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Lactic Acid: Ingredient Decoder

Pop quiz: What do your muscles, sour milk, and pickles have in common? Answer: they’re all sources of lactic acid. As you may know, your body makes lactic acid as your muscles burn energy during grueling gym workouts, and it’s also a product of food fermentation. This naturally occurring ingredient might be the last thing you think to put on your skin, but think again. Lactic acid is actually a great dual exfoliator and moisturizer, and rumor has it that Cleopatra liked to bathe in sour milk to keep her complexion smooth. But before you run to check the expiration date on your gallon of 2%, take a minute to learn how lactic acid really works. Read on to find out how to incorporate lactic acid into your skincare regime!

The idea of a gentle acid might seem like an oxymoron, but lactic acid is just that. While other alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) can irritate sensitive skin, lactic acid is generally mild enough for those who have rosacea or acne. Upon contact with your skin, it exfoliates by breaking down the glue that binds dead cells together. And as it sinks in, lactic acid helps your skin retain water. In fact, it has better moisture-binding capabilities than glycerin, a far more common ingredient. Over time, lactic acid boosts collagen levels, softens the texture of your skin, and reduces the look of fine lines, wrinkles, and scars. 

Of course, lactic acid also has a few drawbacks. Like all AHAs, it can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s important to pair it with a sunscreen and limit your UV exposure. And products with a high concentration of lactic acid (over 12%) can be caustic, leading to that angry red look we all strive to avoid. 

While there are plenty of lactic acid creams and lotions on the market, we recommend that you save it for an exfoliating peel once or twice a week. Look for a natural formula with a mild concentration of lactic acid. Our perennial favorite is Naturopathica’s Pear Fig Polishing Enzyme Peel. It has a carefully calibrated dose of lactic acid along with a backup team of botanicals. Pear puree acts as an exfoliating sidekick, while ingredients like blackberry leaf and cranberry seed oil serve up a rich cocktail of antioxidants. Use it to brighten your winter-dull complexion, and please leave the milk in the fridge.

—Mai

If you’re looking for more gentle lactic acid products, check out the awesome cleanser in Jurlique’s Rebalance Sensitivity Set.

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