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Lactic Acid vs Salicylic Acid

Lactic Acid vs Salicylic Acid

By Calum Torrington

26 September 2022

Lactic acid and Salicylic acid are two of the most talked-about skincare ingredients in recent times. But what can they actually do for your skin?

Today, we’re breaking down what Lactic acid and Salicylic acid are, explaining their differences, showing you how to use them- and providing some product recommendations as well!

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What is Lactic Acid?

Lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy-acid (AHA) derived from milk and other natural ingredients.

It works by dissolving the bonds that hold skin cells together, enabling the skin to shed its surface layers.

Hollywood facialist Shani Darden told Harper’s Bazaar: “Lactic acid is a water-soluble alpha-hydroxy-acid that exfoliates the skin to reveal a smoother, brighter complexion.”

However, the benefits don’t stop there. Lactic acid will also help you with:

  • Skin texture
  • Fine lines
  • Dark spots
  • Acne
  • Clogged pores

In addition to everything listed above, lactic acid will also help to keep the skin hydrated all day long.

Lactic acid is also a humectant, which means it can attract water molecules to your skin and help keep it moisturized.

This multi-tasking ingredient is the second most common form of AHA for a reason. Once you start using lactic acid, you won’t go back!

As someone who has spent years working in beauty retail recommending skin care products to customers, I can say for certain:

Lactic acid is an absolute winner. This is one skin care ingredient you don’t want to pass over.

What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is most commonly known for its acne-fighting abilities.

The active is a beta-hydroxy-acid (BHA) derived from natural sources such as willow tree bark.

It’s an oil-soluble molecule that penetrates the skin, clears out pores, and dissolves any oil or gunk along the way.

Just like most chemical exfoliants, salicylic acid works by softening the glue that keeps your skin cells together. This loosens the dead skin cells that sit on your skin, making them super easy to remove off the surface.

So, what can salicylic acid do for your skin?

Most notably, it will help to clear any current breakouts and prevent future ones from forming. It does this by deep cleaning your pores and keeping them clear of any congestion, oil, or dead skin cells.

A 2013 study of participants using 1.5% salicylic acid found 95% of patients saw improvement in their acne over a four-week period.

Salicylic acid is an ingredient I reach for time and time again. It’s a truly tried-and-tested active that is unmatched in its ability to banish blemishes.

That’s not all it can do: Salicylic acid will also help fade acne scars, pigmentation, and sun damage.

If you’re suffering from acne and don’t know where to begin, salicylic acid is your best bet. Take it from a fellow acne-prone skinned girl: Salicylic acid-based treatments are definitely worth it!

The best part is that even after your active acne days are over, you can continue using Salicylic acid to fade any leftover scars.

Lactic Acid vs Salicylic Acid: What's the difference between the two?

Salicylic acid is a BHA, while lactic acid is an AHA. Although these two ingredients have a lot in common, there are a few key differences:

  • As an oil-soluble acid, BHAs such as Salicylic acid penetrate deeper into the skin than water-soluble AHAs such as Lactic acid.
  • Salicylic acid will help reduce the appearance of pores by deep cleaning them, but Lactic acid will have no impact on the size of pores.
  • BHAs such as Salicylic acid have a larger molecular size than AHAs like Lactic acid, which means that the former will be gentler on the skin.
  • Using Lactic acid will result in your skin being more sensitive to the sun. While sunscreen is always important, BHAs like Salicylic acid can actually have photoprotective effects!

Can they be used together?

Yes, Lactic acid and Salicylic acid can both be used in your skincare routine! However, they should not be layered directly on top of each other.

If you’re wanting to use these two ingredients, plan it strategically. Combining the two ingredients on your skin at the same time can cause side effects of irritation and redness.

Figure out how your skin reacts to each ingredient and go from there.

For example, if you have dry and sensitive skin, don’t use Salicylic acid and Lactic acid on the same day. Instead, alternate the two ingredients to avoid harming your skin barrier.

For anyone with acne-prone, oily skin, it would be a good move to use Salicylic acid in the morning and Lactic acid at nighttime.

To cater for this, a large majority of Lactic acid skincare products have been designed for nighttime use.

As both of these products are chemical exfoliants, caution is advised when starting them into your skincare routine. Start off slow- we definitely recommend you introduce each acid individually!

Our Product Recommendations

Starting off with the high-end, this one is pricey but worth every penny. SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense is an oil-free Salicylic acid serum, specifically formulated to target adult acne and visible signs of aging.

Another effective (yet more affordable) option is the Murad Deep Relief Acne Treatment. A powerful leave-on treatment with 2% Salicylic acid, this one is a must-have for anyone suffering from acne as it is specifically designed to heal those deep pimples.

If you’re looking for a salicylic acid cleanser, look no further than the La Roche-Posay, Effaclar Medicated Cleanser. This stuff is MAGIC for breakout prone skin! It will unclog your pores, remove impurities, and help to clear acne without causing irritation.

In the realm of Lactic acid, the Biossance Squalene + Lactic Acid Resurfacing Night Serum comes highly recommended. This serum contains 10% Lactic acid and promises to deliver smoother, more luminous skin overnight.

Sunday Riley Good Genes Lactic Acid Serum has a cult following for a reason. This is a multi-tasking Lactic acid serum designed to exfoliate skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots.

Finally, Kate Sommerville’s Goat Milk Moisturizing Cleanser is a gentle way to introduce Lactic acid into your routine. This cleanser is packed full of goodness- designed to soothe dry and sensitive skin.

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