Lactic Acid for Skin Care: Benefits and Side Effects

Everything you need to know about this over-the-counter chemical exfoliant.

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Lactic acid has a few benefits for your skin. Lactic acid is alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that removes dead skin cells, lightens dark spots, and improves the look of fine lines and wrinkles on all skin types, including sensitive skin.

Lactic acid is used in many over-the-counter (OTC) skincare products and professional treatments. It's also found in many products that are put on the skin (topical), as well as treatments for eczemapsoriasis, and rosacea.

This article will review how lactic acid works, how to use it, and what side effects to know about. It will also help you to decide which lactic product is right for you.

benefits of lactic acid for skin

Verywell / Emily Roberts

What Is Lactic Acid?

Lactic acid is one of the most popular alpha hydroxy acids available. It is a common ingredient in OTC skin care products. It is also used in stronger professional peels and treatments.

Lactic acid is naturally found in dairy products. It's what gives yogurt and soured milk their distinctive tangy taste. Dairy products have been used for centuries by people across the world to soften and beautify the skin.

People still take milk baths, but most lactic acid used in skin care products and peels today is made in a lab (synthetic).

Skin Benefits

Lactic acid helps remove old, dull cells on the skin's surface by dissolving the bonds that hold them together (exfoliation).

Lactic acid also makes cell turnover happen faster and stimulates the processes by which your skin sheds old cells and replaces them with new ones (cell renewal).

As a result, lactic acid gives you a brighter complexion, as well as smoother and softer skin.

Lactic acid is popular for two main reasons:

  • It can create real change in the skin if used regularly.
  • It's one of the more gentle hydroxy acids used in skin care.

There are also some other possible benefits of lactic acid for your skin, including:

  • Thickens and tightens your skin 
  • Helps clear pores
  • Brightens and smooths your complexion
  • An effective antimicrobial 
  • Balances the microbiome of the skin for people with sensitive skin and acne

All alpha hydroxy acids exfoliate and improve skin texture, but lactic acid has an extra benefit that you won't get from other AHAs, like glycolic acid and mandelic acid.

Lactic acid helps improve your skin’s built-in process for keeping itself hydrated (natural moisture factor). Basically, lactic acid helps to keep your skin moisturized and feeling less dry.

Using lactic acid regularly can also improve signs of aging by stimulating the renewal of a fiber that helps keep skin firm (collagen).

Lactic acid can fade sun spots or age spots and smooth and soften fine lines and wrinkles. However, lactic acid will not improve deeper lines.

Lactic acid is a main ingredient in OTC lotions and creams for those "chicken skin" bumps on the backs of the arms (keratosis pilaris). Lactic acid helps dissolve the plug of skin cells that build up around the hair follicle and smooth out the bumpiness.

Possible Side Effects

Even though lactic acid is gentler for the skin than other AHAs, it is still a strong treatment. Here are a few possible side effects of using lactic acid on your skin.

Sun Sensitivity

The most important thing you need to know before you start using lactic acid is that it can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. As the acid sloughs away skin cells, it leaves your skin more likely to be damaged by ultraviolet light from the sun.

Some studies have suggested that sun sensitivity can last for four weeks after you've stopped using a lactic acid product or peel treatment—maybe even longer.

Use SPF 30 or higher sunscreen daily to protect your skin from sunburn and sun damage, even on cloudy days. If you don’t protect your skin, you could undo the benefits of lactic acid, like its ability to fade spots and soften wrinkles.

Skin Irritation

Lactic acid can also cause skin irritation. Be on the lookout for the following:

  • Redness
  • Burning
  • Peeling
  • Dryness
  • Itchy skin
  • Swelling

You may have mild redness, burning, and itching when you first start using a lactic acid product. As long as it is not bad and goes away within an hour or so, it's nothing to worry about.

However, if the redness, burning, and itching are moderate to severe or do go away, or if you have swelling or a rash, wash the product off immediately and do not use it again. Call your healthcare provider for advice on what to do for your skin.


Lactic acid is the gentlest of alpha hydroxy acids. Most people can use it safely. Still, some people should not use products with lactic acid.

If you have very sensitive skin, lactic acid can irritate your skin. Start with using a product that only has a small percentage of lactic acid (e.g., 5%) and see how your skin reacts to it. If you notice any irritation, stop using the product.

If you use topical retinoids like Retin-A or Refissa, you won’t want to add lactic acid to your skincare routine. These products are already exfoliating your skin, so if you also use a product with lactic acid, your skin could get too sensitive.

