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What is lactic acid? How to use the gentle exfoliant for brighter skin

Plus, the expert-approved and bestselling treatments to try.
Woman in a robe and towel in her hair,  rubbing her cheeks with lotion
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Most people will tell you that achieving brighter, healthier-looking skin starts with regular exfoliation. To do that, you have two main options: sloughing away dead skin cells manually with an exfoliating brush or scrub, or by using a chemical exfoliant.

Lactic acid falls into the latter group. You've likely already spotted the ingredient on the back of many of the most popular serums and moisturizers on the market — and there's a good reason why you see it so often. According to experts, it can be an effective way to help improve the tone and texture of your skin.

Curious about the ingredient? We asked top dermatologists for all the details on how you should be using lactic acid in your skin care routine, as well as their favorite products to try.

What is lactic acid?

Your body naturally produces lactic acid, so you may have heard the term thrown around in reference to tough workouts (when it accumulates in your muscles, it causes the dreaded mid-workout muscle aches). But the kind used in beauty products is different; it is derived from milk or sugar fermentation, said Dr. Marisa Garshick, a dermatologist in New York City.

Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), a type of chemical used to exfoliate the top layer of skin cells, added Dr. Rachel Nazarian of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. There are different types of AHAs — glycolic and citric acid are other examples — and each one has varying effects on your skin. But when compared to others, lactic acid tends to be more gentle, which is why it's so popular, she said.

And almost anyone can benefit from using it, she added. "As we age, our skin naturally slows down the cell renewal process and our natural exfoliation decreases, which can make skin look dull and less youthful." The acid dissolves the bonds between dead skin cells to brighten, smooth skin, as well as address hyperpigmentation.

It's also a humectant, Garshick added, meaning that it helps draw moisture in, hydrating as it exfoliates.

While it may be hard to resist piling on the products to start reaping all the benefits right away, you want to be careful not to go overboard, especially in the beginning.

"As with any exfoliating acids, it is always important to avoid overuse and to introduce any new product containing lactic acid into a skincare routine slowly, to minimize any sensitivity or irritation," Garshick said.

Start by using the product one to two times per week and work your way up. Garschick also noted that you should avoid pairing the ingredient with other exfoliants, harsh scrubs or active ingredients such as retinoids, to prevent irritation or sensitivity. And like other exfoliating products, lactic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so you'll want to minimize exposure and make sure you're regularly applying sunscreen.

Expert-approved lactic acid treatments

MELE Refresh Even Tone Post Cleanse Facial Tonic

Developed by dermatologists of color to cater to people with darker skin tones, this tonic is designed to be used post-cleansing. It contains five percent lactic acid as well as vitamin C, which Garshick said work together to improve the appearance of dark spots and even out skin tone. "By exfoliating the skin and eliminating the dead skin cells, it leaves the skin looking radiant and glowing," she said. Plus it's free of alcohol, so it's gentle enough for everyday use.

Biossance Squalane + Lactic Acid Resurfacing Night Serum

Get better skin as you sleep with this overnight serum, recommended by Garshick. Along with lactic acid, the formula includes ingredients like clover, which boosts the benefits from the lactic acid and improves skin cell turnover, and squalene to keep the skin moisturized. According to Dr. Garshick, you may start noticing brighter, smoother and softer skin after just a few uses.

Eucerin Advanced Repair Body Lotion

Facial products tend to reign supreme in the world of lactic acid treatments, but when applied to the body, the ingredient can help tackle rough skin on problem areas like your arms or legs. Nazarian likes this all-over lotion, which contains lactic acid as well as ingredients like urea, which can help soften skin, and ceramides, which boost hydration.

AmLactin Daily Moisturizing Body Lotion

Recommended by Nazarian, Garschick and Dr. Shari Sperling, a board-certified dermatologist in New Jersey, this lotion is an expert favorite. According to Sperling, it's great for keratosis pilaris (aka the rough, bumpy skin that can show up on your upper-outer arms and thighs). It provides gentle exfoliation while hydrating, so your skin feels softer and smoother after use.

Drunk Elephant Protini Powerpeptide Resurf Serum

"This serum combines 10 percent lactic acid with peptides and growth factors, to help resurface and strengthen the skin while also hydrating and delivering antioxidants to the skin surface — making it a great all-around product," Dr. Garshick said. "It is free of essential oils and fragrance, making it a nice option even for those with sensitive skin."

Bestselling lactic acid treatments

Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment

This popular serum can be used as a part of your daily skin care routine or saved for moments when you need an instant boost of brightness. The anti-aging treatment reduces the appearance of fine lines and hyperpigmentation to improve your complexion overall.

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA

The Ordinary is known for its affordable and effective skin care solutions, and the brand's lactic acid treatment is a popular choice. The 10 percent lactic acid formula provides mild exfoliation to slough away dead skin cells and reveal brighter, more evenly-toned skin. To counter any redness from the exfoliation, the peeling formula also includes soothing Tasmanian pepperberry.

Tatcha The Dewy Serum Resurfacing and Plumping Treatment

Give your skin a spring-ready glow with this three-in-one serum. It combines lactic acid, hyaluronic acid and squalane to rejuvenate and hydrate your skin. The lightweight formula can be used twice a day and reviewers say it's fast-absorbing and won't leave behind an oily residue.

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