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Lactic acid is an bonafide MVP in the glowy skin game, earning loyal followers because of its ability to gently yet effectively make skin feel brand spankin’ new.
A member of the alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) family, lactic acid is touted for its ability to refresh and revive even the dullest skin.
People also love its variety, affordability, and general tolerance among multiple skin types, making it a perfect introductory skin care product for those who want to move beyond the basics.
But before you join in on the buzz surrounding lactic acid, there are a few important things to consider, including whether it’s the right product for you, and whether it’s something you’ll get noticeable results with.
To help you find the right lactic acid product for your needs and budget, in this guide we’ll cover:
- what lactic acid is
- why it’s so beneficial to the skin
- how to use lactic acid
- 8 of the best lactic acid products for different skin needs
- the best lactic acid at prices from $7 to $91
What is lactic acid?
Lactic acid is a term you’ll hear in several different realms. In the fitness world, it’s commonly associated with strenuous exercise since it builds up in your muscles during intense workouts (hello, sore abs!).
In the world of noms, lactic acid is also found in certain foods you eat like milk, beets, and sourdough bread.
In the beauty world, lactic acid is part of the family of products for mature skin called alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) which are applied topically to exfoliate old dead cells and reveal glowy #NoFilter new skin.
What does lactic acid do for skin?
Used over time, lactic acid has the ability to significantly improve the appearance of skin. Along with treating fine lines, wrinkles, and skin discoloration (age spots, hyperpigmentation), lactic acid can greatly brighten the skin and reduce pore size.
Working as an exfoliant for the skin, lactic acid is effective but mild. It’s generally tolerable among those with sensitive skin, which isn’t something that can be said of all AHAs (glycolic acid, we’re looking at you).
You’ll experience some tingling or redness upon application (since it’s busting those dead cells), but beyond that, side effects are typically very minimal.
That said, those with pre-existing skin conditions, including eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea shouldn’t use lactic acid without first consulting a trusted medical professional.
Additionally, if you’re using lactic acid along with other AHAs or skin care products, you may want to consult a dermatologist. Not all products work well together, and it’s especially recommended that you don’t combine lactic acid with other retinol-based products.
How do you use lactic acid in skin care?
The form or method of your lactic acid application comes down to personal preference. There are lots of lotions, face creams, cleansers, and serums to choose from (read on for our picks).
It’s advised that you gradually introduce lactic acid into your daily routine. As keen as you are to get your glow on, you’ll want to hold off on daily use at first.
And while most lactic acid products are suggested for use before bed, you should always carefully read the instructions and labels. If you’ve got sensitive or tricky skin, do a patch test with the product before going all the way.
Since AHAs, including lactic acid, work to peel away and soften the top layer of your epidermis, there’s always a risk that your skin can be more exposed to the elements, including sun.
It’s advised that you pair your lactic acid use with a sunscreen or a SPF-containing product… but of course, sunscreen always!
What strength is best?
At-home lactic acid products should generally be 10 percent or less, at least to start with (you can find OTC version at 50 percent and above). You can also get a professional-grade lactic acid peel from a dermatologist, though the deeper peel can also mean more recovery time (up to 2 weeks).
8 products featuring lactic acid
We chose these products based on their effective ingredients and rave reviews from customers. While they range in price, most of the lactic acid products on this list are less than $40.
$ = under $10
$$ = $10–$35
$$$ = over $40
Best lactic acid pick if you’re on a budget: The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA
At less than $7, this lactic acid serum is one of the most affordable options on the market. Formulated alongside Tasmanian pepperberry, which reduces possible irritation associated with exfoliation, the serum is gentle enough for daily use.
Online reviewers with sensitive skin have left positive marks, and said the product was helpful in smoothing out their skin. It comes in both a 5 percent and 10 percent strength.
Key ingredients: lactic acid, Tasmannia lanceolata fruit/leaf extract (as Tasmanaian pepperberry)
Best lactic acid pick if you want to splurge: Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment
The Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid treatment is a favorite among shoppers, earning more than 3,000 positive reviews on Sephora.
It’s the treatment’s ability to treat multiple skin care woes — including discoloration, redness, and dark spots — that customers are drawn toward, and some noted results within a week, writing, “The results are glowing skin and invisible pores.”
Not everyone has seen splurge-worthy success, though, as some wrote that they noticed no difference in their skin.