Some people can use lactic acid products every day, while others have more sensitive skin and need to use the products less often. Check with your provider about how often you should use lactic acid.

If you are using any prescription skin care medication, check with your provider before trying any lactic acid treatment. You may not be able to use these products together.

What to Look For

Over-the-counter (OTCO lactic acid products come in different concentrations, from 5% to more than 30%. A higher percentage is not always better, though. Jumping right to a high percentage product can irritate your skin.

If you've never used lactic acid, start with a very low-strength product—5% to 10% max. This will let you see how your skin reacts and also give your skin some time to get used to the acid.

You may find that after using up your product, you're happy with the results. In that case, you can stick with the strength you've been using.

If you'd like to go up in strength, do it slowly. Always monitor your skin for irritation. If it seems like it's too much for you, go back to a lower-strength product.

As far as the type of lactic acid product to choose, go with something you feel comfortable using. You have a few different options.


Lactic acid cleansers are easy to fit into your skincare routine. Use them just as you would a regular cleanser.

It's best to avoid applying around your eyes because lactic acid cleansers can irritate delicate skin and leave it dry, flaky, and red.

Lactic acid cleansers are a great choice for sensitive skin because you rinse them off. Since the acid does not stay in your skin very long, it helps reduce irritation. 

Creams, Lotions, and Serums

For leave-on treatments, your options are moisturizing creams, lotions, and serums. Most of these products are meant to be used at night rather than during the day to minimize sun damage. Even so, you'll still need to apply sunscreen every morning.

If your skin starts getting irritated with daily use, scale back to using these products a couple of times a week.

Leave-on treatments are best if you want to use lactic acid long-term.

At-Home Peels and Masks

These products are designed to deliver a stronger "dose" of exfoliation, and they come in higher concentrations than daily-use products. 

Peels and masks are meant to be used one to three times per week, depending on the product.

At-home lactic acid peels and masks generally come in strengths of 10% up to 30%. Again, start off with a lower-strength product. If your skin responds well, you can try higher-strength products if you want to.

You may find even higher "professional" lactic acid peels over the counter, with 50% or more strength.

Lactic Acid for Acne

Lactic acid and glycolic acid often are used to treat acne. Products that contain lactic acid include cleansers, creams, and lotions. It is often used in at-home peels and masks.

Research suggests that the time of exposure to lactic acid, as with the masks and peels, contributes to how effective it is.

Professional Lactic Acid Peels

Professional lactic acid peels can be done at your local day spa, medical spa, dermatology, or cosmetic surgery office. Professional peels generally range in strength from 30% up to 88%.

People who work in spas can do skin surface-only (superficial) chemical peels. A medical provider must do peels that go deeper into the skin.

Whoever is doing your peel will decide which strength is most appropriate for your treatments. Depending on your skin's needs, they may increase in strength over time. Usually, getting a series of peels is recommended to get the full benefits.

Professional lactic acid peels are a better choice if you have a specific issue you're looking to improve, like dark spots or signs of aging, or if you want to remove blackheads or address texture issues.


Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that is used on the skin to remove dead skin cells and help fade dark spots and soften fine lines.

It comes in different strengths and can be found in OTC cleansers, lotions, and at-home masks. You can also get professional lactic acid peels at a spa or in a dermatologist's office.

Start off with a low-strength product, especially if you have sensitive skin. Be sure to also use sunscreen, as lactic acid makes your skin more prone to sunburn.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does the lactic acid in a yogurt mask do for skin?

    The lactic acid in yogurt can help to nourish and exfoliate your skin when applied as a face mask. To make one at home, try mixing 1/4 cup of plain Greek yogurt with a teaspoon of honey. Apply it to your face and leave it on for about 15 minutes before rinsing off.

  • Does salicylic acid exfoliate skin better than lactic acid?

    Salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid, penetrates deeper into pores to remove dead skin cells. Lactic acid mostly works to exfoliate the surface of your skin. Salicylic acid might cause more irritation for some people. Talk to your dermatologist to find out which would work best for your skin type.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863

  2. Spada F, Barnes TM, Greive KA. Skin hydration is significantly increased by a cream formulated to mimic the skin's own natural moisturizing systemsClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2018;11:491–497. doi:10.2147/CCID.S177697

  3. American Academy of Dermatology. Keratosis pilaris: Diagnosis and treatment.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Alpha hydroxy acids.

  5. American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Chemical peel.

  6. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive reviewClinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. 2015 Aug 26;8:455-61. doi:10.2147/CCID.S84765

Additional Reading

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.