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Lactic acid is one of the most popular alpha hydroxy acids available. It is a common ingredient in OTC skin care products. It is also used in stronger professional peels and treatments.
What to Know About Lactic Acid for Skin Care
Lactic acid is an over-the-counter chemical exfoliant that comes from the fermentation of lactose — a carbohydrate found in milk. It’s a popular ingredient in numerous skin care products nowadays. But its use is nothing new. It dates back to ancient Egypt. It’s common knowledge that Cleopatra used to bathe in sour milk to keep her skin looking more youthful.
Like glycolic and mandelic acids, lactic acid belongs to the alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) family. AHAs are water-soluble organic compounds that, in cosmetic formulations, offer unparalleled benefits for the skin. Lactic acid presents an additional advantage that other AHAs don’t have. Besides its ability to significantly improve the skin’s appearance, it helps keep it naturally hydrated.
Additional Benefits of Lactic Acid
Much like its more aggressive counterparts, lactic acid has many known perks. It increases cell turnover and helps eliminate accumulated dead skin cells on the epidermis — the top layer of the skin.
When using lactic acid in 12% concentrations, the skin gets firmer and thicker. As a result, there is an overall smoother appearance and fewer fine lines and deep wrinkles. These outcomes show that, in such high concentrations, lactic acid can permeate into the deeper layers of the skin. Lower concentrations of about 5% have no impact on the middle layer of the skin. Still, they have similar effects on a more superficial level.
After using lactic acid, you’ll notice a brighter and smoother complexion. This AHA exfoliant helps treat moderate to severe hyperpigmentation, which happens when certain spots on your skin have more than the normal amount of melanin. It can fade out age spots and reduce the appearance of wrinkles and highly visible pores. Lactic acid is one of the mildest forms of AHA, so it’s safe to use it on sensitive skin in the right concentrations.
Lactic acid as an effective antimicrobial. Some research suggests that lactic acid and probiotic supplements can help with sensitive skin. By teaming up to fix certain inflammatory reactions, they can both give a microbial balance to the skin. While probiotics promote more in-depth regulation by balancing the gut, lactic acid works alongside them as a treatment for moderate skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, and acne.
Lactic acid for acne. Skin with a tendency to get acne can be more sensitive to exfoliating therapies. Still, many doctors prescribe lactic acid chemical peels in low concentrations alongside antibiotic treatments. Using low concentrations has significantly improved the skin texture and reduced up to 90% of inflammatory lesions in people with acne in controlled clinical studies.
How to Use Lactic Acid Safely
Even though it’s a milder AHA exfoliant, you shouldn’t use lactic acid too frequently. You risk over-exfoliating your skin and messing with its natural barrier. Consider using this effective skin resurfacing ingredient every other night unless your doctor says otherwise.
Be careful if you’re using retinoids and aggressive scrubs. Avoid doing these treatments all at once, or you might see some irritation. In severe cases, you might cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which happens when the skin produces extra melanin as a natural response to stress. This type of hyperpigmentation can take a long time to fade out.
Using any chemical peel puts your skin at a greater risk of sun damage. Always wear an SPF 30+ whether you’re outdoors or not. Reapply it every two hours when you’re exposed to direct sunlight. Failing to protect your extra-vulnerable skin from UVA and UVB damage might increase your chances of getting skin cancer.
Follow the product’s directions carefully. Some preventive measures you could take before applying lactic acid — or any other AHA exfoliant — are:
- Making sure the lactic acid concentration is below 10%.
- Looking for products with a pH of over 3.5.
- Looking for products that warn about the potential effects of sun exposure after lactic acid use.
Risks of Using Lactic Acid for Skin Care
Any chemical peel can cause adverse reactions. When trying out lactic acid for the first time, keep an eye out for:
- Burning sensation
- Severe itching
- Noticeable peeling
If you notice any of these skin reactions, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Also, take a break from exfoliants altogether. You don’t want to cause any more stress to your already damaged skin.
Cleveland Clinic: “Pigmentation: Abnormal Pigmentation.” “Understanding the Ingredients in Skin Care Products.”
Dovepress: “Skin hydration is significantly increased by a cream formulated to mimic the skin’s own natural moisturizing systems.”
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: “Epidermal and dermal effects of topical lactic acid.”
MDPI: “Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin.”
National Center for Biotechnology Information: “Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity.”
National Library of Medicine: “Long term topical application of lactic acid/lactate lotion as a preventive treatment for acne vulgaris.”
U.S. Food & Drug Administration: “Alpha Hydroxy Acids.” “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.”
Derms Say Lactic Acid Can Significantly Reduce Breakouts and Fine Lines
Lindsey Metrus is the associate general manager at Byrdie and has been with the brand since 2015. Her work also appears in BuzzFeed, StyleCaster, and Yahoo.
