Exfoliating acids are the quickest and most effective way to tackle multiple skin concerns. As our obsession with them continues to grow, thanks to their myriad skin benefits, lactic acid is commonly touted as the go-to ingredient for hydration and a good glow. Plus, even though there is a never-ending stream of new, so-called miracle ingredients constantly entering the beauty market, lactic acid has stood the test of time – and now it’s easier than ever to reap its multiple benefits.
What is lactic acid?
Lactic acid sits under the umbrella of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are renowned for their exfoliating, glow-inducing abilities. Naturally occurring and originally found in dairy products, when used in skincare, lactic acid is synthetically produced and therefore suitable for vegans. Commonly used in chemical peels by skincare professionals and dermatologists, and often praised as the ultimate treatment to get red-carpet-ready, lactic acid brightens, exfoliates and hydrates the skin. For at-home use, the overall concentration is lowered, but the results are still superior. “AHAs such as lactic are an essential component for skin health,” says skin expert Paula Begoun. “When skin can’t shed normally, it clogs and can gradually enlarge pores. Lactic acid helps the skin to exfoliate, which normalizes and balances the surface of the skin, as well as the pores.”
What are the skin benefits of using lactic acid?
Often cited as the gentle alternative to glycolic acid, due to its larger molecule size, lactic acid exfoliates the skin while also being incredibly hydrating. As an AHA, lactic acid increases the skin’s natural cell turnover, which is proven to help stimulate collagen, fade hyperpigmentation and smooth fine lines and wrinkles. “By helping to dissolve connections between skin cells, lactic acts as an exfoliant and an emollient,” says Boston-based dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch. “Uniquely, when used at low concentrations, lactic acid also acts as a humectant and pulls in hydration to moisturize the skin.” The dual action of exfoliation alongside hydration is why visible results are almost instant.
How to use lactic acid
As lactic acid is found in both wash-off and leave-on products, there is a formulation suitable for everyone. For everyday use, opt for cleansers, moisturizers and serums that provide gentle daily exfoliation – these are often the best choice for more sensitive skin. Although safe for morning use, AHAs are often used in evening skincare routines, as lactic acid speeds up cell turnover, making the skin more vulnerable to UV damage. Hirsch recommends alternating two nights on followed by two nights off when using lactic, to allow the skin time to adjust and reduce any risk of irritation. To mimic a professional treatment, try using a mask or an at-home peel for stronger exfoliation. Best used once or twice a week, the higher concentrations of lactic acid will deliver faster results and are often the go-to treatment for a polished glow. If you’re regularly using other acids and a retinol, it can be easy to over-exfoliate, so it’s crucial to remember that a slow and steady approach is always best – and to scale back usage if skin shows signs of irritation.
Is lactic acid right for you?
Unless you have a known allergy, lactic acid is well-tolerated by most people, but Hirsch deems it most beneficial for mature, dry or sensitive skin. Given its antibacterial properties, it’s also a good alternative for those with acne or blemish-prone skin. “Salicylic acid is the gold standard for acne, but alternating with lactic acid provides more benefits at the skin’s surface level,” Hirsch advises. Not limited to facial use, lactic acid works effectively on the body, too. Keratosis pilaris, more commonly known as ‘chicken skin’, is a harmless condition that causes tiny bumps and dry skin, and is typically found on the arms, thighs and buttocks. Using a lactic-acid body lotion helps dissolve the dead skin and unblocks the hair follicle to reveal smoother, brighter skin.
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