Glycolic Acid vs. Lactic Acid for Acne Treatment

Apart from salicylic acid, which is considered the gold standard for acne, several other acids have emerged as potent contenders for tackling this inflammatory condition.

Glycolic acid and lactic acid are two of the most popular alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) lauded for their wide range of benefits for the skin, but which one is the hero of clear skin?

In this article, I will compare their properties, discuss their differences, and help you decide whether to pick glycolic acid or lactic acid for acne.

Glycolic Acid vs. Lactic Acid for Acne Treatment

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What is Glycolic Acid?

Definition and Properties

Glycolic acid is often dubbed the ‘gold standard’ of AHAs.

It has a small molecular weight, which allows it to penetrate the skin deeply, inducing a robust exfoliating effect.

Derived from fruit sugars and notable for its high acidity, glycolic is a popular ingredient in many over-the-counter and professional skincare products.

Some of the benefits of using glycolic acid include:

The Benefits of Glycolic Acid for Acne

Glycolic acid is an effective acne treatment due to its ability to slough off dead skin cells, which, when not properly shed, clog the pores and contribute to the formation of acne.

The small molecular weight of glycolic acid plays a crucial role in its ability to get rid of acne, as it allows it to penetrate deeper into the skin and inside the pores where it dissolves the plug the acne-causing bacteria uses as food to survive and proliferate.

By dissolving these plugs and promoting the shedding of dead skin cells, glycolic acid accelerates cellular turnover, leading to clear, healthy skin.

What is Lactic Acid?

Definition and Properties

Lactic acid is frequently referred to as the ‘gentle giant’ of AHAs.

It has a larger molecular weight than glycolic acid, which results in a less intense penetration into the skin and a more focused effect on the skin’s surface, where it works to dissolve the protein bonds that hold dead skin cells together and promote their natural shedding.

Derived from sour milk and recognized for its less acidic nature than glycolic acid, lactic acid is a common ingredient found in various over-the-counter and professional skincare products.

Lactic acid is also a more suitable choice for sensitive and reactive skin types due to its mild exfoliating effect and gentle nature.

Some of the benefits of using lactic acid include:

  • Gently exfoliates dead skin cells.
  • Lightens hyperpigmentation.
  • Balances out skin tone.
  • Refines skin texture.
  • Encourages collagen production.
  • Diminishes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

The Benefits of Lactic Acid for Acne

While lactic acid can effectively slough off dead skin cells on the surface, thus preventing the accumulation of dead skin cells and oil, it might not deliver the desired results for deeper skin issues such as acne.

Unlike glycolic acid, which can penetrate deeper into the skin and dissolve the plugs that acne-causing bacteria use for survival and proliferation, lactic acid’s effects are more superficial and indirect.

Lactic acid promotes the process of cellular turnover, leading to a smoother, healthier skin surface; however, it won’t directly attack the environment the acne-causing bacteria prefer to live in.

Moreover, lactic acid can be a safer option for dark skin and acne.

While all AHAs have the potential to cause hyperpigmentation if misused, the risk is lower with lactic acid due to its gentler nature.

So, while it may not be as potent an acne treatment as glycolic acid, lactic acid offers a balance of efficacy and safety, particularly for those with darker skin tones and sensitive skin that can’t tolerate stronger acids.

Comparison of Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid

Comparison of Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid

Effectiveness in Treating Acne

Glycolic acid’s knack for deeply penetrating the pores gives it an edge in battling stubborn acne, especially for those with more resilient skin.

Its action can, however, lead to a temporary worsening of acne—a telltale sign that the acid is purging your pores of impurities.

Lactic acid, being milder, is better suited for those with sensitive skin, providing a more gradual and indirect but consistent improvement.

Side Effects and Potential Risks

With great potency comes greater responsibility.

Glycolic acid, when used too intensely or too frequently, can cause irritation, redness, and even burning.

Lactic acid, with its milder approach, is far less aggressive to the skin, making it less likely to provoke unwanted flare-ups.

However, since both ingredients are exfoliating acids, here are some potential side effects that may occur with overuse:

  • Dryness.
  • Redness and irritation.
  • Flaking or peeling.
  • Sensitivity to sunlight.

Best Practices for Using Glycolic and Lactic Acid in Your Skincare Routine

Both glycolic and lactic acids are best used as part of a consistent, daily skincare routine.

Incorporating either or both of these AHAs into your regimen will lead to healthier skin and a reduced incidence of acne.

However, when using these powerful acids, it’s crucial to remember to:

  • Start slowly by introducing one acid into your routine.
  • Use a pea-sized amount of product to create a thin layer of coverage and not overwhelm the skin.
  • Exfoliate no more than 1-2 times a week while your skin adjusts to the active ingredient.
  • Moisturize well after exfoliating to prevent dryness and a compromised skin barrier.
  • Apply sunscreen daily, as AHAs can increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV rays.
  • Listen to your skin and adjust usage accordingly if you experience irritation or sensitivity.

Skin Types and Suitability

Glycolic acid caters to a broader audience of skin types, save for the most sensitive and reactive skin.

Its exfoliating power is more suitable for those with oily and combination skin, making it an ideal choice for treating acne.

Lactic acid, on the other hand, can help blemish-prone sensitive skin, delivering consistent results over time without causing adverse effects.

Glycolic Acid vs. Lactic Acid for Acne Treatment: Which is Better?

Glycolic Acid vs. Lactic Acid for Acne Treatment

While the answer to this isn’t a clear-cut one when compared side by side, it’s easier to see that:

Glycolic acid is better suited for those with oily and combination skin looking for quicker results.

Lactic acid is a safer option for sensitive and reactive skin, as well as for those concerned about the risk of hyperpigmentation.

Glycolic, being more potent, may deliver quicker and more drastic outcomes, while lactic offers a gentler, more gradual approach to treating acne.

But acne is individual, and so is your skin, so your best bet is to consider the current state of your skin when choosing between these two AHAs.

Ultimately, your choice should depend on your individual skin’s needs and how it responds to each acid.

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