Lactic acid

What does it do?
Chemically exfoliates skin, lifting off dead skin cells
Promote collagen remodelling
Improves skin hydration

What’s it used for?
Skin brightening and smoothing
Fine lines and wrinkles
Keratosis pilaris

How do I use it?
Apply at night one to three times per week, followed by moisturiser
Apply sunscreen in the morning

Combinations to avoid
Avoid using at the same time as a retinoid, as both can be irritating

Potential drawbacks
Sun sensitivity
Skin irritation

Ideal concentration
5-10% in most leave-on products
Higher concentrations in chemical peels

Evidence rating

Lactic acid is one member of the well known family of alpha hydroxy acids. More gentle than it’s smaller counterpart glycolic acid, it’s a good choice for sensitive skin

What is it and what does it do?

Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid. It’s the second smallest molecule of all the alpha hydroxy acids, after glycolic acid. Because of this, it’s less irritating than glycolic acid, but less powerful. It’s a chemical exfoliant, helping to lift off dry, dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, revealing newer cells underneath. It can also stimulate collagen production and helps keep the skin hydrated.

Why should I use it?

Lactic acid is great for brightening and smoothing the complexion. It can help fade hyperpigmentation, and improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and acne. It’s also commonly used for keratosis pilaris. It’s a good alpha hydroxy acid for those with sensitive skin, as it’s less irritating than glycolic acid.

How should I use it?

Lactic acid is available in various forms, including as a cleanser, a leave-on product such as a serum, or as a chemical peel. It’s best used in the evening, as it can increase sensitivity to the sun. Limit use to one to three times per week, or you run the risk of over-exfoliating your skin and damaging your skin barrier. It’s best to avoid using it at the same time as a retinoid, as both can be irritating. Use them on alternate nights instead. 

What are the drawbacks?

Lactic acid can cause skin irritation, and can increase sun sensitivity. Always use sunscreen, and start using a small amount just once weekly, ideally to a test area of skin first.


Moghimipour E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 2012;7(1):9-10.

Rodan K, Fields K, Majewski G, Falla T. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2016;4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp):e1152. Published 2016 Dec 14. 

Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863. Published 2018 Apr 10.


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Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…