When searching for a skin reviver, it’s tempting to reach for the highest potency ingredient on your beauty shelf: glycolic acids, retinol, chemical peels. But in doing so, we tend to dismiss the power of slow and steady constancy. High-powered ingredients can get fast results, but also run the risk of damaging the skin barrier—particularly if application of them isn’t staged and gradual.
Enter: lactic acid, the exfoliant that’s gentle enough to use regularly, even for sensitive skin. It works to unveil a brighter complexion and minimise the appearance of fine lines while giving you the smooth, polished glow you’re searching for—especially after a season of festivities has had its way with your skin.
While lactic acid falls into the category of alpha hydroxy acids, it has a particular power that makes it stand out: its ability to hydrate, while also exfoliating. As it polishes off imperfections, its humectant qualities—which allow it to draw in moisture from the environment and lock it into skin—also work to protect and nourish your skin. A double agent, indeed.
What is lactic acid?
Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid, or an AHA. It’s often derived from milk, but also from vegan sources like apples, beer and wine—check the ingredients list on your preferred lactic acid product if you’re looking for a plant-based version of the ingredient.
What are the benefits of lactic acid?
According to this study, naturally occurring AHAs possess three qualities: “they exfoliate dead skin cells, moisturise the skin, and possibly, rejuvenate the skin and repair damage caused by sunlight.”
“In short: smoother, younger skin.”
It works to exfoliate the top layer of the skin by loosening the bonds between dead skin cells, which are then sloughed off to reveal brighter, smoother skin.
As mentioned, it is a humectant as well as a chemical exfoliant, which means that it draws in moisture from the environment and pulls it into your skin, thereby hydrating while exfoliating. It can also even skin texture, while reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and pigmentation.
What kinds of lactic acid products are there?
Lactic acid comes in a wide variety of skin care products, from cleansers, to gels, to moisturisers, from cult beauty brands like Sunday Riley and Teresa Tarmey to dermatologist favourites like La Roche-Posay.
Serums are useful for delivering a potent shot of the ingredient onto your skin, while you might be more suited to a moisturiser containing lactic acid if you have dry skin and are looking for the extra hydration that can be packed into a cream formulation.
Who should use it?
Given its relative gentleness in the world of acids, lactic acid can be used by most people, but is particularly suited to those with sensitive or easily inflamed skin who find more potent cleansers a little too much for their daily skincare routine. A concentration between five to eight per cent is likely safe for all skin types–it’s best to start here and work your way up to a higher concentration for added power. If you have dry and easily irritated skin, it’s best to use lactic acid one-to-two times a week and slowly work up to more if you feel your skin needs it, or your dermatologist recommends doing so.
When should you use it?
It’s best to check the packaging on the particular lactic acid product you’re using, though many recommend night-time use, given that the ingredient has a propensity to increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. The holy grail nugget of skincare wisdom is applicable here, as always: make doubly sure to use an SPF sunscreen when using lactic acid, whether your application is in the day or the night, as it can make your skin particularly sensitive to the sun. A patch test is also recommended.
The best lactic acid products of 2023
‘Liquid gold’ may sound hyperbolic, but the legions of fans of this Alpha-H product has converted would argue it’s quite reasonable. A gently hydrating exfoliant, this cream promises to resurface your skin while soothing it.
Liquid Gold Exfoliating Treatment with 5% Glycolic Acid
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10%
Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment
Teresa Tarmey Lactic Acid Treatment
Peter Thomas Roth Pro Strength 30% Lactic Acid Complex Pore Treatment
Paula's Choice Resist Advance Smoothing Treatment
This story first appeared in Vogue Australia.