Lactic Acid for Acne, Blemishes, and Breakouts: What To Know
My clients with acne-prone skin often come to me frustrated and hopeless. They’ve tried numerous skincare products that over-promise and never deliver the skin-clearing results they want.
I handle blemish-prone skin with care because blemish-prone skin is often sensitive skin. It’s important to focus on finding ingredients that can clarify pores without causing excessive dryness or increasing irritation.
One of my go-to solutions is lactic acid. Today, I’ll explain what causes breakouts, how lactic acid works on the skin, and why I recommend it as a part of any blemish-prone skincare routine.
What Should I Know About Breakouts?
There are different types of blemishes and different causes. Most people who develop breakouts have a combination of different types of comedones along with a combination of different causes.
Types of Blemishes
There are four specific types of bumps you can develop if you have blemishes.
- Papules. These are small, red bumps that may look like a rash. They often appear in clusters and may even feel itchy.
- Blackheads. These are clogged pores that are open at the top. The dead skin, dirt, and oil inside have been exposed to oxygen, which often turns the cells brown or black in appearance.
- Whiteheads. The opposite of blackheads, whiteheads are closed at the top of the pore, can appear swollen, and have a visible “head” at the top.
- Cysts. Large, red, painful bumps that lie deep under the surface of the skin are signs of cystic acne. For cystic acne, a dermatologist may recommend an oral treatment in addition to improving your skincare.
No matter what kind of breakouts you have, it all goes back to clogged pores. Pores fill with sebum and dirt, creating a clogged pore that leads to a bump. The reason why your pores are clogging is another story.
Acne vs. Breakouts: What’s the Difference?
While you may hear the terms “acne” and “breakouts” being used synonymously, these two skin issues are actually quite different.
Acne is a dermatological condition that can be diagnosed by a dermatologist, and it is typically much more persistent than your typical breakout. Rather than a few occasional pimples, the term “acne” describes a much more systemic issue.
Acne is caused by either hormones or bacteria. Hormonal acne can occur as a result of chronic hormonal imbalances and typically presents as painful cystic acne. This type of acne is usually treated with hormone therapy or hormonal birth control.
Meanwhile, other types of acne are caused by bacteria that feed off of sebum. These bacteria breed inside overactive sebaceous glands and cause irritation that can result in red and tender lesions. This type of acne is usually treated with potent formulas designed to kill the bacteria.
While normal breakouts can be addressed with over-the-counter skincare products and lifestyle adjustments, acne typically requires a prescription medication and can only be treated by a board-certified dermatologist.
Causes of Breakouts
Bumps and blemishes have a much more complex cause than chocolate, greasy food, or just bad luck. It’s usually a combination of lifestyle, hormones, and genetics.
- Heredity. One of the biggest predictors of acne is genetics. If one or both of your parents had acne or has acne, there’s a much higher chance you will too.
- Hormones. Hormonal changes can increase the amount of androgens in your body. Androgens can cause sebum to become thicker and stickier, making it more likely that your skin’s own sebum will pick up dirt and dead skin cells on your skin and clog your pores.
- Improper skincare. I always start by asking my clients about their skincare. The wrong products can make blemishes worse, and completely avoiding skincare can also cause pimples to form.
- Stress. Stress can change your hormone levels, which can trigger the release of more hormones that interfere with your skin’s sebum production, leading to more bumps.
- Lifestyle. Not getting enough sleep, smoking, or eating too much or too little of certain foods (like sugar) can increase your chances of developing blemishes.
The underlying causes of your breakouts may or may not be adjustable (i.e. you can’t change your DNA, but you can change your lifestyle or your skincare), but my approach to blemishes is to tackle the problem by helping the skin remember how to function properly.
To do this, I focus on:
- Eliminating products that cause dry skin and irritation
- Using products to support efficient skin cell turnover
- Making sure dead skin cells are sloughed away quickly before they have a chance to clog pores
The recipe is a lot more simple than it sounds.
What Products Are Good for Blemish-Prone Skin?
I often suggest that people with blemish-prone skin dial back their skincare routine to just a few simple yet effective products and gradually add more treatments as their skin tolerates it.
Cleansers can be especially hard on blemish-prone skin. I strongly advise you to avoid anything at the drugstore that says “apricot scrub.” These types of granulated cleansers can destroy the skin, interfere with the skin’s microbiome, and disrupt the pH balance of your skin, leading to more breakouts.
A better option is a cleanser with salicylic acid, which is a type of beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that can gently exfoliate the skin without over-drying. My Cleansing Serum is always a reliable option here.
Every skin type gets a moisturizer, even blemish-prone skin. A lack of hydration can actually make oily skin worse because the sebaceous glands tend to produce an excess amount of sebum if you’re using skincare products that are drying.
I love an oil-free moisturizer that hydrates the skin without congesting the pores. Hyaluronic acid is a natural ingredient that helps skin retain moisture in the epidermal layer naturally, without occlusive ingredients that can trap dirt and oil and lead to breakouts.
