What Does Lactic Acid Do for Skin?

Beach season is upon us. Most everyone wants that no flawless, no makeup look. But how do you get that effortless glow without concealer and a little highlighter?

Lactic acid is a powerful skincare essential. If you’re seeking brighter, younger-looking skin, this is the ingredient for you.”

  • Shani

Lactic Acid could be the skincare key to the appearance of brighter and smoother skin. Read on for a breakdown of how this skin-friendly ingredient works and how you can incorporate it into your skincare routine for a brighter complexion.

What Is Lactic Acid?

Lactic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). This family of ingredients is pretty large and includes skincare powerhouses like glycolic acid and citric acid as well. 

All AHAs (and even BHAs like salicylic acid) are derived from natural sources. Lactic acid can come from fermented milk, which may be why ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra used to bathe in sour milk. 

However, just because you see lactic acid on an ingredients label doesn’t necessarily mean the product isn’t vegan-friendly. Despite its origins, we now have ways to develop vegan lactic acid in a lab.

Lactic acid has been around for centuries as a skin-brightening agent. Many skincare products today use lactic acid. One of the reasons why lactic acid might be popular is that lactic acid is naturally produced in your body’s natural hydration mechanisms. Some people believe lactic acid is a great tool to hydrate and brighten the skin.

Lactic acid is available in concentrations up to 30% in over-the-counter (OTC) skincare products. You’ll most likely find 5%-10% concentrations in lactic acid serums, while lactic acid chemical peels or prescription lactic acid treatments may contain up to 30% of this skincare ingredient.

What Are the Benefits of Lactic Acid?

We know what lactic acid is, but what does it do? Here is everything you need to know about lactic acid.

Soothing Hydration

Lactic acid is a part of your body’s natural hydration processes. Applying lactic acid topically can help make your skin appear more hydrated.

While lactic acid isn’t a moisturizer, hyaluronic acid is a natural humectant produced in your skin cells. This acid draws in moisture from the environment. In fact, just one-quarter teaspoon of hyaluronic acid can hold up to one and a half gallons of water.

Lactic acid is the only AHA that can help skin appear more hydrated. Many people, even those with dry or sensitive skin, can use lactic acid in beauty products.

Smooth-Feeling Skin

Because lactic acid hydrates the skin, it can also help reduce the appearance of the common signs of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles. Dry skin has a harder time bouncing back from stress, which can lead it to develop creases and fine lines faster. Dehydrated skin can also develop temporary fine lines called dehydration lines, which are easily addressed by maintaining adequate hydration.

Lactic acid also functions as a chemical exfoliator and can help support a more youthful complexion. For those with dry skin, dead skin cells can build up on the surface of your skin. This buildup can lead to an uneven and almost scaly skin texture and prevent your skin from adequately absorbing skincare products.

Luckily, lactic acid can gently polish away this dead skin cell buildup so that your skin is left feeling soft and smooth in appearance. Many skincare scrubs rely on this gentle resurfacing ingredient to help support a brighter complexion.

Targets Blemishes

If you have oily skin or acne-prone skin, it may be related to the buildup of dead skin cells. An overabundance of dead skin cells can clog your pores and may result in blemishes. By keeping your skin clear of buildup, as a regular part of your beauty routine, some people experience fewer breakouts. 

Lactic acid can help target and neutralize acne-causing bacteria. There are a few strains of this bacteria, so lactic acid may not help your particular brand of blemishes, but it may be worth exploring. The best way to determine if it will help your breakouts is to schedule an appointment with your esthetician or dermatologist.

Even-Toned Radiance

Hyperpigmentation often starts with damaged skin cells. Your skin cells can be damaged by UV exposure or by oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is caused by free radicals, which are unstable atoms that can cause serious damage as they attempt to stabilize themselves. Luckily, your body creates antioxidants, which round up and neutralize free radicals before they can cause damage.

Oxidative stress can occur from sun damage, weather, and environmental stressors like air pollution. Although your skin can react to oxidative stress in a couple of different ways, it reacts by overproducing pigmentation to protect itself.

This is why sun damage can result in dark spots and freckles, and why aging skin is likely to develop age spots. Luckily, lactic acid works by reducing the appearance of blemishes and deep cleaning to reveal a more even complexion.

When part of a beauty routine, lactic acid can help reduce the appearance of dark spots and support a more even-looking skin tone over time, especially when combined with potent antioxidants like vitamin c and niacinamide.

What Is the Best Lactic Acid Skincare Routine?

Lactic acid is a skincare ingredient with some seriously powerful potential benefits, but how do you use it? Follow along with my favorite lactic acid skincare routine to get your glow on.

Start With Cleanser

The first step to any skincare routine is a cleanser because the last thing you want is residual dirt or bacteria entering your freshly unclogged pores. I recommend starting with a gentle cleanser to remove dirt, makeup, and your high SPF sunscreen.

While toner is optional, for those with more oily to acne-prone skin types, you can follow your cleansing routine with a toner such as my Sake Toning Essence. Toners can help remove any residual dirt or oil your cleanser may have missed, for a thorough cleanse and more balanced skin. 

Next Step: Serum

This is where you’ll incorporate your lactic acid products. If you have sensitive skin, I recommend starting with concentrations of less than 10% to prevent side effects like skin irritation. 

My Lactic Acid Serum is formulated with 9% lactic acid to help you achieve more radiant skin. My award-winning formula also includes hyaluronic acid for moisture, aloe vera for soothing, and green tea for antioxidant effects. Although this serum is formulated to be gentle and soothing, I still recommend conducting a patch test if you have sensitive skin.

If you’re looking for greater anti-aging benefits, I recommend my Retinol Reform serum. This serum combines encapsulated retinol for collagen stimulation with lactic acid for clinically smoother and more even skin. If you have sensitive skin, I have some tips on how to best use this retinoid.

As your skin adjusts, you can slowly work your way up to using more intense treatments like lactic acid peels.


Moisturizer is an important follow-up to any exfoliating product, and lactic acid is no different. If you’re using lactic acid on dry skin, I recommend iS Clinical Reparative Moisture Emulsion. This paraben-free moisturizing lotion is designed to help skin look smoother and to help calm irritated skin.

Load Up on SPF

Your morning routine should always end in a daily sunscreen with a sunscreen containing an SPF of at least 30. This is true especially if you’re using a retinol product like my Retinol Reform or an AHA like lactic acid, which can cause sun sensitivity. Follow your moisturizer with daily sun protection to keep skin healthy, youthful, and glowing. 

In Conclusion

Lactic acid is a centuries-old AHA that is commonly used as an exfoliant. Among its many potential benefits, lactic acid can help your skin feel smoother and more hydrated, as well as have the appearance of a more even complexion. To find out if lactic acid is right for you, schedule a virtual consultation with one of my skin experts – and check out my blog for more skin tips.


Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin | National Library of Medicine

What is LACTIC ACID | EWG Skin Deep

Understanding the Ingredients in Skin Care Products | Cleveland Clinic