Updated on 08/25/22
Rachel is a board-certified dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor at Mount Sinai Hospital Department of Dermatology. She has contributed to Byrdie, as well as Harpers Bazaar, Marie Claire, Allure, Vogue, and the New York Times, and more
Fact checked by
Lisa Sullivan, MS, is a nutritionist and health and wellness educator with nearly 20 years of experience in the healthcare industry.
In This Article
What Is Lactic Acid? Benefits of Lactic Acid Lactic Acid vs. Other Acids
Side Effects of Lactic Acid How to Use It Frequently Asked Questions
If someone told you that applying spoiled milk to your skin could get rid of blemishes and diminish fine lines, would you believe them? On the surface, it sounds like a weird Pinterest hack, but the science serves as proof. It dates back to Ancient Egypt when Cleopatra bathed in milk for softer, smoother skin, unknowingly reaping the benefits of an exfoliating acid found in sour milk—lactic acid.
Now, we’re not suggesting you splash sour milk on your face nightly, because that would be ridiculous and incredibly unpleasant. Instead, beauty brands have caught on and begun to isolate lactic acid, integrating it into serums and cleansers for the consumers’ benefit. Dhaval Bhanusali of Hudson Dermatology & Laser Surgery explains that lactic acid is now known as “One of the more common alpha hydroxy acids,” adding that it’s “used to improve skin tone and texture as well as lightly exfoliate the skin.” We consulted Bhanusali and other experts for a full perspective.
Meet the Expert
- Dhaval Bhanusali, MD, is a dermatologist at Hudson Dermatology & Laser Surgery.
- Raymond Schep is the Chief Chemist at Colonial Dames Co. and a member of the CA Association of Toxicologists.
- Jennifer L. MacGregor, MD, is a dermatologist at UnionDerm.
Type of ingredient: Acid/exfoliator
Main benefits: Firmer, thicker skin, resulting in fewer fine lines, wrinkles, and acne lesions.
Who should use it: In general, anyone with acne-prone skin or who frequently breaks out.
How often can you use it?: It’s only recommended for use once a day at maximum, but should probably be used once every few days.
Works well with: Hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid.
Don’t use with: Other acids and exfoliants like AHAs or benzoyl peroxide. Retinol should be avoided as well.
What Is Lactic Acid?
Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele was the first to isolate the compound from sour milk, and in the late 1800s, German pharmacist Boehringer Ingelheim uncovered how to mass-produce lactic acid when he realized it was a byproduct of fermented sugar and starch in sour milk via bacteria. “Lactic acid is a light peeling agent, depending on strength,” says MacGregor. She also notes that it “can smooth out the skin, making it glow.” You can find lactic acid in many of the same places other Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are found, including products that advertise that they contain AHAs but don’t specify which they contain.
Benefits of Lactic Acid
- Kills bacteria: Based on our Google deep dive, research around lactic acid’s efficacies as they relate to the skin are limited in the early to mid-1900s, but in 1985, a study found that lactic acid helped to kill skin infections in newborn infants. It tracks that it would do the same in adults, including the irritating, acne-causing kind.
- Diminishes wrinkles: Later, in ’96, when different concentrations were tested (5 percent and 12 percent), researchers observed that a higher concentration penetrated both the dermis and epidermis (5 percent could only reach the epidermis) for firmer, thicker skin, resulting in fewer fine lines and wrinkles.
- Reduces acne: It’s also been proven to reduce acne lesions. So yeah, you could say it’s a bit of a hero ingredient.
- Increases cell turnover: According to Schep, it “works by increasing the rate of skin turnover, causing new and younger-looking skin to grow.”
- Helps skin hold moisture: Similarly, Schep says that “The new skin may also have better moisture holding capability.”
Lactic Acid vs. Other Acids
If you’re wondering how it differs from other acids, like, say, glycolic acid, the lactic acid molecule is actually larger, so it can’t penetrate as deeply—instead, you’re getting more surface treatment (polishing, firming, exfoliating goodness). This is good news for those with sensitive skin, though, who’ll likely be able to tolerate its effects better. This isn’t just good news for people with sensitive skin, though, because it means lactic acid is also less likely than glycolic or salicylic acid to cause irritation and disrupt the pH of your skin barrier. So pretty much anyone can use it. If you’re someone with acneic skin who needs a lot of exfoliation, you can alternate your use of lactic acid with the use of something deeper like salicylic, which will clear off dead skin and deep clean your pores.
Side Effects of Lactic Acid
As with any acid, it’s important to use it wisely. “Do not use on irritated or red skin!” MacGregor warns. Using too much of any one acid too often can lead to inflammation, which accelerates the aging process. Using too much at once can also lead to inflammation or—worse—rashes and chemical burns. It is worth noting, though, that lactic acid actually does irritate skin less than many other acids, and therefore, can be used more often than something like (the very intense) salicylic acid.
