Lactic acid can do wonders for your skin. Here's how to incorporate this powerful exfoliator into your routine.
What Is Lactic Acid?
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When you hear the words "lactic acid," you might think of that stuff your body produces during exercise. But lactic acid is also a skin-care ingredient that can deliver some seriously impressive benefits for your complexion.
Lactic acid is a lesser-known member of the alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) family (which also includes citric, malic, tartaric, mandelic, and glycolic acids), and is naturally occurring. In fact, "it’s the same molecule responsible for the burn you feel in your muscles," says Arash Akhavan, M.D., a dermatologist at the Dermatology and Laser Group in New York City.
You’ll spot lactic acid on the ingredient lists of many over-the-counter products, as well as in-office treatments. "It’s typically a component of a stand-alone chemical peel, or in conjunction with other alpha or beta hydroxy acids in skin creams or lotions," says Kenneth Mark, M.D., a dermatologist based in New York.
Photo: oxygen/Getty Images
Benefits Of Lactic Acid
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Acids, including others in the AHA family, are notorious for their exfoliating powers, and lactic is no exception. "It gently exfoliates to reveal smoother and more glowing skin," says Debra Jaliman, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and author of Skin Rules. Other benefits? Improved skin texture and hyperpigmentation, fewer breakouts, and less-visible lines and wrinkles, she says. (Related: The Best Acne Products on Amazon Under $25)
Over time, you might even notice plumper-looking skin, says Ava Shamban, M.D., a dermatologist in Beverly Hills and founder of SKINxFIVE. “Studies have shown that [lactic acid] can even out the pigment layer and stimulate collagen production,” she says.
A key difference between lactic acid and other AHAs, though, is its ability to boost skin’s moisture levels—even as it exfoliates. "At higher concentrations, [lactic acid] acts as an exfoliator helping to dissolve connections between skin cells,” explains New York City dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. “[But] at lower levels it is used as a humectant, meaning it can actually help hydrate skin by pulling in water to the outer skin layer."
For this reason, you’ll often spot it in lotions and creams. "It’s an excellent moisturizer, trapping moisture and preventing water loss," adds Dr. Akhavan.
Photo: Getty Images Hoxton/Tom Merton
Who Should (and Shouldn’t) Use Lactic Acid?
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Other AHAs too irritating for your skin? You may want to try lactic acid products instead. "Lactic acid is the preferred acid for sensitive skin," Dr. Jaliman says.
This has to do with the size of the acids themselves. Glycolic is a smaller molecule, so it’s better able to penetrate skin, making it stronger. Lactic acid, on the other hand, "is a larger molecule than glycolic acid, so it's less potent," Dr. Zeichner says. (Related: Here's Everything You Need to Know About Glycolic Acid)
Still, like other AHAs, you should be cautious when trying lactic acid for the first time. Experts suggest not using products that contain lactic acid when using retinol, since the combination could cause redness.
"If too high a concentration is used, like any other hydroxy acid, it could be irritating," Dr. Mark says. "But typically, it has the least potential for irritation compared to other alpha and beta hydroxy acids" such as salicylic acid.
If you’re pregnant or nursing, it’s always a good idea to speak to your doctor before trying any new skin-care product, Dr. Zeichner adds.
Below, the top lactic acid products to start incorporating into your routine.
Photo: Getty Images
Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment
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Pricey, yes. But this powerful anti-aging serum is worth every penny, according to multiple experts we polled.
"This product has great ingredients," says Dr. Jaliman. "It's great for brightening the skin and diminishing hyperpigmentation." She loves that the formula contains 5 percent lactic acid to plump, licoric extract to diminish the appearance of dark spots, and aloe to nix redness.
Another skin superhero? Lemongrass, which "has anti-septic properties," Dr. Jaliman notes, "perfect for getting even, glowing skin."
Dr. Akhavan loves this serum, too, telling us it can lead to noticeable improvements in your complexion.
SkinCeuticals Renew Overnight Dry
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Lactic acid "is quite useful when added to basically any moisturizer," says Dr. Shamban, explaining that the ingredient will simultaneously exfoliate skin while also helping boost overall hydration.
We love this ultra-rich cream from SkinCeuticals, which is packed with both lactic and glycolic acids to even skin tone while you sleep. Also good: skin-soothing vitamin E and aloe vera.
AmLactin Daily Moisturizing Body Lotion
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In addition to lactic acid, this affordable body lotion contains glycerin, an ingredient that helps lock in moisture.
"This is a great general moisturizer that I have recommended for the body for many years," says Dr. Akhavan. "It exfoliates away dry and rough skin and moisturizes very effectively." Plus, the formula is fragrance-free, making it a good choice for those with even the most sensitive skin.
AmLactin Ultra Hydrating Body Cream
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For a serious moisture boost, Dr. Mark recommends this lotion, also from AmLactin. "It is both smoothing and hydrating, [and] helps prevent and treat dry skin," he tells us. "It adds moisture to the skin while at the same time removing the dead layer of skin cells, so skin is less flaky and rough."
As a bonus, this formula also gets rave reviews from customers for its ability to help keep keratosis pilaris (KP) symptoms at bay.
Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Body Yogurt Lotion, Apricot & Honey
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Dr. Zeichner recommends this drugstore lotion, which does double duty to soften and lightly exfoliate skin from head to toe. "Lactic acid helps hydrate and smooth the skin, while oat extract protects the skin barrier," he says.
It also contains yogurt powder (hence the adorable, yogurt container-inspired shape of the jar) to deeply nourish skin.
PCA Skin Nutrient Toner
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Lactic acid "is commonly used in combination with other alpha and beta hydroxy acids," says Dr. Zeichner. He recommends this toner from PCA Skin; it contains both lactic acid and other alpha hydroxy acids to gently slough away dead skin cells with each use. Plus, it's amassed more than 200 five-star reviews.
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial
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See ya, dead skin cells. With a potent blend of lactic, glycolic, citric, salicylic, and tartaric acids, this cult-favorite resurfacing mask is probably the closest you'll come to a facial in a bottle. While AHAs and BHAs clear out pores, good-for-skin antioxidants such as milk thistle and matcha tea replenish skin, so your complexion is left bright and glowing, not dried-out.
Because this formula is so strong, test it out on a small patch of skin first to make sure you don't develop a negative reaction. "If you use a higher concentration of lactic acid, you may experience irritation, redness, and inflammation," Dr. Jaliman points out.
Photo: Drunk Elephant