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Lactic Acid Vs Retinol

by Gabbi

Let’s face it – skincare routines are far more complicated than some of us would like to admit. When we were younger, some of us were able to get away with using the first face wash and moisturizer we spotted on the shelves.

Now that we’ve grown older, and realized that we should put a little more thought into the products we’re putting on our face, the pressure is on to find our holy grails.

While a skincare routine that consists of a cleanser and moisturizer can work wonders on the skin, using additional products that target your specific skin concerns can really bring your routine to the next level, and give you that extra glow you’ve been yearning for.

We all know how much of a confidence booster a good skin day is, so we should be striving for that whenever we’re on the search for a new product.

You’ve probably heard about the addition of salicylic acid and hyaluronic acid in skincare routines to clear up acne and hydrate the skin, respectively. And while those acids are great at what they do, they’re just two of the hundreds of different beauty products out there that you can add onto your daily regimen.

Take lactic acid and retinol, for example. Both have made strides in the skin care world, especially recently. But, if you’re interested in introducing either one into your skincare routine, you’re going to need to know what each of them do to begin with and how they’re different.

So, which product would be a better friend to your face: lactic acid or retinol? While lactic acid is an AHA best suited for gentle exfoliation, retinol is a derivative of vitamin A best for boosting collagen production and anti-aging. Both products smooth the skin and fight fungal acne.

To make your decision, you’ll need to keep in mind what your skin goals are, what each individual product does, and what you’re currently using in your skincare routine that may cause some unwanted reactions when mixed with a new product.

It may sound like a lot to keep in mind, but sit back, relax, and read on, because we’re gonna take all the guess work out of figuring out whether lactic acid or retinol is the right pick for your skincare needs.

What Is Lactic Acid?

Lactic acid is in the AHA family, meaning it’s an alpha hydroxy acid. AHAs and BHAs are definitely not new in the skincare world, and are mostly known for their ability to give you new skin without dropping tons of money at an esthetician. 

While you may have only heard of the acid recently, it’s an ingredient that’s been around since Cleopatra’s reign. The Egyptian queen may not have had her hands on brands like The Ordinary, but lactic acid, in its most basic form, is just fermented dairy. Luckily, we don’t need to fight through the smell of sour milk to get the same youthful, glowy results. 

If you’ve been interested in skincare for a while, you’re probably no stranger to people getting chemical peels done. The end result, after dealing with a week’s worth of peeling skin, is a blemish-free, baby-soft face.

Lactic acid gives you the results of a high-end facial, but spread over a period of time. It’s much less abrasive than the other chemicals in its family, making it a safe product to use on a regular basis (even daily if your skin is resilient enough).

As a gentle chemical exfoliant, lactic acid will speed up the cell renewal process. This means your skin is able to shed damaged layers and replace them at a faster rate.

If you feel like your skin is constantly dirty, or you turn to peel off masks or physical exfoliants to try and smooth out dead skin buildup, lactic acid is a great alternative! It targets all the dead skin cells on the surface of your face, without damaging any of your healthy skin. 

Whenever you introduce your skin to an AHA or BHA, you should always use the smallest concentration possible in order to build your skin’s tolerance to it.

Some brands offer this acid at 5% concentration for beginners, and as you progress, you can start using it at up to 12% concentration. It’s important not to start off at too high of a concentration, especially if it’s your first time using chemical exfoliants on your skin – this is a sure-fire way to ruin your moisture barrier. 

Another great perk that lactic acid has is that it’s a fantastic antimicrobial product. Your skin is alive, making it the perfect host for microorganisms.

Some of these are good and can improve your skin’s health, but unfortunately, a lot of them can spread acne, fungus, and other issues. Lactic acid, as an antimicrobial, will find and eliminate the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that could potentially wreak havoc on your epidermis.

Antimicrobials also balance your skin’s natural microbiome, so you don’t have an influx or overregulation of healthy bacteria (which can also do some damage).

Lactic acid is also anti-inflammatory, making it a great pick for angry skin that tends to swell or get warm when it’s having an adverse reaction.

What Is Retinol?

Using a retinol may seem intimidating, especially since this product tends to put skin through a period of adjustment- one that a lot of folks choose not to see through.

While retinol is a bit more of an intense product to introduce to your skin, you shouldn’t be intimidated! The truth is that retinol can be just as much of a miracle worker as lactic acid if you give it the time it needs to do its job.

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative, which is the biggest difference between it and lactic acid. It doesn’t belong to the AHA/BHA family, but is instead a retinoid.

When you apply retinol onto the skin, it turns active, meaning it becomes retinoic acid. Your skin cells naturally have retinoid receptors, so the magic starts once the the two bind!

If you’re in the market for a product with anti-aging properties, retinol is a great pick. If you worry about the development of fine lines and wrinkles, or you already have some and you’re wanting to reduce the appearance of them, you’ll love retinol’s ability to boost collagen production in your skin.

