lactic acid vs glycolic acid - which one is right for you?

Glycolic Acid VS Lactic Acid: which team are you on? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this is the ultimate battle for exfoliation. Both glycolic and lactic acids want to be the one to get those dead cells off your face and make your complexion glow. But only one can get the gig -unless they are in the same product.

I worked with so many clients who used both in the same skincare routine to get glower, younger-looking skin faster only to be hit with a bad case of irritation. That’s the issue with powerful actives: used in moderation, they make you look younger. But use too much, or too many of them, and you’ll pay the price.

My rule of thumb: unless these acids come in the same exfoliant, only pick one. Even though they’re both exfoliants, each of them has different properties and different benefits. The key to younger-looking skin is picking the one that works best for your skin type and concerns. How do you know which one to choose?

I’m Team Glyolic all the way but just so to prove I’m not biased, I’ll tell you all about both and which one is best for YOUR skin type and needs. Ready? Let’s get the Glycolic Acid VS Lactic Acid showdown started:

Glycolic Acid: Benefits And Side Effects

Derived from sugar cane, Glycolic Acid is the smallest member of the Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) family. Its small size is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it means it can penetrate skin deeper than all other AHAs, so it works better and faster. On the downside, it’s more irritating than other acids. So what does it do?

Like all AHAs, Glycolic Acid dissolves the glue that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off and reveal the brighter and smoother skin hiding underneath. This alone helps soften the texture of your skin, brighten the complexion, and fade away dark spots.

But, there’s more. Glycolic Acid also works like a humectant. It draws water from the air into your skin, helping to keep it hydrated for longer. Plus, it high concentrations (usually higher than those you’ll find in OTC skincare products), it also boosts the production of collagen, the protein that keeps skin firm.

Awesome, right? But all these benefits are not without side effects. Used too often or on sensitive skin, Glycolic Acid can cause redness, irritation, peeling, and dryness.

What Are The Best Glycolic Acid Exfoliants?

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): This exfoliant contains two exfoliants. Glycolic Acid to fade away dark spots and Salicylic Acid to unclog pores. Available at Cult BeautySephora and SpaceNK
  • Paula’s Choice Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA ($33.00): A wonderful low strength Glycolic Acid exfoliant that makes skin softer, smoother, and brighter. Available at Paula’s Choice and Selfridges
  • The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution (£6.80): A gentle, no-frills Glycolic Acid exfoliant for people on a budget. Available at Beauty Bay and Cult Beauty

Lactic Acid: Benefits And Side Effects

Lactic Acid is a member of the Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) family too. It’s naturally produced by muscle during intense workouts and can be found in sour milk. But the type used in skincare is made in a lab.

As an AHA, Lactic Acid too exfoliates skin by dissolving the glue that holds skin cells together to reveal the brighter and smoother skin underneath. It helps to brighten the complexion, soften your skin’s texture, and fade away dark spots. Plus, it’s a humectant that deeply hydrates skin by drawing moisture from the air and binding it to its uppermost layers.

Lactic Acid is a much bigger molecule, so it doesn’t penetrate skin as deeply. You know what that means? It works slowly, so it’ll take longer for your dark spots to fade away. But it’s also gentler and better tolerated by sensitive skin. But it can still cause irritation and dryness if you use it too often.

What Are The Best Exfoliants With Lactic Acid?

  • Peach & Lily Power Cocktail Lactic Acid Repair Serum ($51.00): It has 10% lactic acid to exfoliate and brighten skin, plus antioxidants and soothing ingredients that can help you fight premature aging and reduce redness. Sensitive skin can’t tolerate the most powerful anti-aging ingredients, like retinoids, so this is the next best thing. Available at Peach & Lily and Ulta
  • Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment – US Version ($105.00): A luxury exfoliant that deeply hydrates skin and helps to fade away dark spots. Available at Sephora and Ulta
  • The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2% ($6.79): A mild concentration that hydrates, exfoliates, and brightens the complexion. There’s also a 10% version available, when you’re ready to upgrade. Available at Beauty BayCult BeautyLook FantasticSephoraSpaceNKThe Ordinary and Ulta

Do Glycolic Acid And Lactic Acid Do The Same Thing?

Yes and no. Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid are both members of the Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) family. As such, they have a lot in common:

  • They’re both chemical exfoliants and they work by dissolving the glue that holds skin cells together
  • They both brighten the complexion and fade away dark spots
  • They’re both humectant that increase your skin’s hydration levels

You may be tempted to use them interchangeably. Don’t. Just because they have a lot in common, doesn’t mean they’re the same.

Related: AHAs VS BHA: Which One Should You Use?

Struggling to put together a skincare routine that banishes dryness and makes your skin supple and dewy? Download your FREE “Best Skincare Routine For Dry Skin” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):

Glycolic Acid VS Lactic Acid: What’s The Difference?

