Whether it's the new phenomenon of maskne or a long-standing relationship with breakouts, acne is simply a part of many people's skin care lives, and that's okay. But if you do want to get rid of the (perfectly normal) blemishes you experience, you may be considering a lactic acid-based product. But does lactic acid help with acne? Bustle reached out to dermatologists to find out.
Top experts, including New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Hadley King, dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, and board-certified dermatologist and NicholsMD and SkinLab Dr. Kim Nichols, for the intel. All three derms revealed everything you need to know about the buzzy chemical exfoliant and how it affects the skin — plus how it really stands up to zits.
Looking for a crash course on the skin care ingredient? The dermatologists shared their top tips on everything from what lactic acid does to your complexion, how it can treat breakouts, how to use it (and what not to use it with), and how to start incorporating it into your routine.
Read on for expert insight that'll help you decide if lactic acid is right for your regimen.
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What Does Lactic Acid Do?
Chances are you've seen lactic acid across beauty labels of cult-fave skin care products (like Sunday Riley's Good Genes or The Ordinary's Lactic Acid 5% + HA). That's because it's long been an exfoliating ingredient used in countless serums and moisturizers and recommended by derms and facialists alike.
Lactic acid is part of a skin care category called alpha-hydroxy acids (or AHAs), which "help to dissolve the bonds that hold dull, dead skin cells on the surface of the skin," says King. Essentially, AHAs slough the buildup of debris — like makeup, dirt, and pollution that stick to your face throughout the day — to result in a smoother, brighter complexion.
Within the AHA category, though, lactic acid sets itself apart. According to King, lactic acid is a humectant which means it draws moisture into the skin — meaning it aids in hydration. Besides that, it tends to be more sensitive skin-friendly, says Zeichner, since lactic acid has a larger molecular structure than other AHAs which makes it easier for complexions to tolerate.
Lactic Acid For Acne
As for whether lactic acid works well for breakouts? The short answer is yes. But it's important to know it's not going to work the way traditional spot treatments do. Instead of drying out zits overnight, the AHA assists in combatting acne through exfoliation and hydration — so it isn't for instant gratification even though it does the trick.
"When skin is dehydrated, it can contribute to acne proliferation and congestion," Nichols tells Bustle. "Because lactic acid is a humectant, it attracts moisture to the skin. This, in turn, helps with acne by speeding up the rate which cells turnover and produce new, healthy skin."
Another way it helps with acne is by unclogging pores. Zeichner explains that while lactic acid isn't specifically approved for acne treatment, by removing dead skin cells and excess oil via gentle chemical exfoliation, it helps keep pores clear — which results in less breakouts.
How Do You Use Lactic Acid For Acne?
If you're interested in trying lactic acid, there are a few ways to incorporate it into your skin care routine. Both King and Zeichner suggest finding a toner or cleanser containing the ingredient. You can also try using a lactic acid-spiked mask as well as a serum — but no matter how you work it into your lineup, Nichols advises to go slow. Since it's an active ingredient and can sometimes cause irritation, she recommends using it once every two days and working your way up in frequency if you feel that you need to do so.
"Any chemical exfoliant can potentially dry out and irritate the skin," says King. If your skin begins to feel tight, dry, red, irritated, or flaky, she suggests taking a break from lactic acid until it's healed. Then, try adding it back in less frequently, and, according to King, be sure to balance it out with good moisturizers.
It's also important to be careful using the ingredient when you're using other active products in your routine. "Be cautious in combining lactic acid products with others that contain potentially irritating ingredients, like other hydroxy acids or retinol, as using [them] together can lead to irritation," Zeichner tells Bustle. "Layering hydroxy acid products is different from using a single product pre-formulated with multiple acids at lower concentrations that has been tested for tolerability." So either spread out your actives, or reach for products formulated with several in one for your most skin-friendly solution.
And while you should already be doing this, don't forget to add sunscreen. Zeichner notes that the AHA may make skin more sensitive to UV light (though you should be wearing SPF no matter what).
If you want to test lactic acid for yourself, try one of the dermatologist-recommended products below.
Chularojanamontri, L. (2014). Moisturizers for Acne. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4025519/
Harwood, A. (2020). Moisturizers. StatPearls. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545171/
Tang, S.C. (2018). Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6017965/
Dr. Hadley King, New York City-based dermatologist
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital
Dr. Kim Nichols, board-certified dermatologist and NicholsMD and SkinLab