An In-Depth Look at Lactic Acid in Skin Care

Although it is one of the most common alpha hydroxy acids, there is still a lot to learn about lactic acid. Here, industry professionals present 101.

The use of lactic acid dates back to ancient Egyptian times, when Queen Cleopatra, legend has it, bathed in curd to improve the texture of her skin. As it turns out, the governor knew a thing or two about skincare ingredients, since milk sugar — also known as lactose — is converted by bacteria to lactic acid as milk spoils. This isn’t your guide to drawing a bath of spoiled milk, but it’s a testament to making room in your routine for a product made with the popular ingredient.

“Lactic acid is produced in our muscles and red blood cells when the body breaks down carbohydrates for energy, but it is also produced in bacterial species like decomposing plants and dairy products,” says Davey, MD, a Florida dermatologist Leslie Clark Loser. While acid may not appear malleable in these hues, cosmetic chemist Michelle Wong says it’s a skincare product by fermentation, and the results are nothing short of glowy.

It is a gentle exfoliator.

You can find lactic acid under the AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) umbrella next to the glycolic acid and salicylic acid molecules. However, it is not like the rest of the group. According to celebrity esthetician Shani Darden, “The lactic acid molecule is known to be keratolytic and is larger than other AHAs, which means that it cannot penetrate the skin as deeply. Therefore, it will exfoliate and polish the surface of the skin more effectively to give it an amazing glow.” The characteristic is also square for those with sensitive skin, who will be able to tolerate it much better than other acids. “This is because it is less likely to upset your skin’s PH, as it keeps the moisture barrier intact and adds a boost of hydration,” Darden adds.

Facials almost always include a lactic acid chemical peel due to the versatility of the ingredient. It works well for almost all skin types.

– Shani Darden

Aside from giving skin a nice glow, Southlake dermatologist Janine Hopkins says a super scrub can also help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and increase skin firmness by “accelerating cell renewal and increasing the production of collagen, ceramides, and lipids.” In order to achieve this, Dr. Hopkins says that a lactic acid concentration of at least 5 percent is necessary in topical skin care products.

It works from head to toe.

Wong says you can find lactic acid in any step of your routine, from a face toner to a serum, but it’s also used in body products like lotions and cleansers. But, according to Dr. Clark Loeser, not all lactic acid products should be treated equally. “How often you use lactic acid really depends on two things: where you apply it to your body and focus.” If you use a lower concentration, like 5 percent, Dr. Clark Loser says the acid can be used daily anywhere on the body, but that changes as the concentration increases. “If you are using an over-the-counter high concentration of 12 percent or more, it should only be used daily if applied to the arms and/or legs for dry skin or bothersome keratosis pilaris,” she adds. “Dermatologists and some estheticians use higher concentrations of 15 percent or more in light, superficial chemical peels, especially for individuals with sensitive skin.” If you’re adding lactic acid to your daily routine, Dr. Hopkins recommends using it only at night, and applying sunscreen the next day to protect your skin from UV rays (standard protocol with most AHAs).

Although 5 percent lactic acid modifies surface and epidermal changes, 12 percent lactic acid affects the epidermis and dermis.


Combines well with other ingredients

Outside of its use as an anti-inflammatory agent, lactic acid is also used for wound healing and the skin after procedures.

-Doctor. Clark Loser

In many popular lactic acid products, you’ll find the acid paired with other actives, and Wong says that’s because lactic acid blends so well with other high-impact exfoliants like salicylic acid. It pairs well with hydrating and nourishing ingredients, Darden adds, which is why she’s combined the two in her new Lactic Acid Exfoliating Serum ($88). “It’s formulated with emollients like hyaluronic acid and aloe vera concentrate that add soothing benefits, helping to prevent any irritation caused by exfoliation,” she says. “When incorporating lactic acid into your kit, you can use an additional hyaluronic acid serum or moisturizer for additional hydration, but wait five minutes before applying for the acid to absorb into the skin without affecting the pH of other products.”

peeling station


AmLactin Rapid Relief 15% Lactic Acid Restore Cream ($20)

Dr. Hopkins says AmLactin is the number one brand she recommends for use on the body. In addition to the high concentration of lactic acid, this cream also contains three ceramides and works to improve skin texture and heal dry, flaky skin.


One Love Organics Botanical A Bio-Retinol Night Serum ($78)

The combination of lactic, phytic and salicylic acids boosts radiance and radiance while plant-derived retinol helps smooth out wrinkles – the perfect formula for youthful-looking skin without the irritation.


KP Bump Boss Microderm Body & Night Scrub ($28)

Do you have small red bumps on your arms and legs (also known as keratosis pilaris) that won’t go away? This smoothing body scrub uses finely ground mineral crystals and geranium to transform skin from rough to smooth in just 28 days.

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