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Lactic Acid 101: Your Guide to the Buzzworthy Acid for Sensitive Skin

Now that this AHA has conquered skin care, it’s moving on to body care. Learn more about the proven gentle exfoliator below!

Cleopatra did a lot of questionable things.

Crocodile dung face masks, crushed beetle blush, lead-infused eyeliner— it’s safe to say that her beauty ritual would not have been approved by the skincare gurus of today. 

But not all of it was total nonsense. Legend has it that Cleo bathed in sour donkey milk for soft and supple skin— and weirdly enough, there’s science to back up her beauty secret, as the two are both packed with one of our favorite AHAs.

Though I don’t advise anyone to bathe in sour donkey milk, Cleo was onto something: sour milk contains lactic acid, which is the sensitive-skin-friendly cousin to the AHAs of the world.

On TikTok, lactic acid is the newest miracle ingredient going viral for its gentle but effective exfoliating properties. 

Not Your Mother’s AHA

Naturally found in milk, lactic acid is a powerhouse ingredient and part of the alpha hydroxy acid family, a group of acids that remove dead skin cells and smooth the surface of your skin (AKA: exfoliate). What distinguishes lactic acid from other AHAs is its larger molecule size, which makes it safer and more suitable for sensitive skin. There’s more: unlike other AHAs, lactic acid’s unique structure helps bind water within skin, hydrating your skin while lightly exfoliating. 

If you’ve ever tried other AHAs and found them to be too strong, lactic acid is your soulmate. Because lactic acid is part of your skin’s natural moisturizing factor, it has unique hydrating properties that aid the chemical exfoliation process for sensitive skin. In different concentrations, lactic acid’s benefits range from fading discoloration to repairing sun damage to smoothing textured skin. 

Tried and tested

Over the past month, I used various kinds of lactic acid products — peeling pads, serums, toners, and masks — to test out TikTok’s bold claims. In the course of a week, I noticed a dramatic change in my skin’s texture and tone. Those little red bumps that aren’t quite acne but kind of are? Gone. Skin tone? Brightened. Dry patches? Zapped away. Having been on Accutane years ago, my skin is still acne-prone but extremely sensitive— so gentler acids like lactic acid were bound to be a miracle worker for my skin concerns.

Looking to get in on smooth and exfoliated, but almost never irritated skin?

Here are a few ways I incorporate lactic acid into my routine:

Inward’s Agas ACue Cleansing Foam has become an essential part of my double cleansing routine. This cleanser features a mix of different AHAs and BHAs, including lactic acid. Different AHAs work best in conjunction with lactic acid, which helps to gently slough away dead skin while boosting your skin’s hydration. With other AHA cleansers, I’m normally concerned with my face getting itchy and red after cleansing— but this cleanser is the perfect in-between. 

What did I do before I met Then I Met You’s Birch Milk Refining Toner? I pat this into my face every other day after my double cleansing routine, and I find that my skin feels adequately toned, soothed, and prepped for the rest of my skincare routine. The ingredient list explains it all: this toner contains a soothing blend of lactic acid, glycolic acid, shea butter, and birch juice to combat breakouts and smooth skin texture. For those looking for an affordable dupe to SK-II’s Facial Treatment Clear Lotion, this toner is eerily similar— without the hefty price tag. 

Rosé is bae, right? With Then I Met You’s Rosé Resurfacing Facial Mask, a little goes a long way. I use this mask once or twice a week in lieu of an exfoliator— with a blend of 6% lactic and glycolic acid, this mask reveals softer, fresher skin. With most chemical exfoliation masks, my sensitive skin usually suffers from a mild chemical burn; this mask is irritation free. Plus, who wouldn’t want rosé in their skincare routine?

This cult classic is a facial in a jar. Neogen’s Bio-Peel Lemon Pads are perfect for whenever your skin needs a quick pick-me-up: before a night out, I’ll prep my skin with these pads before I put on makeup. The end result? A smoothed, dramatically brightened canvas. It’s also amazing for zapping away acne— if I have any stubborn pimples, I’ll soak it in the pad for a quick solution. 

With great power comes great responsibility

Lactic acid comes with some unwritten rules. As a rule of thumb, lactic acid products should also not be combined with harsh exfoliating products like scrubs or retinoids. Likewise, as with every AHA, sunscreen is key: if you’re not already applying sunscreen every morning (which is an absolute CRIME), you’ll need to combat unprotected sun exposure with daily SPF. My favorite is Thank You Farmer’s Sun Project Light Sun Essence, which is the perfect lightweight sunscreen to layer over makeup. 

What ingredients do you want to learn more about? Let us know below!

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