Key ingredients: lactic acid, Cymbopogon schoenanthus (lemongrass) oil, Glycyrrhiza glabra root extract (licorice root)
Best lactic acid pick for beginners: CeraVE SA Cream For Rough & Bumpy Skin
CeraVE is a popular drugstore brand that frequently amasses rave reviews from customers for its affordability and its ease of use. This skin cream is no exception, earning nearly 5,000 positive reviews on Amazon.
Its gentle formulation, and power-packed ingredient list, is generally well tolerated, and as you need only apply to impacted areas of skin, there’s no secret application learning curving.
Providing moisture for an estimated 24 hours, the cream is a favorite among many, but as is the case with introducing any new skin care item to your routine, some did report irritation.
Key ingredients: lactic acid, salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid
Best lactic acid pick for sensitive skin: Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleanser Daily Foaming Wash
The inclusion of pineapple, pumpkin, and papaya enzymes make this cleanser gentle enough for twice-daily use. The glycolic and lactic acid exfoliate, while the fruit enzymes add some much-needed moisture to the mix.
The wash has generally favorable reviews, especially among those with sensitive skin. “A lot of cleansers dry me out but this one is gentle enough and still helped with my hormonal acne especially,” one reviewer wrote.
Some did suspect that the cleanser caused breakouts, while others didn’t see the results they hoped for.
Key ingredients: lactic acid, glycolic acid, Lactobacillus/pumpkin fruit ferment filtrate (as pumpkin enzyme)
Best lactic acid pick for lotion lovers: Mario Badescu Buttermilk Moisturizer
This moisturizers features an infusion of lactic acid for exfoliation, along with thyme and chamomile for smooth, soft skin. Earning mostly positive reviews, the buttermilk product comes in a cream formula, and customers report that it doesn’t feel heavy on the skin. “This is a perfect lotion for the winter months when your skin feels like it needs extra moisture, ” one reviewer wrote.
Key ingredients: lactic acid, Tymus vulgaris (as thyme leaf extract), Chamomilla cecutita (matricaria) flower extract (as chamomile extract)
Best lactic acid for face mask fans: Dermalogica Multivitamin Power Recovery Masque
For those that prefer reaping the benefits of a skin care product, this face mask is the perfect option. Free of artificial fragrances and dyes, it’s intended for weekly use, and can be applied to the skin for up to 15 minutes.
Sephora customers report the product cleared up rosace and acne, and many loved the way their skin looked after use, but multiple shoppers reported an off-putting fragrance to the product, and others did not notice a change in skin.
Key ingredients: lactic acid, concentrated vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin F
Best lactic acid toner: PCA Skin Nutrient Toner
Paraben-free and fragrance-free, this pumpkin-scented combo of lactic acid, enzymes, vitamins, and amino acids feeds and refreshes skin.
5-star reviews abound with devotees raving about everything from its ability to reduce breakouts to its hydrating powers. The smell mostly gets huge thumbs up, but some reviewers found it overpowering.
Key ingredients: lactic acid, pumpkin ferment extract, Eugenia caryophyllus (clove) leaf oil, Cinnamomum cassia leaf oil, Zingiber officinale (ginger) root oil
Best lactic acid multitasker: Dr. Dennis Gross AlphaBeta Universal Daily Peel
These ready-to-use pads are a two-step process (thus the two separate jars). Step one is a tingly peel that you wipe over your face and leave on for 2 minutes. Step two is a neutralizer that finishes everything off.
While you can feel it working, reviewers with rosacea say it’s gentle enough for their skin. The power-packed physician-created formula contains multiple AHAs (lactic, malic, glycolic), along with antioxidant A, C and E, green tea extract to protect against free radicals, and salicylic acid to help unclog pores.
One of the few downsides: some reviewers comment that it’s too pricey.
Key ingredients: malic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, retinol, green tea, salicylic acid
Summary: Lactic acid for skin
- Lactic acid is included in the alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) category, which exfoliates, improves, and treats the skin.
- When used as a skin care ingredient, lactic acid brightens the skin, treats discoloration, and leaves users with a more glowing complexion.
- Lactic acid is generally tolerable, even among those with sensitive skin. It’s normal to experience a tingling sensation when applying, but more serious side effects may warrant a call to the dermatologist.
- Lactic acid is found in numerous beauty products — including cleansers, shampoo, face creams, and more — making it easy to incorporate in your beauty routine.
- When using lactic acid, always follow product instructions, avoid mixing the product with other retinol-based items, and always wear sunscreen.