Lactic Acid for Skin Care: Benefits and Side Effects

Lactic acid has a few benefits for skin. This alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) 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 over-the-counter (OTC) skin care products and professional treatments. It's also found in many topical treatments, applied to the skin, that are used to treat eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea.

This article explains how lactic acid works, how to use it, and 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 that distinctive tang. Dairy products have actually been used 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 is synthetic (produced in a laboratory).

Skin Benefits

Lactic acid helps to remove old, dull cells on the skin's surface by dissolving the bonds that hold them together. This process is called exfoliation.

Lactic acid speeds up cell turnover and stimulates cell renewal—the processes by which your skin sheds old cells and replaces them with new ones.

As a result, it 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.

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

It helps to improve the skin's natural moisture factor, or the way the skin keeps itself hydrated. Basically, lactic acid helps to keep the skin moisturized and feeling less dry.

When you use lactic acid regularly, it can also improve signs of aging. It does so by stimulating the renewal of collagen, a fiber that helps to keep the skin firm.

Lactic acid can help to fade sun spots or age spots and can smooth and soften fine lines and wrinkles. Lactic acid won't improve those deeper lines, though.

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

Possible Side Effects

Even though lactic acid is gentler for skin than other AHAs, it is still a strong treatment. Possible side effects when using lactic acid include:

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.

Some studies have suggested that the sun sensitivity can last for as much as four weeks after you've stopped using your product of choice, or after your peel treatment—and 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, you could "undo" the benefits of lactic acid, like its ability to fade spots and soften wrinkles.

Skin Irritation

Besides sun sensitivity, lactic acid can also cause skin irritation. Be on the lookout for:

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

Minor redness, burning, and itching can occur when you first apply a lactic acid product. As long as it is mild and goes away within an hour or so, it's nothing to worry about.

If the redness, burning, and itching is moderate to severe or doesn't go away after a short period of time, or if you have swelling or a rash, wash the product off right away. Don't use it again and call your healthcare provider for advice.

Lactic acid can make your skin burn more easily in the sun. It can also cause itching and redness. Always use sunscreen when using lactic acid. If redness and irritation last for longer than an hour or so after lactic acid application, wash it off right away.

Contraindications

Lactic acid is the gentlest of the alpha hydroxy acids, so most people can use it without any problem. 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 with a small percentage of lactic acid (e.g., 5%) and see how your skin reacts. If you notice any irritation, stop using the product.

If you use topical retinoids like Retin-A or Refissa, these products are already exfoliating your skin. If you also use a product with lactic acid, your skin could become too sensitive.

Some people may find they can use lactic acid products every day, while others have more sensitive skin. Check with your healthcare provider about how often you should use it.

If you are using any prescription skin care medication, check with your healthcare provider before using any lactic acid treatment. It may not be appropriate for your skin.

What to Look For

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

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

You may find that after using up the product that you have, you're happy with the results you've gotten. 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.

Cleansers

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

It's best to avoid the delicate eye area, as lactic acid cleansers can irritate the delicate skin around your eyelids, leaving them dry, flaky, and red.

Lactic acid cleansers are a particularly good choice for sensitive skin types because you rinse them off. Lactic acid isn't staying on your skin for any length of time, and this can limit irritation.

Creams, Lotions, and Serums

For leave-on treatments, your options are moisturizing creams, lotions, and serums. Most of these 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 per 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.

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

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. The research evidence suggests that the time of exposure to lactic acid, as with the masks and peels, will contribute 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%.

Superficial (skin surface only) chemical peels can be done by people who work in spas. A medical doctor must do peels that penetrate deeper into the skin.

Whoever is doing your peel will decide which strength is most appropriate for your initial treatments. They may go up in strength over time depending on your skin's needs. Usually, a series of peels is recommended to get the full benefits.

Professional lactic acid peels are a good 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.

Summary

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 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. And 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.