Serums and Chemical Peels
To really tackle blemishes, you need to support your skin’s natural cell turnover process and exfoliatedead skin cells away from the surface. This means your skin is increasing the rate at which it makes new, healthy skin cells and sloughing away dead ones on the surface that could clog your pores. Lactic acidformulations can help with both.
I recommend my blemish-prone clients incorporate my Lactic Acid Serum into their skincare routine, right along with Retinol Reform and my Triple Acid Signature Peel.
- Retinol Reform helps support natural skin renewal, reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and protects the skin with powerful antioxidants like vitamin C. Unlike some potent retinoids, Retinol Reform minimizes irritation and redness thanks to its slow-release formula.
- Lactic Acid Serum helpsrestore a healthy glow, soothes skin, and gently exfoliates dead skin cells while working synergistically with Retinol Reform to target signs of aging and dark spots. My formula even helps smooth skin texture and tone.
- The Triple Acid Signature Peel uses a combination of exfoliating acids, including lactic acid, to smooth the skin and minimize the appearance of pores.
Both retinol and lactic acid are solutions that can help with blemishes, but I want to explain how lactic acid works in this two-part solution.
What Is Lactic Acid?
Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), which is the same family of ingredients that includes glycolic acid and citric acid. It’s one of my favorite skincare ingredients for restoring a healthy glow and combatting bumps simultaneously.
Where It Comes From
Lactic acid can come from fermented animal sources, like sour milk, but there are plenty of plant-based, cruelty-free sources as well, like fermented vegetables and soy. The lactic acid in my Lactic Acid Serum is plant-based, paraben-free, and non-comedogenic.
Why It’s in My Skincare
Those who know me know I’m passionate about ingredient quality and performance. I won’t include an ingredient in any product unless I’ve seen it produce quantifiable results repeatedly. Lactic acid is a top performer because it’s:
- Powerfully effective but gentle for all skin types
- Can be derived from vegan
- Works to improve the appearance of blemishes, uneven skin tone, dark spots, fine lines, and skin texture
I trust lactic acid to deliver, and it typically outperforms other remedies my clients have tried.
Lactic Acid and Blemishes: What’s the Connection?
I like lactic acid for so many reasons, but one of the most important is its ability to multitask and work on a myriad of different skin concerns all at once.
Unlike scrubs, lactic acid is a gentle chemical exfoliant, and you can find it in my renowned Triple Acid Signature Peel.
Instead of scrubbing away dead skin cells, lactic acid dissolves the protein bonds between dead skin cells and living skin cells so you can easily wash them away.
Less buildup of dead skin cells on the surface of your skin can mean less congestion in your pores.
Even though the first goal is to eliminate blemishes, I always remind my clients that having clear skin is just the beginning. Once the blemishes are gone, we can work on restoring a healthy glow, tackling the early signs of aging, and getting healthy, radiant skin.
For a healthy glow, lactic acid can deliver immediate results. Its ability to brighten the skin is one of my favorite benefits of lactic acid.
Improve the Appearance of Signs of Aging
You’d be surprised how many people I meet who are in their 40s and 50s and still struggling with blemishes. This is a unique challenge because these clients usually want to add anti-aging products to their skincare routines but often find that these products create more blemishes.
Lactic acid is a heavy hitter at reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. When used in combination with Retinol Reform, the results are even more dramatic.
Gentle for All Skin Types
Some skincare routines targeted at helping you reduce blemishes can contain harsh, drying ingredients that leave your skin irritated and make matters worse. Lactic acid has soothing properties that have been shown to calm existing breakouts and help prevent future ones.
Dark spots (sometimes referred to as age spots) can appear on your skin seemingly out of nowhere. Whether they pop up after blemishes in the form of acne scars or are the result of sun damage, the goal for many is to reduce the amount of pigmentation in these areas.
Lactic acid can help speed up the process by helping remove dead skin from the epidermis and supporting natural cell turnover.
What Should I Know About Lactic Acid?
Before you head out to buy the first lactic acid product you see, let’s talk about concentrations and side effects.
Some Side Effects Are Normal
Lactic acid really works, and you should never experience excessive or painful tingling, redness, or irritation while using it. I recommend my clients start by using it once or twice a week to make sure the skin tolerates it, and then build up to daily use and eventually alternate with Retinol Reform.
One completely normal side effect is skin purging. Because lactic acid rapidly dissolves dead skin cells on the epidermis, it signals the pores to purge, which leads to a resurfacing of oil and dirt trapped inside the skin. This may result in a few temporary breakouts, but these should go away quickly to make room for healthy, happy skin.
All AHAs can also increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. This isn’t anything to be worried about, but it does mean that you should apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every morning while using lactic acid.
Long term topical application of lactic acid/lactate lotion as a preventive treatment for acne vulgaris | PubMed
SEER Training: Layers of the Skin | National Cancer Institute