I may not use a toner, or even an eye cream, but a good exfoliant is a must in my skincare routine. Exfoliation does some amazing things for the skin. It makes it smoother and brighter, and helps it look younger.
My favourite way to exfoliate skin? Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs). They don’t just remove dead skin cells from the skin’s surface, like scrubs do. They also help you age better. They’re wonderful multi-taskers.
But not all AHAs are created equal. There are several types, but those more common and used are glycolic acid and lactic acid. As you already know, I’m obsessed with glycolic, but lactic has lots of fans too. So, what’s the difference between the two, and which ones should you use? But first…
What Have Glycolic Acid And Lactic Acid Got In Common?
Let’s start with the similarities. Although glycolic acid can be derived from sugar cane and lactic acid from milk, the types used in your exfoliants are probably made synthetically in a lab.
Like all AHAs, they dissolve the “glue” that holds skin cells together, thus allowing them to slough off. Once the superficial, most damaged layer, is removed, your skin looks brighter, smoother, and more even-toned. Dark spots are reduced, wrinkles appear smaller, and you look younger.
AHAs are also humectants. That’s a fancy word to say they can attract water from the environment into your skin. That way, your skin remains hydrated and soft throughout the day. Bye bye dry skin!
Glycolic Acid Is Best For Sun Damaged Skin
Both glycolic and lactic acids are godsends for dry skin: But, if your skin is also sun-damaged (premature wrinkles and sun spots), it’s glycolic acid you want to use. Why?
Glycolic acid is the smallest of the AHAs, which means it is better able to penetrate the skin. That allows it to work more quickly and effectively.
But that’s not all. Studies have shown that glycolic acid can also boost collagen production and increase thickness of the skin. This leads to more elastic skin and is what, according to researchers, makes glycolic acid so effective at reducing visible signs of ageing.
But, although glycolic acid can increase the overall thickness of the skin, it can also temporarily thin it, making it more susceptible to sun damage. Ironic as it is so good at treating such damage, isn’t it?
Luckily, this is easy to fix. Just use glycolic acid at night, before going to bed. Or, if you prefer to use it in the morning, just apply sunscreen afterwards.
Best Picks: Derma E, Overnight Peel with Alpha Hydroxy Acids ($15.00), Paula’s Choice Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA ($25.50), and Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid 10% Moisturizer ($45.00).
Lactic Acid Is Best For Sensitive Skin
Lactic acid is not as good at treating premature signs of ageing, but it’s still a wonderful option for women with dry and sensitive skin.
Lactic acid is more hydrating than glycolic acid (it’s included in LacHydrin, the only FDA prescription approved drug to treat dry skin), so it works better for very dry skin.
It is also gentler than glycolic acid. Glycolic, especially in higher concentrations, can be quite harsh. My skin can tolerate it pretty well, but if yours is sensitive and prone to irritations, definitely opt for lactic acid.
Lactic acid also doesn’t thin skin. But that’s not a good reason to skip your sunscreen!
Are There Any Side Effects?
Yes, exfoliation is risky business. Do it properly and your skin glows. Get it wrong, and you’re left with redness and pain.
After all, you’re removing layers of skin. They’re there for a reason: to protect the rawer, newer skin underneath that’s not ready to come to the surface yet. You want to remove only the uppermost damaged layers, not those protecting ones underneath.
So, how can you do that? It all depends on the concentration and frequency of use. The higher the concentration, the most effective but also most irritating the acid can be. That’s why I don’t like those 20% or higher glycolic peels you can buy over the internet. Such high concentrations should be administered by professionals only.
OTC products contains smaller concentrations that work more slowly but are safer. It’s up to you to figure out which one works best for you. My skin can tolerate 10% glycolic acid three times a week. Yours may not.
While feeling some tingling is normal with acids, if you are experiencing redness, dryness, and irritation, then you are either using a concentration that’s too high for you, or exfoliating too often. Just experiment until you find a dose and frequency that’s right for you.
The Bottom Line
If you have dry and sensitive skin, opt for lactic acid. It’s the gentler and most moisturizing of the two. But if you want to help reduce the damage the sun has inflicted to your skin, go with glycolic. It exfoliates, hydrates, and boosts collagen production too!
Do you prefer lactic or glycolic acid?