Lactic acid is a gentle exfoliant used in skincare to remove dead skin cells, lighten dark spots and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It’s often used specifically to help with hyperpigmentation, sun damage and to refresh dull skin.

This unassuming and often overlooked ingredient is considered to be an effective, budget-friendly ingredient that’s gentler than other types of exfoliant. Lactic acid is gentle enough to make it suitable for a range of skin types and skin tones, but it’s usually used for people with oily skin that’s prone to breakouts.

Lactic acid is more often commonly associated with conversations revolving around exercise and food, but these aren’t quite the same as what you’d use in your skincare routine, so don’t worry if you see it in these terms.

What is Lactic Acid?

Lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (also known as an AHA) that’s used as a chemical exfoliant. This means that it removes dead skin cells from the surface of the skin and enhances cell turnover without scrubbing.

AHA cleansers have become a staple in most of our shelves in the past few years and lactic acid can be a more gentle option for sensitive skin or skin that’s prone to inflammation and hyperpigmentation. It’s one of the mildest forms of AHA so it’s safe to use on sensitive skin. 

Lactic acid comes from milk. More specifically, it’s made by the fermentation of lactose, a carbohydrate that’s commonly found in milk. It’s a water-soluble compound that helps improve the appearance of the skin keeping it hydrated. Whilst we’re talking hydration, it’s worth mentioning that lactic acid pairs really well with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid for an extra boost too.

If you’ve been fearful of lactic acid after hearing about some high concentrations of it being used by dermatologists in invasive skin peels with an extended recovery time, then don’t worry – the at-home skincare formulations use a much lower percentage and a gentler solution.

How does Lactic Acid help?

As well as exfoliating the skin in general (which means less dull, dead skin cells and glowing skin), lactic acid has many other benefits in your skincare routine. It’s a great ingredient to use if you’re prone to acne or breakouts, experience dark spots or have dull skin.

Let’s go into some more detail about what lactic acid can do for your skin, and why it’s become such a popular skincare ingredient.

Brightens Complexion

Lactic acid helps your skin to appear brighter and smoother. It helps with mild to moderate hyperpigmentation and dark spots, where the skin has overproduced melanin and this includes fading out those pesky age spots that are caused by sun damage. The exfoliating properties leave skin looking radiant and smooth too, so it’s an all-round skin brightener. 

Helps to Reduce Visible Pores

If you have pores that are extremely visible, then lactic acid can help to reduce them by gently removing dead skin cells that sit within the pore. These dead skin calls can make your pore more visible, eventually leaving it stretched out and more visible than ever. By using lactic acid, or another type of exfoliator, you can make sure that your pores are cleared out.

Helps To Improve Acne

As lactic acid is more gentle than other types of exfoliator, it can be a better option for acne prone skin. It can help to improve skin texture and remove inflammation, as well as helping to handle the congestion that’s commonly associated with acne. It won’t cause congestion or make acne worse either.

Helps To Hold Moisture

Lactic acid increases cell turnover, leading to renewed and glowing skin. It reveals the fresh and new skin that’s been hiding away underneath your dead skin cells. This new skin may also be able to hold onto moisture better, so this helps with hydration too.

What types of products contain Lactic Acid?

You’ll find lactic acid in countless skincare products from cleansers, creams, serums, toners to it being an exfoliant by itself. You can even find it in hair products to help to exfoliate the scalp and keep it flake-free.

Lactic acid often comes in different concentrations. If you’re using it on your skin, you want to try and find a product that has a lactic acid concentration below 10% with a pH of over 3.5, so always check the label.

How do you use Lactic Acid?

Even though it’s a milder AHA exfoliant, you shouldn’t use lactic acid too frequently or along with other types of exfoliant. By doing this, you run the risk of over-exfoliating your skin and messing up its natural barrier. FYI: you should use lactic acid every other day at the most, it isn’t a product to use daily.

Something else that most people miss: never mix your AHAs (and BHAs) with Vitamin C. While having many great benefits and being suitable for most skin types, Vitamin C is considered a weak and unstable acid – layering lactic acid with Vitamin C on your skin is counterproductive and renders your skincare routine useless. It’s best to keep these two ingredients separate so that your products can work their magic properly.

It’s usually recommended that you use lactic acid before applying your night cream at bedtime, and then to make sure you’re using sunscreen when your fresh, renewed skin is revealed in the morning.

Is Lactic Acid synthetic or naturally derived?

Lactic acid is an organic acid that’s usually naturally derived from milk, though it can also be made synthetically.

Do you need to add Lactic Acid to your routine?

If you struggle with acne, breakouts or congested pores, then lactic acid can be a great choice to add into your routine. It’s much gentler than AHAs when used in lower concentrations, and increases cell turnover to leave your skin feeling clean and smooth. It also helps with pesky enlarged pores that can come with oily or acne-prone skin.

The fact that it’s so gentle makes it a great all-rounder for most skin types and tones, though as with any exfoliating acid, you do need to be careful with the concentration to avoid post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

 If you feel like your skin is in need of an overall boost and improved cell turnover, then lactic acid should be your first step. It’s a great way to start off your skincare journey