Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that is used in skincare to exfoliate the skin. Mandelic acid is also an AHA but has a larger molecule size than lactic acid. Both ingredients effectively exfoliate the skin and provide brightening and other anti-aging benefits, but which do you choose? The following comparison of mandelic acid vs lactic acid should help to make your decision easier.
We’ll look at the benefits of each of these two skincare actives, what skin types can benefit from them, and how to incorporate them into your skincare routine.
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The Benefits of Lactic Acid
Lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid that is found naturally in sour milk. When used in skincare products, lactic acid works by exfoliating the skin. It does so by loosening the bonds holding dead skin cells together to slough away dry, dull surface skin.
While lactic acid hasn’t been shown to increase collagen production like glycolic acid does, lactic acid offers many benefits for the skin:
- Tighter, Firmer Skin: Alpha hydroxy acids such as lactic acid can smooth out fine lines and wrinkles to give the complexion a more youthful, firm appearance. This study found that 12% lactic acid increased epidermal and dermal firmness and thickness while improving wrinkles, fine lines, and skin smoothness.
- A Brighter Complexion: By increasing cell turnover to reveal brighter, fresher skin, lactic acid exfoliation reduces the appearance of hyperpigmentation, age spots, sun damage, and uneven skin tone. Lactic acid is particularly effective when used as part of a brightening skincare routine together with vitamin C (ascorbic acid).
- Improved Moisture: Lactic acid facilitates cell turnover which reduces dryness and flakiness on the surface of the skin while encouraging the skin to retain moisture more effectively.
- Improved Acne, Skin Texture, and Reduction in the Appearance of Pores: Lactic acid acts as a peeling agent and unclogs pores, and keeps the skin clear. Clogged pores can worsen breakouts and acne. In fact, lactic acid is often used as a topical treatment for acne to reduce visible breakouts.
- Fade Acne Scars: A lactic acid peel can even help with acne scars resulting from post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation by improving skin tone and texture.
The Benefits of Mandelic Acid
Mandelic acid is a larger molecule than lactic acid, making it more gentle and less irritating (although less effective). This makes mandelic acid an excellent choice for sensitive skin types that can’t tolerate lactic acid or other alpha hydroxy acids.
Mandelic also penetrates the skin slowly, so its effects build over time. This means you will need to commit to using this exfoliating acid long-term to see the best results.
Mandelic acid has these benefits for the skin:
- Improved Skin Firmness and Elasticity: This 4-week study showed that mandelic acid improved skin firmness and elasticity. This can help to smooth the look of wrinkles and fine lines for improved skin texture and more youthful-looking skin.
- Reduced Acne: Mandelic acid has been shown to have antibacterial properties, which is helpful when it comes to acne and breakouts. This 8-week study found that mandelic acid at concentrations of 5% and 10% were an effective treatment for acne. Mandelic acid has antibacterial properties that help to normalize sebum production and unclog pores, which helps to reduce acne breakouts and blackheads.
- Fade Acne Scars: Like lactic acid, mandelic acid can help fade acne scars due to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, but mandelic acid is less likely to cause irritation.
- Brighter Skin: Mandelic acid helps with brightening skin tone by promoting cell turnover and helping to even out hyperpigmentation, dark spots and uneven skin tone.
Mandelic Acid vs Lactic Acid: Which is Better?
Both lactic acid and mandelic acid are water-soluble acids that are effective in exfoliating the skin to give you a brighter, smoother complexion. Both ingredients work best when used in a skincare routine that uses other effective anti-aging ingredients like retinol and antioxidants like vitamin C.
Mandelic acid will usually be the better choice for sensitive skin because it has a larger molecule size than lactic acid, so it doesn’t penetrate as deeply, causing less irritation.
If you’re looking for a mild exfoliating treatment that will help clear up acne breakouts, then mandelic acid could be the better choice for oily and acne-prone skin.
For a stronger exfoliation, lactic acid is probably the better option for you, as long as you don’t have sensitive skin and you can tolerate it.
Lactic acid is a better choice if you have dry skin since it moisturizes the skin while gently exfoliating.
In general, it’s always best to use AHAs like mandelic acid or lactic acid or a BHA like salicylic acid together with moisturizing skincare treatments for maximum effectiveness in reducing fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. A moisturizer after AHA serums in your skincare routine will lock in all of the actives underneath, keep the skin hydrated, and support a healthy skin barrier.
Mandelic Acid vs Lactic Acid for Hyperpigmentation
Both mandelic acid and lactic acid exfoliate the skin and help fade hyperpigmentation, dark spots, age spots, and uneven pigmentation on the skin. Since lactic acid is a smaller molecule than mandelic acid, it can penetrate the surface of the skin better, providing a better exfoliation.
