Why Lactic Acid Is the Anti-Aging Ingredient Every Twentysomething Should Be Using

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Somewhere between finishing school and hitting my mid 20’s, I suddenly found myself worrying not only about adult acne but also premature aging. Just as my skin settled into the odd annoying but manageable hormonal breakout, fine lines decided to join the party too, creeping onto my forehead just above my brows. It was at this time that “retinol,” “antioxidants,” and “topical vitamin C” officially became part of my vocab, and I started carrying SPF-everything in my handbag. Now, the newest arsenal added to my wrinkle-prevention strategy is lactic acid, which, aside from the unfortunate connotations of the stuff that causes post-workout pain, is a powerful way to slow down the aging process while also keeping breakouts at bay. And while a lot of other anti-aging products are too heavy and extreme for my 25-year-old skin, this ingredient does the job with zero irritation. 

Lactic acid is a potent type of AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid), similar to glycolic acid or fruit acid. As celebrity dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Dr. Ronald Moy told me, AHAs slow the aging process: “All these AHAs are known for exfoliation of dead skin cells thus promoting the anti-aging skin benefits of promoting cell turnover.” Most of the lactic acid you find in skin-care products come from sour milk, fruits, or vegetables, while glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane and fruit acids from citrus fruits, apples, or grapes.

Of all the AHAs you could look for in your skin care, the lactic variety is the best for anyone with sensitive skin, as it doesn’t penetrate as deeply as some others—which explains why I’ve had such success with the ingredient. “A lot of times, lactic acid is considered to be less irritating than the alternatives of glycolic or salicylic. It tends to be gentler than other acids,” Dr. Moy explained.

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I’ve only recently started using—and loving—the Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment from Sunday Riley ($105), but Dr. Moy told me it’s a hugely popular (and hugely underrated) ingredient in skin care and has been around in the cosmetic market since the ’90s. He also recommended Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream for Dry Sensitive Skin ($17.99) or Eucerin’s Intensive Repair Lotion ($24.71) as more affordable alternatives.

If you do decide to add lactic acid to your skin-care routine, here’s a tip: Lather up on the SPF every damn day and try to avoid direct exposure to the sun for long periods of time. “It’s so effective at eliminating dead skin that they can actually increase sun sensitivity, so be aware of percentages in the products you’re using or if your facial treatment involves an AHA peel,” Dr. Moy added.

So, using a lactic-acid-filled lotion is not going to guarantee your skin never gets a wrinkle—if you find a serum that does, though, you’re next drink is on me—but it will certainly help the situation, and could be a particularly winning option for anyone with sensitive skin.

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