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Retinol vs. Lactic Acid: Breaking The Differences Between The Two

Retinol or lactic acid, or both?

If you’re looking to find the differences between retinol and lactic acid to figure out which one is best for you, this post is meant for you.

In the quest to get photo-ready, glowy, forever-young skin, our routines have expanded much further than just cleansing and moisturizing. Skincare can get seriously complicated, especially if you aim to target multiple issues through just one routine. You may have witnessed the soaring popularity of acids and retinol in recent years. These additional products can be sandwiched between cleanse, tone, and moisturize to up your routine to a whole new level of transformation. But with multiple acid and retinol types on the market, how do we know which works best for us?

In this post, I’m looking at lactic acid vs. retinol. These two ingredients have created a recent buzz within the skincare world. Both promise to reduce fine lines, blemishes, and dark spots; and increase radiance, strength, and smoothness. So, which should you use?

What is lactic acid? 

Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) used to banish dead skin cells, brighten, and reduce fine lines and wrinkles. As a surface exfoliant, lactic acid speeds up cell turnover and sloughs off the buildup of dead skin cells, so new healthier cells can rise to the surface. Lactic acid can also tackle aging signs by stimulating collagen renewal. This is what gives our skin a radiant, clear, smooth appearance. Interestingly for an acid, lactic acid improves our skin’s natural moisture factor too by working as a humectant, drawing water in. Besides, lactic acid stimulates ceramide synthesis, helping repair the skin barrier. This makes lactic acid one of the less abrasive AHAs, doing wonders for dry, sensitive skin. 

What is retinol? 

Retinol is a form of vitamin A with antioxidant activity that promotes cell renewal and protects collagen, two essential things for minimizing wrinkles, dark spots, and blemishes. When we apply a retinol product, it sinks into our dermis and converts to retinoic acid over time. This acid increases the speed at which cells divide and regenerate, making the skin smoother and stronger. Increased cell renewal is also what makes blemishes vanish. And the boosted collagen production retinol provides is what’s needed to keep our skin youthful, plump, and bouncy. These benefits make retinol a powerful transformative ingredient for anti-aging.

Lactic acid vs. retinol

The main difference between lactic acid and retinol is that lactic acid is a gentle exfoliator that also moisturizes, while retinol is an antioxidant that sinks deeper into the skin. Although both lactic acid and retinol stimulate cell renewal, plumping fine lines and wrinkles, retinol does not exfoliate the skin as lactic acid does. Despite popular belief, retinol isn’t an exfoliant but an antioxidant that hinders free radicals from damaging the skin. They may have similar benefits, but lactic acid and retinol have different mechanisms of clearing skin cells buildup.

Like retinol, lactic acid can soften wrinkles and fine lines, even skin tone, reduce acne, and relieve dullness. However, as a surface-level exfoliant, lactic acid won’t be as powerful or effective as retinol. Because retinol heads down to your middle dermis skin layer, it’s more effective for deeper wrinkles and dark spots, but it’s more aggressive as well. This is what makes it harder for sensitive skin to tolerate retinol. On the other hand, lactic acid is more friendly to the skin than retinol, thanks to its hydrating nature, making it more suitable for dry and sensitive skins.

Another key difference between the two is that you can’t use retinol when pregnant, while lactic acid is safe in pregnancy. Retinol must also be used in your PM routine because it makes our skin more sensitive to sunlight and also because the light reduces the effectiveness of retinol. On the other hand, lactic acid can be used AM or PM, as long as you use sunscreen every day, whether it’s cloudy outside or sunny.

Can you use lactic acid with retinol? 

Lactic acid and retinol are two ingredients that can be used together for more intense results. By using both, you’ll maximize the effects on your skin. Lactic acid exfoliates the uppermost layer of dead skin cells away, allowing retinol to sink deeper and work more powerfully. 

However, you shouldn’t use them in different products, one right after the other, because that can lead to major irritation. Instead, use a product that contains lactic acid and retinol together as it’ll deliver the benefits in a safe, effective way. You could also build your routine out with these ingredients by using your lactic acid serum in the AM and retinol serum in the PM to dodge possible irritations. Or, if you’re building up your skin’s tolerance to acids and retinol, use lactic in between your retinol days.

Is retinol better than lactic acid? 

Retinol is a gold standard powerful ingredient for anti-aging, smoothing, brightening, and transforming skin. Lactic acid isn’t as powerful but is the best alternative if your skin can’t tolerate retinol.

How often should I use lactic acid and retinol?

Build retinol use up to three nights a week and use lactic acid on alternate nights. If you notice redness or irritation the next day, take a night off. 

The bottom line

It’s worth harnessing the power of both retinol and lactic acid within your routine. Retinol is undeniably the more powerful and transformative of the two. But to get the most out of retinol, or if you struggle to get your skin to tolerate it, you need a surface exfoliant like lactic acid. It’s better to think of lactic acid vs. retinol like Monica and Rachel from Friends, they work more effectively as BFFs than competitors!

Who wrote this?
Picture of Amy Ollerton
Amy Ollerton
Amy is a copy and content writer living in the beautiful Scottish Highlands. She fell in love with makeup and skincare as a teenager and was overjoyed to incorporate this into her career. Amy’s writing is always authentic and full of fun personality! If she’s not busy typing up a blog post or thinking about her next palette purchase, you’ll find her outdoor swimming, drinking a bottle of red at the pub with pals, or walking the highland hills with her dog, Lula.
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