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Benefits of lactic acid

This ingredient may be the key to helping you get a smoother complexion.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 29, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
Cosmetic Serum Bottle Sample on Cold Green Gray B ackground
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 29, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

There are so many acids in skincare, that when you’re looking for the best product to help you chemically exfoliate your complexion, you might not know where to start. As always, we’re here to help you identify which ingredients might best help you along on your skincare journey—starting with a popular exfoliant: lactic acid. 

Lactic acid can be a game-changer when it comes to skincare. As a gentle yet effective exfoliant, it can help shed dead skin cells, promote cell turnover, and reveal fresh, glowing skin. Here, we’ll explain everything you need to know about this buzzy ingredient—including how it works, if it might be right for you, and anything you should know before incorporating it into your skincare routine. 

What is lactic acid?

Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid—a category that also includes glycolic acid and citric acid. 

One of the primary uses of lactic acid is in the food industry, where it is used as a food preservative, flavoring agent, and pH regulator. It is commonly found in dairy products, pickles, sausages, and other fermented foods. Its antimicrobial properties make it an effective ingredient.¹

In the cosmetic industry, lactic acid is highly sought-after due to its many potential benefits. It is commonly used in skincare products as an exfoliant, moisturizer, and pH adjuster.² Lactic acid is also known to increase the production of collagen, a protein that is essential for healthy, youthful-looking skin. 

Its ability to stimulate collagen production is thought to be mediated through the activation of signaling proteins in dermal fibroblasts,³ cells that produce collagen and other fibers in the skin. Lactic acid is classified as Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA),⁴ meaning that it is safe for use in cosmetics, even for sensitive skin. 

It is mainly produced by lactic acid bacteria, which are common in nature and found in the gastrointestinal tract of both humans and animals. These bacteria have probiotic properties and offer many potential health benefits,⁵ such as improving digestion and boosting the immune system.⁶ 

What can lactic acid be used for?

Lactic acid is a versatile and generally safe acid with many industrial applications. Its unique properties make it a valuable ingredient in various products, from food and cosmetics to cleaning and disinfectant products. It can also help treat a number of different skincare conditions and concerns.

Eczema

Eczema is a chronic skin condition that is prevalent in approximately 10.7% and 7.2% of US children and adults, respectively. It causes symptoms such as itchiness and skin dryness which can contribute to sleep disturbance and can have a significant impact on patients' quality of life.⁷ 

One study demonstrated that a cream containing lactic acid, among other ingredients, may improve itching in patients with eczema.⁸

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a skin condition that causes red and scaly patches on the skin. It typically appears on the elbows, knees, scalp, and other parts of the body. The condition is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.⁹ 

Research has shown that moisturizers with certain concentrations of lactic acid may be helpful in the treatment of psoriasis.¹⁰

Anti-aging

Lactic acid is a popular ingredient in cosmetics because it can exfoliate, moisturize, and help brighten the skin.¹¹ Research shows that lactic acid can even help repair skin damaged by UV rays by stimulating collagen production,¹² which makes it a great choice for anti-aging skincare. Lactic acid can also help keep skin moisturized and help slough off dead skin cells.¹³ 

Finding what works for your skin

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It’s best to consult with a dermatologist or skincare professional before incorporating lactic acid into your skincare routine or using it for the treatment of skin conditions. That’s where Curology can come in. Sign up today, and you can get one-on-one guidance from a licensed dermatology provider to see if lactic acid products are right for you. They’ll also prescribe you a custom formula to help you reach your skincare goals, and work with you to create an effective skincare routine. Start your 30-day trial* to begin your personalized skincare journey today!

FAQs

Where do you put lactic acid in your skincare routine?

To incorporate lactic acid into your skincare routine, start with a cleanser, followed by lactic acid, and then moisturizer. For best results, start once a week and work your way up. This may provide hydration and help smooth out the appearance of fine lines.

Can I apply moisturizer after lactic acid?

Lactic acid is a time-tested exfoliator that provides deep hydration, helping smooth out the appearance of fine lines. Moisturizer may be applied after using lactic acid.

What can I combine with lactic acid products?

In general, lactic acid can be used in your routine with other products such as a gentle cleanser or moisturizer. Since lactic acid is an exfoliant, it’s best to avoid other exfoliating ingredients on the days you are using it. 

Can I use lactic acid and retinol together?

Generally speaking, yes. Lactic acid and retinol can be used in the same routine. To reduce possible irritation, start by using either one to two times per week, gradually incorporating the other or using them on opposite days. Exfoliation is easy to over-do!

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don't have to.

  1. Abd Alsaheb, R.A., et al. Lactic acid applications in pharmaceutical and cosmeceutical industries. Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research. (2015, n.d.). 

  2. Abd Alsaheb, R.A., et al. Lactic acid applications in pharmaceutical and cosmeceutical industries. Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research. Ibid. 

  3. Kim, S.A., et al. Poly-L-Lactic Acid Increases Collagen Gene Expression and Synthesis in Cultured Dermal Fibroblast (Hs68) Through the p38 MAPK Pathway. Annals of Dermatology. (2019, January 2).

  4. Abd Alsaheb, R.A., et al. Lactic acid applications in pharmaceutical and cosmeceutical industries. Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research. Ibid. 

  5. Abd Alsaheb, R.A., et al. Lactic acid applications in pharmaceutical and cosmeceutical industries. Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research. Ibid. 

  6. Mathur, H., et al. Health Benefits of Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) Fermentates. Nutrients. (2020, June 4).

  7. Drucker, A.M., et al. The Burden of Atopic Dermatitis: Summary of a Report for the National Eczema Association. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. (2016, September 8).

  8. Simon, D., et al. Short- and long-term effects of two emollients on itching and skin restoration in xerotic eczema. Dermatologic Therapy. (2018, September 24).

  9. Rendon, A. and Schäkel, K. Psoriasis Pathogenesis and Treatment. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. (2019, March 23).

  10. Yan, J. Identifying biomarkers in human psoriasis: revealed by a systems metabolomics approach. Br J Dermatol. (March 2017).

  11. Kang, S.Y., et al. Moisturizer in Patients with Inflammatory Skin Diseases. Medicina (Kaunas). (2022, July 1). 

  12. Shin, J.W., et al. Molecular Mechanisms of Dermal Aging and Antiaging Approaches. Int J Mol Sci. (2019, April 29).

  13. Tang, S.C. and Yang, J.H. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. (2018, April 10).

Erin Pate is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Erin Pate Nurse Practitioner, NP-C

Erin Pate, NP-C

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