How to Use It
Celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau recommends incorporating a lactic acid product (like a serum or toner) on a three-on/three-off schedule, i.e., you should apply the acid for three nights in a row, then take a break for three nights to treat your skin with hydrating ingredients that nourish the new cells you’ve revealed.
Also, consider discontinuing strong exfoliating products such as retinoid or scrubs when you’re regularly using lactic—or any—acid. “As it makes new skin grow, which may not have any pigment in it, it may cause increased susceptibility to sunburn. Therefore, it is often formulated with sunscreen,” says Schep. Since sloughing off layers of your skin also leaves you more prone to sun damage, make sure to apply an SPF of at least 30 daily (as you should be, anyway!).
Who should use lactic acid?
Anyone with acne prone skin. Just remember to do a patch test first, to detect any side effects or further irritability to the skin.
Lactic Acid for Skin Care: Benefits and Side Effects
Casey Gallagher, MD, is board-certified in dermatology and works as a practicing dermatologist and clinical professor.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Lactic acid has a few benefits for skin. This alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) removes dead skin cells, lightens dark spots, and improves the look of fine lines and wrinkles on all skin types—including sensitive skin.
Lactic acid is used in over-the-counter (OTC) skin care products and professional treatments. It’s also found in many topical treatments, applied to the skin, that are used to treat eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea.
This article explains how lactic acid works, how to use it, and side effects to know about. It will also help you to decide which lactic product is right for you.
What Is Lactic Acid?
Lactic acid is one of the most popular alpha hydroxy acids available. It is a common ingredient in OTC skin care products. It is also used in stronger professional peels and treatments.
Lactic acid is naturally found in dairy products. It’s what gives yogurt and soured milk that distinctive tang. Dairy products have actually been used by people across the world to soften and beautify the skin.
People still take milk baths, but most lactic acid used in skin care products and peels is synthetic (produced in a laboratory).
Lactic acid helps to remove old, dull cells on the skin’s surface by dissolving the bonds that hold them together. This process is called exfoliation.
Lactic acid speeds up cell turnover and stimulates cell renewal—the processes by which your skin sheds old cells and replaces them with new ones.
As a result, it gives you a brighter complexion, as well as smoother and softer skin.
Lactic acid is popular for two main reasons:
- It can create real change in the skin if used regularly.
- It’s one of the more gentle hydroxy acids used in skin care.
All alpha hydroxy acids exfoliate and improve skin texture, but lactic acid has an extra benefit you won’t get from other AHAs, like glycolic acid and mandelic acid.
It helps to improve the skin’s natural moisture factor, or the way the skin keeps itself hydrated. Basically, lactic acid helps to keep the skin moisturized and feeling less dry.
When you use lactic acid regularly, it can also improve signs of aging. It does so by stimulating the renewal of collagen , a fiber that helps to keep the skin firm.
Lactic acid can help to fade sun spots or age spots and can smooth and soften fine lines and wrinkles. Lactic acid won’t improve those deeper lines, though.
Lactic acid is also a main ingredient in OTC lotions and creams for keratosis pilaris, or those “chicken skin” bumps on the backs of the arms. Lactic acid helps to dissolve the plug of skin cells that build up around the hair follicle, smoothing out the bumpiness.
Possible Side Effects
Even though lactic acid is gentler for skin than other AHAs, it is still a strong treatment. Possible side effects when using lactic acid include:
The most important thing you need to know before you start using lactic acid is that it can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. As the acid sloughs away skin cells, it leaves your skin more likely to be damaged by ultraviolet light.
Some studies have suggested that the sun sensitivity can last for as much as four weeks after you’ve stopped using your product of choice, or after your peel treatment—and maybe even longer.
Use SPF 30 or higher sunscreen daily to protect your skin from sunburn and sun damage, even on cloudy days. If you don’t, you could “undo” the benefits of lactic acid, like its ability to fade spots and soften wrinkles.
Besides sun sensitivity, lactic acid can also cause skin irritation. Be on the lookout for:
- Itchy skin
Minor redness, burning, and itching can occur when you first apply a lactic acid product. As long as it is mild and goes away within an hour or so, it’s nothing to worry about.
If the redness, burning, and itching is moderate to severe or doesn’t go away after a short period of time, or if you have swelling or a rash, wash the product off right away. Don’t use it again and call your healthcare provider for advice.
Lactic acid can make your skin burn more easily in the sun. It can also cause itching and redness. Always use sunscreen when using lactic acid. If redness and irritation last for longer than an hour or so after lactic acid application, wash it off right away.
Lactic acid is the gentlest of the alpha hydroxy acids, so most people can use it without any problem. Still, some people should not use products with lactic acid.
