Is lactic acid the miracle your skin needs?

Hyperpigmentation and age spots can be tricky to treat, but lactic acid might be just the skincare saviour you have been looking for.

Chemical exfoliants have long been heralded for their regenerating abilities, helping to promote clear skin by tackling hyperpigmentation and age spots.

But in a sea of alpha hydroxy acid (AHAs) formulas, it’s easy to overlook lactic acid.

So what exactly is lactic acid and how is it different from other chemical exfoliants?

What is lactic acid?

Lactic acid is naturally found in milk, but a synthetic version of the acid is used in skincare.

“Lactic acid is an active ingredient found in many skincare products (and) has anti-wrinkle and anti-pigmentation properties,” says Southern Dermatology specialist dermatologist Dr Ryan De Cruz.

“It belongs to a family of chemicals that includes other AHAs, such as glycolic and citric acid.

“AHAs stimulate turnover of skin cells, resulting in the appearance of newer, more luminous skin, free from pigmentation or dull spots.”

How is lactic acid used in skincare?

Lactic acid can be applied topically, in the same way as you would a toner.

“It can be left on the skin or used as a ‘chemical peel’ that is removed after a period of time,” says Dr De Cruz.

Cosmetic Professional Development Institute of Australia founder Nicky Tzimas says chemical exfoliation can help improve many skin concerns.

“Liquid exfoliants can be much gentler in comparison to an abrasive physical exfoliant, such as a scrub, due to chemical exfoliants having a smaller molecular structure, which allows the ingredients to penetrate further and deeper into the skin’s layers,” she says.

Who is lactic acid suitable for?

“It can be used on both young and mature skin, however because older skin tends to accumulate more sun damage and hormonal pigmentation, its beneficial effects may be more obvious in this age group,” says Dr De Cruz.

He says lactic acid is a bit milder than other AHAs such as glycolic acid and is often recommended for more sensitive skin – but there are exceptions, including those with inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

“It’s a chemical exfoliant and therefore must be used with caution, particularly with similar products or physical exfoliants like facial scrubs and acne cleansers,” Dr De Cruz says.

Nicky adds exfoliating treatments are also not suitable for those taking isotretinoin or those with autoimmune disorders such as lupus (unless cleared by a dermatologist).

She cautions lactic acid treatment should only be used when there are no existing breakouts or open wounds on the skin.

What to expect after using lactic acid on your skin

Nicky says modern lactic acid treatments require very little downtime.

“Immediately post-treatment, the skin will experience temporary erythema and a tingling sensation,” Nicky says.

“Days following the treatment, the skin’s outer layers will start to flake off at a microscopic level while cell renewal takes place.”

Dr De Cruz says patients should see results within one to two weeks after a lactic acid peel.

“Using lactic acid in higher contractions of 15-50 per cent, patients can expect to have a degree of redness, sensitivity and desquamation (peeling) for three to seven days post-procedure,” he says.

“The higher the concentration, the greater the downtime.”

Dr De Cruz says it’s important to remember that your skin is unique and will have an individual response not only to lactic acid, but all skincare products.

Written by Charlotte Brundrett.