Although lactic acid may come with more side effects than mandelic acid, depending on the concentration, lactic acid will usually be better for hyperpigmentation than mandelic acid since it penetrates deeper into your skin to slough away more of those unwanted pigmented cells.
Effective Lactic Acid Products
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA is formulated with 10% to exfoliate the skin. This superficial peeling formulation helps reduce dullness, improve skin texture and tone, and smooth the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
If The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA is too strong for your skin, The Ordinary offers a lactic acid serum at half the strength of the 10% formula: The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA, which is great for those new to acid exfoliation or those cannot tolerate the 10% formula.
Both serum strengths also contain moisturizing glycerin and sodium hyaluronate crosspolymer, a cross-linked form of hyaluronic acid that forms a film on the skin for long-lasting moisture. A Tasmanian pepperberry derivative helps reduce irritation that often comes along with exfoliating acids.
These lactic acid serums from The Ordinary help improve skin clarity overnight without causing too much irritation or redness. You can also appreciate the added humectant properties to keep the skin hydrated while the serums work.
Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment is a holy grail chemical exfoliant for many skincare devotees. It’s also very expensive, but worth it because of the fantastic results.
This lactic acid serum contains lactic acid to exfoliate dull, dead surface cells to brighten the look of dark spots and discoloration. It smooths the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines and improves skin radiance and clarity. It plumps the look of skin in as little as 3 minutes!
The serum also contains licorice root extract, which is an anti-inflammatory that also helps brighten the skin. Prickly pear extract, arnica, and aloe vera soothe irritation and redness. Lemongrass has astringent and toning benefits and gives the serum a bright, herbal scent.
This serum may cause tingling or irritation for those with sensitive skin due to its high potency. This is one of my favorite skincare products!
Effective Mandelic Acid Products
The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA is a gentle surface peeling agent suitable for all skin types. It is a fantastic choice for both beginners and those with sensitive skin. Mandelic acid sweeps away dead skin cells for improved radiance and a brighter, clearer complexion.
This 10% mandelic acid serum is enriched with glycerin, a humectant that draws moisture to the skin. Sodium crosspolymer hyaluronate is a form of hyaluronic acid (HA) that provides better and extended moisture than HA. A Tasmanian pepperberry derivative is an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory that soothes the skin.
By Wishtrend Mandelic Acid 5% Skin Prep Water is a mandelic acid toner that contains 5% mandelic acid for a gentle exfoliation. It removes dead skin cells to improve the look of dull and rough skin. Formulated for all skin types, you can use this low-irritation toner daily to brighten the skin and calm inflammatory acne.
The toner also contains panthenol (pro-vitamin B5), which is a humectant and moisturizer. Centella asiatica extract and beta-glucan offers healing and soothing benefits for sensitive skin. Licorice root extract calms and brightens the skin.
This toner is an easy way to incorporate chemical exfoliation into your skincare routine on a daily basis. It’s perfect for those with sensitive and acne-prone skin, as it fights acne-causing bacteria and breakouts and helps fade acne scars while being gentle on the skin.
How to Incorporate Lactic Acid and Mandelic Acid into Your Skincare Routine
Depending on the concentration of lactic acid or mandelic acid, you may be able to use them daily or every other day. They are best applied in the PM, as these acids make your skin more sensitive to the sun.*
If you notice your skin getting red, irritated, or flaky, you can dilute these serums with other products (like The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5) to reduce their strength until your skin builds a tolerance. As with all other AHAs, they should not be used on active acne, peeling, or compromised skin.
If you are using a lactic acid or mandelic acid serum, avoid using them at the same time as other potent actives like retinol, other AHAs like glycolic acid, or pure vitamin C products. It’s best not to mix lactic acid and mandelic acid unless you are using a skincare product specially formulated with the correct percentage of both of these ingredients.
*It’s very important to use sunscreen while using lactic acid and mandelic acid to protect your skin against sensitivity from harmful UV rays that cause photo-aging.
Final Thoughts on Mandelic Acid vs Lactic Acid for Skin
Mandelic acid and lactic acid are both beneficial chemical exfoliants. These skin care ingredients can help with acne, hyperpigmentation, and aging concerns like sun damage and fine lines. Mandelic acid is an excellent choice for sensitive skin types, so be sure to consider your skin type when deciding which to try.
If your skin is not sensitive and you do not see the results you want with mandelic acid or lactic acid, consider trying a glycolic acid serum or product. Glycolic acid is an AHA that penetrates the skin more deeply than mandelic or lactic acid and generally provides better results.
Thanks for reading, and until next time…here’s to your good skin health!