What is lactic acid?
When it comes to skin, Lactic acid is an essential ingredient. Otherwise known as an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), it is a milk-derived gentle acid that helps to exfoliate dead skin cells and other contaminants from the skin. Lactic acid is great at reducing pigmentation spots, improving hydration levels and also preventing breakouts. Lactic acid is found in many skin care products, both in retail and professional lines. It is a universally beneficial ingredient. Good cosmeceutical skincare lines will ensure that the pH of the formulation is both stable and sits somewhere between pH 3.5 and 5.5. This leaves the normal skin pH balanced, reducing redness or sensitivity.
In more concentrated forms, lactic acid is used in Professional chemical peels to provide a liquid exfoliation. It does this without any mechanical exfoliation, meaning that your therapist does not scrub your skin with lactic acid. The acid is simply applied to the skin with a brush or moistened cotton round, left in place for a few minutes, then cleansed away. Most people will not flake or peel after a chemical peel, despite the name, as the acid is very gentle. And actually the skin will be so hydrated and feel really soft afterwards. This is a great pick-me-up before a social engagement.
What’s the difference between lactic acid and other AHAs like salicylic acid and glycolic acid?
Glycolic acid is another Alpha-hydroxy acid, that is a much smaller molecule than lactic acid. Due to it’s small size, it has a far superior penetrating power into the skin. Whilst this sounds like a good thing, more penetration can mean stinging, redness and sensitivity in those with more delicate skin. Having said that, Glycolic acid is heavily researched and can provide great depigmentation and improve hydration levels remarkably. It is best suited to people that have non-sensitised skin, and really crave that extra potency from a cleanser or skincare product.
Glycolic chemical peels have the same properties, where they penetrate faster and deeper into the skin due to the small molecule size. So often a dermal therapist will select a glycolic peel to produce a more dramatic effect for the skin, leading to increased skin cell renewal.
Salicylic acid is a little different. It is actually a Beta-Hydroxy Acid (BHA), which has a strong attraction to oil. So Salicylic is perfect for those suffering from blackheads, breakouts or acne, as the BHA penetrates deep in the oil-producing pores and helps to dissolve out the sebum or oil. This then reduces the bacteria that love to grow in the oil glands, reducing breakouts. BHA is often called a” triple-threat exfoliating ingredient” because it can unclog the pores, reduce redness associated with inflammation, and help reduce acne-causing bacteria.
Salicylic can be found in many cleansers that are marketed as suitable for oily skin. There are some great Blemish SOS products that have a slightly higher concentration of BHAs in them. I recommend these types of SOS products to clear up a pimple quickly, as the BHA draws out the oil and the spot disappears within 24 hours.
Again there are also BHA based professional chemical peels, and these are best suited to oily, blemish-prone skins. They work on the same basis of drawing out oil and reducing bacterial levels.
Is lactic acid better for those with sensitive skin?
Lactic acid is better suited to a sensitized skin than Glycolic acid or Salicyclic acid. The larger molecule size means that it tends to only produce results in the upper and outer layers of the skin, leaving the deeper layers intact. Lactic acid also has water-binding properties, leaving the skin more hydrated and feeling super soft after use.
Products that are formulated for sensitive skins tend to have lower concentrations of lactic acid, than those formulated for normal skin types. Your skin or dermal therapist will guide you to make the best choices here.
Lactic Acid is good for more mature skin, acne-prone skin or sensitive skin types. It really is a good all-rounder.
What kind of benefits can lactic acid have on the skin?
Lactic acid has water binding properties. This means that as the lactic acid penetrates into the skin, water will be pulled in too. Afterwards the skin feels soft, leaving less obvious fine lines as the hydration of skin improves.
Lactic acid may also help lighten skin pigmentation or discolourations. This is because the surface skin cells containing contaminants and old ‘tan’ are gently exfoliated off. It can also visibly firm skin as it renews the skin surface, leaving the skin with a smoother texture.
Some body moisturisers also contain Lactic acid, which can help to reduce the number of ingrown hairs that you might encounter after waxing or shaving.
How often should you use it in your skincare routine?
I use lactic acid in both my cleanser and pigment-inhibiting serums everyday. All my skincare is pH balanced and contain only traces of lactic acid so that I am not stripping my skin. Overdoing the use of exfoliants or acids is a definite no-no.
Higher concentrations of lactic acid (or glycolic or salicyclic for that matter), should not be used more than once a week. It is important that we give the skin time to renew and replace, before we exfoliate off more dead skin cells. Otherwise we get to a point where there are no dead skin cells available to protect our skin, and this leads to sensitivity and problematic skin.
Anything you would like to add?
Having a proper skin assessment by a professional dermal therapist is really important, and should be on your to-do list. A therapist can determine which is the best AHA or BHA for your skin, and also point you in the right direction of which products will achieve the best skin health for you.
There are so many different reputable brands on the market these days, spending a fortune is not necessary. Just like a good bra-fitting makes your clothes look better, a professional skin analysis can really nut out the best daily routine for your skin to bring out the best health and appearance for your skin.
Thanks for reading!