If you have very sensitive skin, lactic acid can irritate your skin. Start with using a product with a small percentage of lactic acid (e.g., 5%) and see how your skin reacts. If you notice any irritation, stop using the product.
If you use topical retinoids like Retin-A or Refissa, these products are already exfoliating your skin. If you also use a product with lactic acid, your skin could become too sensitive.
Some people may find they can use lactic acid products every day, while others have more sensitive skin. Check with your healthcare provider about how often you should use it.
If you are using any prescription skin care medication, check with your healthcare provider before using any lactic acid treatment. It may not be appropriate for your skin.
What to Look For
Over-the-counter lactic acid products come in different concentrations, from 5% to more than 30%. A higher percentage isn’t always better, though. Jumping right in with a high percentage product can irritate your skin.
If you’ve never used over-the-counter lactic acid before, start off with a very low strength product of 5% to 10% max. This will let you see how your skin reacts and also allow your skin some time to get used to the acid.
You may find that after using up the product that you have, you’re happy with the results you’ve gotten. In that case, you can stick with the strength you’ve been using.
If you’d like to go up in strength, do it slowly. Always monitor your skin for irritation. If it seems like it’s too much for you, go back to a lower-strength product.
As far as the type of lactic acid product to choose, go with something you feel comfortable using. You have a few different options.
Lactic acid cleansers are easy to fit into your skin care routine. Use them just as you would a regular cleanser.
It’s best to avoid the delicate eye area, as lactic acid cleansers can irritate the delicate skin around your eyelids, leaving them dry, flaky, and red.
Lactic acid cleansers are a particularly good choice for sensitive skin types because you rinse them off. Lactic acid isn’t staying on your skin for any length of time, and this can limit irritation.
Creams, Lotions, and Serums
For leave-on treatments, your options are moisturizing creams, lotions, and serums. Most of these are meant to be used at night rather than during the day, to minimize sun damage. Even so, you’ll still need to apply sunscreen every morning.
If your skin starts getting irritated with daily use, scale back to using these products a couple of times per week.
Leave-on treatments are best if you want to use lactic acid long term.
At-Home Peels and Masks
These products are designed to deliver a stronger “dose” of exfoliation, and they come in higher concentrations than daily use products. Peels and masks are meant to be used one to three times per week, depending on the product.
At-home lactic acid peels and masks generally come in strengths of 10% up to 30%. Again, start off with a lower-strength product. If your skin responds well, you can try higher strength products if you want.
You may find even higher “professional” lactic acid peels over the counter, with strengths of 50% or more.
Lactic Acid for Acne
Lactic acid and glycolic acid often are used to treat acne. Products that contain lactic acid include cleansers, creams and lotions. It is often used in at-home peels and masks. The research evidence suggests that the time of exposure to lactic acid, as with the masks and peels, will contribute to how effective it is.
Professional Lactic Acid Peels
Professional lactic acid peels can be done at your local day spa, medical spa, dermatology or cosmetic surgery office. Professional peels generally range in strength from 30% up to 88%.
Superficial (skin surface only) chemical peels can be done by people who work in spas. A medical doctor must do peels that penetrate deeper into the skin.
Whoever is doing your peel will decide which strength is most appropriate for your initial treatments. They may go up in strength over time depending on your skin’s needs. Usually, a series of peels is recommended to get the full benefits.
Professional lactic acid peels are a good choice if you have a specific issue you’re looking to improve, like dark spots or signs of aging, or if you want to remove blackheads or address texture issues.
Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that is used on the skin to remove dead skin cells and help fade dark spots and soften fine lines.
It comes in different strengths and can be found in cleansers, lotions, and at-home masks. You can also get professional lactic acid peels at a spa or in a dermatologist’s office.
Start off with a low-strength product, especially if you have sensitive skin. And be sure to also use sunscreen, as lactic acid makes your skin more prone to sunburn.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does the lactic acid in a yogurt mask do for skin?
The lactic acid in yogurt can help to nourish and exfoliate your skin when applied as a face mask. To make one at home, try mixing 1/4 cup of plain Greek yogurt with a teaspoon of honey. Apply it to your face and leave it on for about 15 minutes before rinsing off.
Does salicylic acid exfoliate skin better than lactic acid?
Salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid, penetrates deeper into pores to remove dead skin cells. Lactic acid mostly works to exfoliate the surface of your skin. Salicylic acid might cause more irritation for some people. Talk to your dermatologist to find out which would work best for your skin type.
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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- Spada F, Barnes TM, Greive KA. Skin hydration is significantly increased by a cream formulated to mimic the skin’s own natural moisturizing systems. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2018;11:491–497. doi:10.2147/CCID.S177697
- American Academy of Dermatology. Keratosis pilaris: Diagnosis and treatment.
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- Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. 2015 Aug 26;8:455-61. doi:10.2147/CCID.S84765
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By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.
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