Think of Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid as siblings. They share the same DNA and have a lot in common, but it’s their differences that make them unique and suitable for different jobs.

  • Size: Glycolic Acid is smaller and penetrates deeper, so it works better and faster than Lactic Acid. But it’s also more irritating.
  • Second job: While both are great at exfoliating skin, Glycolic acid stimulates the production of collagen and elastin. Lactic acid, instead, is one of the skin’s natural moisturising factors, so it strengthens the skin’s protective barrier.

Which one you choose depends in large part on these two key differences.

the ordinary glycolic acid toning solution

Glycolic Acid VS Lactic Acid: Which Is More Hydrating?

Lactic Acid wins this one hands down. While both Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid are humectants that draw moisture from the air into the skin, keeping it hydrated for longer, Lactic Acid does this better. Plus, Lactic Acid is part of your skin’s natural moisturising factors, a group of substances that strengthens your skin’s protective barrier, so that the extra moisture stays in and keeps skin hydrated all day long.

Glycolic Acid VS Lactic Acid: Which Is Better For Dark Spots?

While both acids can fade away dark spots, if your skin is sensitive, go for Glycolic Acid. It does the job better. And not just because it can penetrate skin deeper, so it works faster. Unprotected sun exposure is one of the main causes of dark spots – and they cause wrinkles too.

What makes Glycolic Acid so awesome is its collagen boosting super power: it pumps up its production, keeping your skin firm for longer. This is why it’s so good at fighting the signs of aging.

Plus, in the long run, it increases thickness of the skin, too. I say “in the long run” because that takes time. When you first start using it, glycolic acid temporarily thins skin, making it more prone to sun damage. Ironic, isn’t it? Use it at night, slather sunscreen on in the morning and you’ll be fine.

Glycolic Acid VS Lactic Acid: Which Is Better At Treating Acne?

Neither. Yes, you’ve read that right. I know that brands claim both help you get rid of acne, but that’s only true to a certain extent. Here’s what I mean. Acne happens when dead cells get stuck in your pores. Here, they mix with excess sebum, and sometimes get infected with bacteria. Cue blackheads and pimples.

Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid can get rid of dead cells before they have a chance to get stuck into your pores. But that only PREVENTS acne. Both acids are water-soluble, meaning they can’t penetrate your pores and unclog them from within. The only exfoliant that can do that is Salicylic Acid. If you need to TREAT acne, use that.

Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid

the ordinary lactic acid 10 + ha 2 02

Who Should Use Glycolic Acid?

Thanks for its small size, Glycolic Acid works faster than Lactic Acid. It’s my first choice for dry skin, sun-damaged skin, and for fading away dark spots.

Who Should Use Lactic Acid?

Lactic Acid works more slowly, but it’s gentler on the skin. I only recommend it to sensitive skin that can’t tolerate other acids.

Can You Use Glycolic Acid And Lactic Acid Together?

As often in skincare, the answer is: it depends. Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid have slightly different benefits, so it’s totally normal for you to think, “I need BOTH so I can get ALL the benefits!”. I have many clients who have made the same mistake and ended up with irritated skin that took a while to recover.

Here’s the truth: yes, these acids have different benefits, but they both exfoliate skin. Exfoliating skin too much and too often, so you can get all the benefits, only leads to dryness, peeling, and irritation.

Here’s how to get the benefits without the irritation:

  • If you have sensitive skin, stick to Lactic Acid only. No exceptions.
  • If you have dry or sun-damaged skin, you can either use a Glycolic Acid exfoliant or an exfoliant with both Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid. When they’re in the same products, they’re formulated to give you maximum benefits with minimal irritations. But when you use two separate products, one with Glycolic Acid and the other with Lactic Acid, both formulated for maximum results, it’s just too much for skin.

Don’t say I haven’t warned you!

Can I Use Lactic Acid And Glycolic Acid With Retinol And Vitamin C?

Retinol and Vitamin C (in the form of L-Ascorbic Acid) are two anti-aging powerhouses that brighten the complexion, boost collagen production, and fade away dark spots. Like all powerhouses, they can all cause irritations. While you can use them with exfoliants, you need to be careful how you do it, so you can avoid irritation. Here’s how:

Vitamin C: Use Vitamin C in the morning and exfoliants at night. This way, you get both benefits without overwhelming your skin.

Retinol: Sunlight deactivates retinol, so it’s best to use it at night and alternate it with Glycolic Acid. Use retinol one night and Glycolic Acid the next. Lather, rinse, repeat. Sensitive skin? If your skin can’t tolerate retinol, don’t use it at all. If it can, use retinol two nights a week and lactic acid a couple of nights a week. You’ll get the benefits more slowly, but you’ll avoid an irritation.

The Bottom Line

Glycolic is for sun-damaged, dry skin. Lactic is for sensitive and super dry skin. Happy exfoliation!