While it helps your skin plump up, it also helps stimulate blood vessel production, meaning you get more circulation in your face. Getting blood flowing will help speed up skin renewal procedures, make your skin look healthy instead of sallow, and can fade aging spots. 

Like lactic acid, retinol also has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial benefits. That means your skin’s microbiome will grow to be more soothed balanced over regular use.

Over time, your outermost layer of skin will be more resilient, and less likely to fall victim to breakouts and irritation caused by foreign aggressors like pollution, bacteria from your hands when touching your face, dust, etc.

Because it speeds up skin renewal, a lot of people find that their skin is smoother and less textured over time. Due to its cell healing benefits, once retinol clears away existing breakouts and irritation, it’s less likely for these pimples and skin issues to show up again. 

When To Use Lactic Acid

If you have extra sensitive skin, are pregnant, or are already using multiple skincare products on a regular basis, we recommend using lactic acid over retinol.

Lactic acid is the gentler option, and doesn’t penetrate deeply enough into the skin for the ‘adjustment period’ to be overly harsh. Since it’s only helping heal the epidermic, or outermost, layer of your skin, any consequential breakouts won’t last very long, and they won’t be cystic – making them much easier to clear out. 

If you’ve used accutane in the past, you were probably lectured about the dangers of using it while pregnant. Accutane is also a derivative of vitamin A, making it a relative of retinol.

Any product that’s made from vitamin A is unsafe to use during pregnancy, as it could result in multiple defects on the developing embryo, or even result in premature delivery. 

If you’re looking to address minor skin concerns like hyperpigmentation, age spots, an uneven skin tone, or light texture, lactic acid is a good choice.

You won’t get results overnight, and you won’t see visible peeling like you might with a stronger AHA like glycolic acid, so if you’re the type of person who knows that patience is a virtue, we think you would love the benefits lactic acid has to give.

Maybe you’ve tried other AHAs and BHAs in the past and found them too harsh on your skin. If that’s the case, you may find that lactic acid can give you better results. 

Since lactic acid will shed your skin over time, it’s important to find a high quality SPF to use in tandem with the acid. This daily sunscreen comes in scented or fragrance-free and has a light finish that won’t leave you feeling greasy.

Your new skin is vulnerable and extra sensitive, making it more likely to fall victim to the harmful UV rays of the sun.

It’s also normal for your skin to feel slightly irritated upon the first couple uses of the product; this is why it’s vital that you use as small of a concentration as possible to keep the side effects to a minimum.

That being said, you may want to avoid the use of lactic acid if you have severe eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea, as lactic acid’s shedding properties won’t improve these conditions, and could likely make them worse.

When To Use Retinol

Retinol, on the other hand, is much more potent of a skincare product, and will penetrate deep into the skin. For someone who’s looking for serious skin transformation, retinol has the upper hand over lactic acid. But this process is going to be much more abrasive, and building your skin’s tolerance to it may be harsher of a process than that of an AHA/BHA.

If your skin is more mature, and you’re looking to bring a youthful bounce back into your face, opt for retinol. Its ability to increase your skin cell turnover rate and improve collagen production trumps that of lactic acid, and it will likely give you results faster since it’s more concentrated of a formula.

Retinol is compatible with all skin types, whether you’re dry, oily, or combo. Since it’s fantastic at balancing the bacteria on your face, you may find that your skin starts producing oil at more normal rates.

But as you should whenever you use a new skincare product, we recommend starting off slow. This isn’t a product you should immediately start using daily. 

Should you be especially worried about how your skin reacts, you can use a sandwich method in applying retinol, meaning you apply a thin layer of moisturizer, then the retinol, followed by another layer of moisturizer. This won’t affect the products’ potency, but it will dilute the retinol to make it a bit more gentle on your skin.

Again, make sure you use SPF to protect your skin throughout the renewal process, and take extra care not to overuse the product. You may experience irritation, dryness, and sensitivity during the adjustment period, but it should never be overly painful. 

One of the most important things to remember about using retinol is that it should only be a part of your nighttime routine. Exposure to the sun will prevent the product from doing its best job, and can unfortunately minimize the effects.

Wearing it during the day could also increase the probability of the product being disrupted by sweat or other pollutants.

Related Questions

What products should not be mixed with retinol?

Do not use retinol with vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, or AHAs and BHAs. You can still use these products in your morning routine, but if you’re going to be using a retinol at night, your face should be thoroughly cleansed and free of any traces of these products.

You could accidentally cancel out the benefits of either skincare product, or worse, cause an unwanted reaction on your face.

What products should not be mixed with lactic acid?

If you’re using any AHAs and BHAs, don’t use vitamin C. Again, you don’t need to stop your use of vitamin C altogether, but just ensure that you’re not using them consecutively or mixing them.

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