrated skin, but the combo exfoliation can also banish acne breakouts, too. (6)
Which Is Better, Lactic Acid or Salicylic Acid?
There’s no question about it. Lactic acid runs circles around salicylic acid. That’s not to say that salicylic acid (which is a type of beta hydroxy acid, or BHA) doesn’t have its time or place. But unlike lactic acid, salicylic acid isn’t as good of a multitasker. (6)
Sure, it’ll help get rid of acne breakouts and help exfoliate your skin, but its benefits kind of stop there. It’s also somewhat harsher, which means that you’ll be more likely to experience irritation, dry skin, erythema, and a few other unwelcome side effects when using it. (17)
On the other hand, lactic acid is a hard working little chemical agent, which means that you’ll get clear skin and all of those other amazing benefits from using it. When it comes down to it, we’d say it’s a no-brainer. Lactic acid all the way!
Which Is Better, Hyaluronic Acid or Lactic Acid?
This is sort of like comparing apples and oranges. Sure, when you hear “acid,” you may automatically think of exfoliants, but that’s not quite how hyaluronic acid works. It’s name is a bit of a misnomer, since it really doesn’t work in the same way that lactic acid does.
Unlike lactic acid, it’s not really an acid or an exfoliant. Instead, it’s a glycosaminoglycan, or a long-chain polysaccharide (“poly” meaning many and saccharide meaning “sugar”) that occurs naturally in the body. It’s good for moisturizing your skin, but that’s about it. (18)
Since lactic acid already moisturizes your skin and does all of those other fantastic things that we’ve extolled about, then we’d say that it’s the clear winner in this showdown. That doesn’t mean you can’t use hyaluronic acid, but rather, lactic acid is much better than its counterpart in this case.
Is There Anything I Should Not Pair Lactic Acid With?
For the most part, lactic acid is a team player and gets along swimmingly well with most other products in your skincare routine. That said, since it is a type of chemical exfoliant, you’ll want to avoid using stuff like retinoids or other types of exfoliants (like BHAs or other AHAs) in conjunction with it.
Because they’re both a type of chemical exfoliant, using them together can lead to excessive irritation and dryness. If you overdo it, it may wind up backfiring, leading to more problems than you started with. Other than that, though, feel free to bring lactic acid into your whole skincare party!
Is Lactic Acid Safe to Use While Pregnant?
Many types of chemical exfoliants are considered contraindicated in pregnancy and breastfeeding. For instance, Accutane (a seriously powerful vitamin A derivative) should never be used on expectant mothers. Lactic acid, though, is totally fine and absolutely safe to use as it’s derived from food things (19)
How Long Does Lactic Acid Take To Work?
Ah, friends. Patience is a virtue. How many of you have been excited to try a new product, only to find that it takes for-ever for it to start working?
That can be a major bummer, and it’s almost enough to make you want to avoid using new products. This is especially true if you’re excited and feeling impatient about seeing those much-needed benefits that you’ve heard all about.
The good news here, though? You can start to see the benefits of using lactic acid pretty much almost right away. Your skin will be noticeably brighter after using it, and it’ll also start to feel much more hydrated after the first use.
Don’t get complacent, though. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and the more that you use lactic acid, the better it’ll be. If you like how amazing you look after the first application, then just imagine how great it’ll look and feel months after you’ve started using it.
Wanting to look your very best is totally understandable. However, none of us (or at least, most of us!) really want to go to these ridiculous extremes to get there. Fortunately, more invasive treatments for your cosmetic skin concerns aren’t really necessary, especially since lactic acid can do the job just as well… if not better.
If you’re looking to completely refresh your appearance – but without having to go under the knife or spend an arm and a leg to get there – then lactic acid is going to be your new BFF. Safe, effective, and potent, it can completely transform your skin for the better.
With so many known benefits, and so few side effects that can come with using it, why wouldn’t you want to start incorporating it in your skincare regimen tonight? Your skin, as well as your self confidence, will thank you for it. And in turn, you can finally start to feel confident about your beautiful reflection once more.
Source 1: Lactic acid production – producing microorganisms and substrates sources-state of art https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7566098
Source 2: Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6017965
Source 3: Effects of molecular weight on permeability and microstructure of mixed ethyl-hydroxypropyl-cellulose films https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23159668
Source 4: Lactic and lactobionic acids as typically moisturizing compounds https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30270529
Source 5: Age-related dermal collagen changes during development, maturation and aging – a morphometric and comparative study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4089350
Source 6: Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3941867
Source 7: StatPearls: Melasma https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459271/
Source 8: Effect of 82% Lactic Acid in Treatment of Melasma https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4897467
Source 9: Application of Topical Acids Improves Atopic Dermatitis in Murine Model by Enhancement of Skin Barrier Functions Regardless of the Origin of Acids https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5125949
Source 10: A Guide to the Ingredients and Potential Benefits of Over-the-Counter Cleansers and Moisturizers for Rosacea Patients https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3168246/
Source 11: A Narrative Review on the Role of Acids, Steroids, and Kinase Inhibitors in the Treatment of Keratosis Pilaris https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8528166
Source 12: Guidance for Industry: Labeling for Cosmetics Containing Alpha Hydroxy Acids https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/guidance-industry-labeling-cosmetics-containing-alpha-hydroxy-acids
Source 13: Interventions for photodamaged skin https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6769024
Source 14: A Practical Approach to Chemical Peels https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6122508
Source 15: Glycolic acid peel therapy – a current review https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3875240
Source 16: Pseudofolliculitis barbae; current treatment options https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6585396
Source 17: Targeted delivery of salicylic acid from acne treatment products into and through skin: role of solution and ingredient properties and relationships to irritation https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15037921
Source 18: StatPearls: Biochemistry, Glycosaminoglycans https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK544295
Source 19: Safety of skin care products during pregnancy https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114665