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What is lactic acid?

Lactic acid is an antiwrinkle and pigmentation-fighting ingredient found in over-the-counter (OTC) and professional-grade skin care products.

Derived from milk, lactic acid belongs to a class of anti-aging ingredients called alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). Other examples of AHAs include glycolic acid and citric acid.

Keep reading to learn how a lactic acid peel can improve your skin, OTC products to try, what to expect from a professional peel, and more.

A chemical peel works by using a chemical — in this case, lactic acid — on bare skin. It removes the top layer of skin (epidermis). Some stronger formulas may also target the middle layers of skin (dermis).

Despite the name, your skin doesn’t noticeably “peel” off. What is noticeable, though, are the effects underneath the removed epidermis: smoother and brighter skin.

Lactic acid is specifically used to treat hyperpigmentation, age spots, and other factors that contribute to a dull and uneven complexion. Other benefits of AHAs like lactic acid include improved skin tone and reduced pore appearance.

However, unlike AHAs such as glycolic acid, lactic acid is a bit milder. This makes a lactic acid peel a better choice for sensitive skin. Lactic acid may also be an option if you’ve tried another AHA in the past and found the product too strong.

Despite the milder nature of lactic acid, it’s still considered a powerful AHA.

Its “peeling” effects will make your skin more vulnerable to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, so sunscreen is key. Make sure you apply sunscreen every morning and reapply as needed throughout the day.

Over time, unprotected sun exposure can lead to more age spots and scarring. It may even increase your risk for skin cancer.

Lactic acid peels can also cause irritation, rash, and itchiness. These effects are usually mild and improve as your skin gets used to the product. If your side effects persist after the first few applications, discontinue use and see your doctor.

You shouldn’t use a lactic acid peel if you have:

If you have naturally darker skin, talk to your doctor or dermatologist before use. Chemical peels may increase your risk of hyperpigmentation.

Instructions for use vary based on a product’s makeup and concentration. Always read the product label and follow the manufacturer’s directions.


For a lighter peel, look for a product with a 5 percent acid content. Medium peels can range from 10 to 15 percent lactic acid, and deeper (professional) peels have even higher concentrations.

As a rule of thumb, the higher the concentration, the stronger the results. You may not have to use stronger peels as often, but any subsequent irritation may last longer.

Preparation and use

It’s important to do a skin patch test before your first full application. This can help reduce your risk of side effects.

To do this:

  • Apply a dime-sized amount of product to the inside of your forearm.
  • Cover the area with a bandage and leave it alone.
  • If you don’t experience any irritation or inflammation within 24 hours, the product should be safe to apply elsewhere.
  • If you do experience side effects, discontinue use. See your dermatologist if your side effects worsen or last more than a day or two.

Lactic acid peels are designed for evening application. Like other AHAs, lactic acid increases sun sensitivity, so you should never use them in the morning.


You should wear sunscreen every day when using lactic acid. For best results, apply sunscreen every morning and reapply as needed throughout the day. You can use a sunscreen-containing daytime moisturizer as well as a foundation with an SPF.

Lactic acid peels are widely available in drug stores, beauty supply stores, and online retailers.

Popular options include:

  • Dermalogica Gentle Cream Exfoliant. Suited for more sensitive skin, this cream-based lactic acid exfoliant also contains salicylic acid. These two ingredients remove dead skin cells that can lead to a pigmented, dull complexion.
  • Juice Beauty Green Apple Peel Full Strength. This all-encompassing peel targets wrinkles and hyperpigmentation with the help of lactic acid and other AHAs. It also contains willow bark, a natural type of salicylic acid, and vitamins A and C. This peel is not recommended for sensitive skin.
  • Patchology Exfoliate FlashMasque Facial Sheets. These lactic acid-based disposable face sheets work by sloughing off dead skin to improve overall appearance and texture. As a bonus, the facial sheets are easy to use, with no extra steps or rinsing required.
  • Perfect Image Lactic Acid 50% Gel Peel. If you’re looking for a deeper lactic acid peel, this product might be a home-based option for you. It contains 50 percent lactic acid to improve your complexion, and the gel is easy to manage without the product running off your face. It’s a professional-grade peel, so consult your dermatologist before use.
  • QRx Labs Lactic Acid 50% Gel Peel. Considered a professional-grade product, this gel-based peel also contains a higher concentration of lactic acid at 50 percent. Although the company promises professional results, it’s a good idea to run this by your dermatologist first to prevent side effects.

Despite the availability of at-home lactic acid peels, the Mayo Clinic says that deeper chemical peels offer the best results. The effects also last longer than OTC peels, so you don’t have to use them as often.

You might consider getting a lactic acid peel from your dermatologist or skin care specialist if you aren’t seeing results from OTC versions but don’t want to use a stronger AHA.

Before getting a professional lactic acid peel, talk to your dermatologist about all the medications you take as well as your level of sensitivity. These can all factor into the strength of the peel your dermatologist or skin care specialist chooses. This can help prevent side effects and complications, such as irritation and scarring.

Also know that it can take up to two weeks to recover from a professional lactic acid peel. Mild peels may cause side effects that last a day or so, but after a deeper peel, your skin may need to be bandaged for a couple of weeks.

Lactic acid peels can vary in cost, and they aren’t covered by insurance. That’s because they’re considered cosmetic treatments and not medically necessary therapies. However, you may be able to work out a payment plan with your dermatologist’s billing department.

Lactic acid is used to create a mild chemical peel that can help even out your skin tone. It can help address age spots, melasma, and rough texture, along with fine lines.

Although OTC options are available, it’s important to discuss your skin care needs with a dermatologist before trying a lactic acid peel at home. Certain skin conditions may increase your risk of side effects.

If you do try an OTC peel, make sure you do a skin patch test before your first full application. You should also apply sunscreen every morning and reapply as needed throughout the day.