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  • Writer's pictureAnjana Rajbhandary

What is lactic acid?

Lactic acid

Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid mostly derived from milk, but it can also be extracted from vegan sources like corn starch and other sugar-rich foods. However, most skincare products use synthetically produced lactic acid. It has hydrating properties to gently exfoliate the skin, lighten sun spots and diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Historically, many countries have used milk and milk products to make their skin more beautiful due to its light exfoliating benefits. It’s believed that in ancient Egypt, Cleopatra regularly took milk baths to soften her skin.

Lactic acid benefits

Lactic acid is a mild hydrating exfoliant that increases cell turnover and supports new skin growth. The removal of dead skin helps fade dark spots and stimulates collagen production to give you smoother and firmer skin. However, it can’t treat deep wrinkles. It keeps the top layer of your skin hydrated, while its antibacterial properties can help reduce acne. It’s considered safe to use during pregnancy and nursing.

How to use lactic acid

Due to lactic acid’s exfoliating properties, it makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it should be used at night. It’s most popular in toner or serum form, so you can start by using it about three times a week after cleansing your face. As your skin starts to build tolerance, you can increase the frequency. Follow with a night cream.

Side effects of lactic acid

Lactic acid generally doesn’t have side effects other than slight tingling when you first start using it. It’s gentler than glycolic acid but it may cause red or irritated skin if you overuse it. Don’t use it on the same nights that you use retinol or salicylic acid. You can check with a dermatologist to determine whether lactic acid is suitable for your skin type.

How much does lactic acid cost?

Expect to pay from $8-$92 and up for lactic acid. Affordable brands make formulas in the $8-$19 price range. You can find premium brands in mid and high ranges for $29-$91. If you don’t mind splurging, you can find luxury brands with lactic acid for $92 or more.

Lactic acid FAQ

Can I use lactic acid every day?

A. No. Use lactic acid about three times a week to avoid irritation.

How long does it take lactic acid to show results?

A. Lactic acid can instantly hydrate your skin, but it can take up to 12 weeks to fade dark spots and plump lines.

Can I use lactic acid with other active ingredients?

A. No, you can't use lactic acid with other exfoliating acids like glycolic acid and azelaic acid, retinol and benzoyl peroxide.

Best lactic acid products

Best lactic acid cleanser

Dermalogica Skin Resurfacing Cleanser: available at Amazon, Dermalogica, Sephora and SkinStore

Made with refreshing rose flower oil, this cleanser cleans and smooths your skin. All skin types can use it.

Best lactic acid exfoliant

Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment: available at Amazon, Sephora, SpaceNK and Ulta Beauty

This dual-action scrub made with aloe vera and honey gently exfoliates and smooths your skin to reveal a natural glow.

Best lactic acid toner

REN Clean Skincare Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic: available at Amazon, Sephora, SpaceNK and SkinStore

A toner to tighten pores and brighten your skin that also has azelaic acid to improve radiance and even skin tone.

Best lactic acid serum

SUNDAY RILEY Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment: available at LovelySkin, Sephora and Ulta Beauty

This serum has purified lactic acid to smooth skin texture and reduce fine lines and wrinkles. It also has licorice and lemongrass to brighten dark spots.

Best lactic acid moisturizer

Mario Badescu Buttermilk Moisturizer: available at Amazon, Sephora and Ulta Beauty

In addition to lactic acid, this moisturizer has vitamin E to protect you against free radicals and chamomile extract to calm your skin.

Best lactic acid for sensitive skin

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel: available at Amazon, SpaceNK and Sephora

A daily peel pad made with three gentle acids to exfoliate and hydrate while protecting against early signs of aging. It’s specially made for sensitive skin that can’t tolerate glycolic acid.

Best lactic acid for acne-prone skin

Proactiv Blackhead Dissolving Gel: available at Amazon, Proactiv, Sephora and Ulta Beauty

If you have acne-prone skin, this gel helps exfoliate your skin and clean your pores. It also has salicylic acid to prevent new acne from forming.

Best lactic acid with squalane

Biossance Squalane + Lactic Acid Resurfacing Night Serum: available at Amazon and Sephora

This serum has 10% lactic acid to give you luminous skin overnight and squalane to provide long-lasting hydration.

Best lactic acid with vitamin C

Dermalogica BioLumin-C Serum: available at Amazon, Dermalogica, LovelySkin, Sephora and SkinStore

This potent serum protects you from environmental stressors and has vitamin C to brighten your skin by reducing dark spots.

Best budget lactic acid

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA: available at Sephora, SkinStore, SpaceNK and Ulta Beauty

Suitable for all skin types, this 10% lactic acid peeling formula also has hyaluronic acid to provide you with extra hydration.

Best splurge lactic acid

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clinical Grade IPL Dark Spot Correcting Serum: available at LovelySkin, SpaceNK and Sephora

This multitasking serum exfoliates your skin with lactic acid while L-ascorbic and kojic acids work together to repair skin cells and fade hyperpigmentation.

Best clean lactic acid

Youth To The People Kombucha + 11% AHA Exfoliation Power Toner: available at Amazon, Sephora and Youth To The People

An overnight liquid exfoliator to minimize the appearance of pores in a week that has kombucha black tea and tree bark that act as prebiotics to protect the skin barrier.


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