Whenever I see the word “peel” on a beauty product (or a spa menu), I’m always a little nervous—after all, do I really want my skin to “peel?” Peels used to be something you received only at the dermatologist’s office—and they often only treated acne—but a new crop of gentler products has popped up on the market, and lactic acid peels are just one category. These peels, in particular, are especially effective at exfoliating even the most sensitive skin and have less downtime than other acid options. What's more, you can get them done by a skincare professional or DIY: the main difference being that at-home peels boast ingredients that are not as strong as those in-office.
And how do these peels work? Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) which helps break down bonds that keep dead skin on the surface, says licensed esthetician Matthew Miller. (Oh, and fun fact: Lactic acid comes from the fermentation of sour milk.) “Our skin naturally exfoliates and sheds dead skin, but as we age, this process slows down,” Miller says. “This is when an AHA like lactic acid comes in handy because this layer of dead skin makes us look dull and can make our skincare less effective.”
When it comes to skin type, lactic acid peels work on almost everyone and are Miller’s go-to for clients who are new to peels. In fact, the expert says they can help with everything from hyperpigmentation to premature aging to rough texture. Also worth noting is that lactic acid has a larger molecule than some other AHAs, which essentially means that it can be used on those with sensitive skin. And since it’s water soluble, it enhances your skin’s natural moisturizing factor, making it a great choice for dry skin, too, says Miller.
Miller recommends a skin consultation prior to any chemical exfoliation. And no matter what you do, always do your research. “Whether you’re using at-home products or deciding to seek professional treatment, look into who you are going to or what you are using,” he says. “There is no fast track to perfect skin and over-exfoliating can do more damage than good.”
We’ve gone ahead and tapped five skincare experts (Miller included) to find out which lactic acid peels they recommend. Scroll through to see their top picks, and then try one in the comfort of your home.
“This has a mixture of lactic acid, antioxidants, and other ingredients that not only lift away dead skin and impurities, but also protect skin from future damage. You can use it 1 to 2 times a week and leave it on for 3 to 10 minutes post-cleansing. I also recommend adding Pure C from Cosmedix since it enhances anti-aging and brightening effects," says Matthew Miller, licensed esthetician.
“This basic structured lactic peel with the enhancement of Tasmanian pepperberry is used for brightening effects. It is mild enough to be used overnight, and I like the simplicity of the application. One pro tip when using any peel or acid is to not apply it to the corners of your nose as the product will sit in the creases and cause it to become raw and dry,” says Athena Hewett, Cidesco-certified medical esthetician, owner of Athena Ellen Skincare and Apothecary, and founder of Monastery organic skincare.
“We use lactic acid peels all of the time at our practice. The ingredient is commonly found in blends such as the Vitalize and Rejuvenize Peels by SkinMedica. I love the blend of resorcinol, retinoic acid, lactic and salicylic acids,” says Graceanne Svendsen, celebrity facialist, cosmetic laser specialist, and holistic health coach at Shafer Plastic Surgery.
“The Ren peel nicely blends lactic acid with papaya enzyme with natural glycolic fruit acids of passion fruit, lemon, grape, and pineapple. I appreciate the more organic nature of this product. It should be left on for a few minutes and removed with a warm towel,” says Hewett.
"The Facial Radiance Intensive Peel is gentle, easy, and removes dead skin to help maximize absorption of active ingredients from your skincare products. It combines three different types of exfoliators (lactic acid, salicylic acid, and actizyme) that work together as well as active charcoal which maintains a pH balance that makes it safe for all skin types. It is customizable which makes it great for beginners or those with sensitive skin. It can be left on for 1 to 5 minutes, as tolerated. If you have sensitive skin or are a beginner, use on the face for 30 seconds to a minute, gradually building up to the full 5 minutes as your skin builds up the tolerance," says New York City-based dermatologist Francesca Fusco.
"For the face, I like Dr. Dennis Gross’ Alpha Beta Hydroxy Acid Pads—they actually contain both alpha and beta hydroxyl acids. The salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and malic acid (in addition to lactic acid) are a great combination that tackles a few problems including blocked pores, dull skin, and hyper-pigmentation. It comes as a two-step system, so you use the pad with the acids first in a circular motion, wait 2 minutes and then apply the second pad which contains the retinols and Vitamin C," says Dendy Engelman, certified dermatologic surgeon and associate at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery.
"For the body, I suggest these cleansing discs which contain a proprietary blend of glycolic and lactic acids that gently encourage exfoliation. They open pores and remove dead cells and debris so you don’t have chest acne. I just go in a circular motion with the discs for a minute and then hop in the shower to rinse off the residual product," says Engelman.
If you're a little hesitant to give lactic acid a go at home first, be sure to visit your dermatologist or esthetician for a peel. They can talk you through the process to smoother, more glowing skin in a way that makes you feel comfortable.