If you’re dealing with skin concerns like hyperpigmentation, acne, or wrinkles, lactic acid can be one of your best allies. That’s why in this post, we tell you everything you need to know about lactic acid to help you decide if it’s worth adding to your skincare regimen.
What is lactic acid?
When you hear lactic acid, the picture that comes to mind might be a harsh chemical substance. But lactic acid is actually a gentle skincare ingredient that delivers outstanding benefits when used in the right concentrations. It belongs to a class of acids known as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) like tartaric, malic, citric, glycolic, and mandelic acids.
So here’s the gist: lactic acid is a powerful exfoliating and anti-aging ingredient extensively used in over-the-counter products. “It is one of the more common alpha-hydroxy acids used to improve skin tone and texture as well as lightly exfoliate the skin,” says Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali of Houston Dermatology and Laser Surgery.
Derived from sour milk, lactic acid is what gives yogurt that distinctive taste. Little wonder Cleopatra, as legend says, regularly bathed in milk to keep her skin looking glowy and lovely. But before you hop into a tub of milk to have a milk bath or sprinkle milk on your face, you should be aware that many of the lactic acids used in most skincare products are produced synthetically. So, save yourself the stress!
Lactic acid skin benefits
The buildup of dead cells on the skin’s surface is one of the main culprits of clogged pores, breakouts, rough patches, and dull appearance. So your skin needs exfoliation as much as it needs hydration. The good news is you can speed up your skin’s exfoliation rate by using lactic acid products. Lactic acid helps to dissolve the bond that holds dead skin cells together and speeds up cell renewal. This will make your skin brighter, smoother, and firmer as more healthy cells make their way to the surface. Plus, once your skin is exfoliated, the products you apply after deliver more benefits.
Helps the skin retain moisture
Lactic acid is also a humectant, meaning it can draw water from the air into the skin to keep it moisturized. When you use a lactic acid product, it mimics the skin’s natural moisturizing system, increasing hydration — though you shouldn’t entirely rely on it to have your complexion properly moisturized as you still need to keep up with your hyaluronic acid serum. So unlike other acids, lactic acid is a multitasker that both hydrates and exfoliates, making it a great renewing treatment for people with sensitive, dry skin that can’t tolerate harsher exfoliants like glycolic acid.
In addition to exfoliating and improving skin moisture, lactic acid can improve acne by exfoliating dead cells that often clog pores and trigger breakouts. For instance, in one study, 5% topical lactic acid reduced both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne in more than 40% of volunteers after one year of twice-daily applications. That’s something, right?
Strengthens the skin’s barrier
Using lactic acid may also stimulate cell regeneration and strengthen the skin’s protective barrier, making your complexion thicker and more resilient. Lactic acid does that by increasing ceramides synthesis — a class of fatty acids naturally found in skin cells that make up about 50% of the epidermis, aka the protective barrier. As lactic acid restores ceramides levels, it consolidates the barrier, helping skin be more resistant to external damage, retain moisture and prevent dehydration,
Fades dark spots
Another skin benefit of lactic acid is that it fades hyperpigmentation like dark spots, age spots, and acne scars. It turns out lactic acid suppresses melanin formation (the pigment that darkens skin color) by directly inhibiting tyrosinase activity — the enzyme responsible for pigment production. Besides, when lactic acid penetrates the skin, it gently removes the pigmented cells, leading to an even appearance.
Who should use lactic acid?
Lactic acid is a milder AHA, which makes it suitable for most skin types. If other AHAs are too irritating for your skin, you may want to try this one. New York-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D says, “lactic acid is the most preferred acid for sensitive skin.” It has the least potential for irritation compared to other AHAs or retinol since it has a larger molecule that can’t penetrate the skin as deeply. Also, if you’re pregnant or nursing, you should consult your doctor before using any lactic acid product. Finally, if you’re allergic to milk, lactic acid may not be suitable for you.
How to use lactic acid
Lactic acid is an ingredient used in all sorts of products, from cleansers and toners to creams, serums, and chemical peels. How to use lactic acid for skincare mostly depends on the product on hand. However, if it’s your first time with acids, start with a product with a low concentration (under 5%) and increase as your skin adapts to it. As with all skincare products, do a patch test on a small part of your skin before full application. Wait for 24 hours and observe how your skin reacts to it. If there are no adverse reactions, you can proceed to apply it on your entire face once or twice a week every evening. Be careful to keep the product away from your eyes and always follow with sunscreen. Remember, lactic acid increases sun sensitivity, so don’t use it during the day but in the evenings only.
Like most skincare ingredients, there are some drawbacks of using this acid, some of which include:
Increased sun sensitivity
A powerful exfoliator, lactic acid leaves your skin more vulnerable to sun damage. This is why it’s imperative to use sunscreen while using lactic acid. Failure to do so could result in sunburns, wrinkles, and pigmented skin — the very problems you were trying to avoid. As an added precautionary measure, you can use a moisturizer that contains SPF to keep your skin protected from the devastating effects of the sun.
Be on the lookout for any burning sensation, swelling, or itchy skin. Note that it’s common to experience mild redness after the first application, but this should disappear within a short time. If the redness persists, discontinue the use of the lactic acid product.
Is tingling normal?
When using lactic acid, you may feel tingling or a slight burning feeling. This is OK, and in most cases, it shouldn’t be something worth worrying about. The tingling feeling usually goes away in a few minutes. If the tingling lasts longer or you feel like your face is burning is better to rinse lactic acid off and consult a specialist.
Consistency is always the key in skincare. Results will not happen overnight regardless of which ingredients or treatment you use. For topical lactic acid, it can take up to 2 months before you begin to see noticeable improvements. Depending on what you want to improve (wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, acne) and your condition, it can take more or less time.