When dealing with skincare concerns like hyperpigmentation, acne, or wrinkles, it might be challenging to really know your skincare allies, considering the numerous products and ingredients available to us today. Without proper research, you may end up with hundreds of skincare ingredients on your shelf that don’t entirely solve your problems or meet your expectations. This is why I’ll explain to you in detail everything you need to know about lactic acid to help you decide if you should include it in your skincare regimen.
What is Lactic Acid?
When you hear lactic acid, the picture that comes to mind might be a harsh chemical substance hazardous to the skin. But lactic acid is actually a skincare ingredient that delivers incredible benefits when used in the right proportion. It belongs to a class of acids known as Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs). Tartaric, malic, citric, glycolic, and mandelic acids are all members of the AHA family.
Lactic acid is a powerful exfoliating, wrinkle-fighting, and anti-aging ingredient extensively used in over-the-counter skincare and cosmeceutical products. “It is one of the more common alpha-hydroxy acids used to improve skin tone and texture as well as lightly exfoliate the skin,” says Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali of Houston Dermatology and Laser Surgery.
New York-based dermatologist Kenneth Mark, M.D, says lactic acid “is typically a component of stand-alone chemical peels or combined with alpha or beta hydroxy acids in lotions or creams.”
Derived from sour milk, lactic acid is what gives yogurt that distinctive taste. Little wonder Cleopatra, as legend says, regularly bathed in milk to keep her skin looking glowy and lovely. But before you hop into a tub of milk to have a milk bath or sprinkle milk on your face, you should be aware that many of the lactic acids used in most skincare products are produced synthetically. So, save yourself the stress!
Lactic Acid Skin Benefits
It’s an exfoliator
One of the most common causes of skin issues is the accumulation of dead skin cells that clogs the pores. When this happens, skin cell turnover is drastically reduced, and you may begin to experience breakouts, skin pigmentations, and other signs of premature aging. You can speed up your skin’s exfoliation rate with the use of lactic acid products. Lactic acid helps to dissolve the bond that holds dead skin cells together and speeds up cell renewal. This will make your skin brighter, smoother, and firmer as more active skin cells make their way to the surface of the skin. Plus, once your skin is exfoliated, you take more advantage of the products you apply.
Lactic acid helps the skin retain moisture
Another powerful benefit of using lactic acid as skin moisture is mandatory for healthy skin. Lactic acid is a humectant, meaning it can draw water from the air into the skin to keep the skin moisturized. Have you been battling different skin problems associated with dry skin? It’s probably time for you to add lactic acid to your skincare regimen. When you use a lactic acid product, it mimics the skin’s natural moisturizing system, increasing skin hydration.
In addition to exfoliating and improving skin moisture, lactic acid has also been shown to calm existing acne. At the same time, it can also be used as a preventive measure against acne vulgaris. By unclogging the skin pores, lactic acid helps reduce the amount of dull/dead cells in the skin that can cause acne. If acne is your main concern, you can also try using products with glycolic acid as it is also very effective for fighting breakouts.
Strengthens the lipid layer
The fatty ceramides that make up the skin barrier are known as lipids. When you use lactic acid products, it stimulates skin cell regeneration and strengthens its barrier. A strong lipid layer helps your skin to retain adequate moisture and prevent skin dehydration. Another significant benefit of a strong lipid layer is fewer fine lines and wrinkles. With adequate skin moisture, your skin is well-nourished, and the fine lines and wrinkles become less visible.
Another common use of lactic acid is to fade mild hyperpigmentation like dark spots, age spots, and acne scars. Because lactic acid is a melanin suppressor, when it penetrates the skin, it exfoliants gently, removing darker dead skin cells, leading to an even skin tone. Lactic acid is one of the mildest ingredients you can use for skin lightening, so if your skin doesn’t tolerate hydroquinone or other harsh peelings, it might be just perfect for you. Studies confirmed that lactic acid might be a new effective and safe peeling agent in the treatment of melasma.
Who should use lactic acid?
Lactic acid is a milder AHA, which makes it suitable for most skin types. If other AHAs are too irritating for your skin, you may want to try this one. New York-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D says, “Lactic Acid is the most preferred acid for sensitive skin.” It has the least potential for irritation compared to other AHAs or retinol. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s suitable for everyone. Lactic acid has a larger molecule than other AHAs, thus, it can’t penetrate the skin as deeply.
Lactic acid is not for you if you are currently using retinol or salicylic acid, as the combination may be too harsh to your skin. Also, if you’re pregnant or nursing, you should consult your doctor before using any lactic acid product. Finally, if you’re allergic to milk or dairy, lactic acid may not be suitable for you since it’s derived from milk.
How can I include lactic acid in my skincare regimen?
There are different ways of incorporating lactic acid into your skincare routine. You first need to know their concentration and follow the directions. Look for a product with at least 5% lactic acid. The higher the concentration, the better results. It’s best to start with a product with a low concentration and increase as your skin adapts to it.
As with all skincare products, do a patch test on a small part of your skin before full application. Wait for 24 hours and observe how your skin reacts to it. However, if there are no adverse reactions, you can proceed to apply on your entire face once or twice a week every evening. Be careful to keep the product away from your eyes and always follow with sunscreen. Remember, lactic acid increases sun sensitivity, so don’t use it during the day but in the evenings only.
Are there any side effects of using lactic acid?
Like most skincare products, there are some drawbacks of using this acid, some of which include:
Increased sun sensitivity
A powerful exfoliator, lactic acid leaves your skin more vulnerable to sun damage. This is why it’s imperative to use sunscreen while using lactic acid. Failure to do so could result in sunburns, wrinkles, pigmented skin — the very problems you were trying to avoid. As an added precautionary measure, you can use a moisturizer that contains sunscreen to keep your skin protected from the devastating effects of the sun.
Be on the lookout for any burning sensation, swelling, or itchy skin. Note that it’s common to experience mild redness after the first application, but this should disappear within a short time. If the redness persists, discontinue the use of the product.
How long does lactic acid take to work topically?
People should remember consistency is always the key in skincare. Results will not happen overnight regardless of which ingredients or treatment you use. For topical lactic acid, it can take up to 2 months before you begin to see noticeable improvements. Depending on what you want to improve (wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, acne) and your condition, it can take more or less time.
Is tingling normal?
When using lactic acid you may feel tingling or a slight burning feeling. This is OK and in most cases, it shouldn’t be something worth worrying about. The tingling feeling usually goes away in a few minutes. If the tingling lasts longer or you feel like your face is burning is better to rinse lactic acid off and consult a specialist.