Which Type of Acid Is Right for Your Skin? Our Beauty Editor Breaks It Down

No beakers—just baby-smooth skin.

By Langa Chinyoka
glycolic acid vs lactic acid

Would you put acid on your face? Before I became a beauty editor, my answer was a hard no. Cue to memories of myself in science class, donning gloves and goggles while handling beakers containing some kind of acidic compound. That… on my face? No thanks. But times have changed, and I’m approaching the comparison of glycolic acid vs lactic acid with my eyes wide open to the many benefits acids can have for my skin—and yours, too.

There’s no question that Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) have been some of the biggest game changers in my skincare routine. But when it comes to beauty, I want the best—that goes for tips, techniques, products, and yes—acids. So whether you’re new to chemical exfoliation (in which case, welcome!) or you want to fine-tune your routine, get ready for your skin to transform before your eyes. The only question that’s left is which to pick in the competition between glycolic acid vs lactic acid. Buckle up: It’s a heated debate.

Featured image by Riley Reed.

Marie Kouadio Amouzame applying skincare_glycolic acid vs lactic acid
Image by Belathée Photography

What are chemical exfoliants?

If cosmetic acids aren’t the scary concoctions we encountered in school, what are they? AHAs come from plants. These naturally-derived acids are non-abrasive methods that slough off the dull, dry, and dead layers on the top of your skin. They dissolve the connective tissue gluing the damaged layer of skin together to reveal a newer layer of smooth, unblemished skin. They can treat hyperpigmentation, acne, signs of aging, and even keratosis pilaris. These dynamic actives are your gateway to fresh, new skin all over. Sounds worth it to me.

The question isn’t whether or not to use a chemical exfoliant. Instead, it’s finding which acid is right for you. The two most popular AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid—and for good reason. Both acids are gentle but effective, but it’s their slight differences that set them apart.

Lactic acid might sound familiar. Your body produces it naturally, topically, and internally. It’s found in sore muscles and sour milk. And now, in your medicine cabinet—or it should be. As part of the skin’s natural moisturizing complex, it’s a gentle compound that contributes to the skin cell cycle.

Glycolic acid is stronger, and also one of the most versatile AHAs. It has similar benefits but penetrates deeper than any other AHA. You can even use it in unexpected places like your scalp for dandruff or your underarms! So, if you’re wondering who wins out in the glycolic acid vs lactic acid debate, read on to discover which one is best for you.

Divya Gugnani applying skincare_glycolic acid vs lactic acid
Image by Alex Spigle

What’s the difference between lactic acid and glycolic acid?

The differences between glycolic acid and lactic acid are molecular. I’m no cosmetic chemist, but understanding their differences is one way to determine which one is best for you. Glycolic acid is made of smaller molecules, so it penetrates deeper under the surface of the skin making it stronger. Lactic acid is more gentle because its molecules are bigger.

Lactic and glycolic acid also have different effects on the skin. They both exfoliate for a clearer, brighter, and smoother complexion, but that’s not all. Glycolic acid supports the production of hyaluronic acid, collagen, and elastin—which is good news for any anti-aging concerns. Lactic acid also helps boost collagen, one of the skin’s natural moisturizing factors, making it essential for healthy barrier function.

Glycolic Acid vs Lactic Acid: Which Is Better?

The question isn’t which is better, but which is better for you. The cardinal rule of skincare is to listen to your own skin and ignore the trends steering you in the opposite direction. Both AHAs have a variety of benefits, but they’re each suited for different skin types and concerns.

  • Glycolic acid is best for: dramatic results for skincare veterans. Is your skin used to actives? Add glycolic acid to your routine to slough off the dull outer layer of your skin, stat.
  • Lactic acid is best for: sensitive skin or chemical exfoliation newbies. It’s a great starter acid that has the same benefits of glycolic acid but in a gentler form.
Nitsa Citrine bathroom_glycolic acid vs lactic acid
Image by Claire Huntsberger

Can lactic acid and glycolic acid be used together?

The answer is yes—if your skin can take it. Many products combine glycolic acid and lactic acid to create synergistic AHA blends that exfoliate while promoting hydration and overall skin health.

Using one at a time is more suitable for daily use. If you opt for double the exfoliation, you should use them half of the time to avoid over-exfoliating.

Should lactic acid or glycolic acid be used first?

If you’re using both acids, try using them at different times of the day—or even alternating days. Try a gentler lactic acid serum during the day, then use a glycolic acid peel or toner at night. Or, switch between them on different days. Once again, it’s all about listening to your skin.

You also have the option to choose a product with both lactic and glycolic acids. They contain safe concentrations of both acids, making sure you get the benefits without the irritation. Whatever you do, don’t forget your sunscreen! Acids make your skin sensitive to the sun. Without sunscreen, you’re rendering all the anti-aging benefits useless.

Shanika Hillocks applying skincare_glycolic acid vs lactic acid
Image by Michelle Nash

7 Hard-Working Glycolic Acid Options

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Exfoliating Toning Solution

u003cpu003eThere’s a reason this is considered the gateway toner for many glycolic acid converts. With a 7% concentration, it’s a strong solution for glowing skin. Pro-tip: start slow. It’ll still give you results without damaging your skin.u003c/pu003e

Krave Beauty Kale-Lalu-yAHA

u003cpu003eFor a gentler formulation, this kale and glycolic acid combo hydrates and protects while it exfoliates.u003c/pu003e

Evolve Organic Beauty Liquid Radiance Glycolic Toner

u003cpu003eThis super luxe formula will give you silky smooth skin. it combines glycolic, malic, citric, and salicylic acids for an AHA and BHA blend that nourishes your skin while sloughing away imperfections.u003c/pu003e

Josh Rosebrook Daily Acid Toner

u003cpu003eBecause of its high-quality ingredients, you can use this well-formulated glycolic acid toner daily without irritation. Bathe your face in AHAs and antioxidants to minimize irritation and bolster anti-aging.u003c/pu003e

Alpha-H Liquid Gold Exfoliating Treatment with Glycolic Acid

u003cpu003eThis luxurious treatment addresses tone and texture to support collagen production and strengthen your skin barrier. Pollution damage? Signs of aging? This is your one-step solution.u003c/pu003e

Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant

u003cpu003eThis gel-textured glycolic acid treatment is not for the faint of heart. With 8% glycolic acid and a weightless, hydrating formula, your skin will be stronger and smoother.u003c/pu003e

Goop GOOPGLOW 15% Glycolic Acid Overnight Glow Peel

u003cpu003eFor an intense, overnight treatment, swipe these 15% glycolic acid pads across your face before bed and wake up to rejuvenated skin.u003c/pu003e
image of Riley Reed_glycolic acid vs lactic acid
Image by Dagny Piasecki

The Best Lactic Acid Options on the Market

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA

u003cpu003eThis serum is the perfect combo of exfoliating and hydrating. With 5% lactic acid, it’s a potent serum that supercharges your skin with natural hydrating factors.u003c/pu003e

Kiehls Ferulic Brew Antioxidant Facial Treatment with Lactic Acid

u003cpu003eFerulic acid is a powerhouse reparative ingredient often paired with Vitamin C. But when combined with lactic acid, it visibly reduces damage while fortifying your skin for a brighter, stronger skin barrier.u003c/pu003e

Sunday Riley GOOD GENES All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment

u003cpu003eIf you know, you know. If you don’t, what are you waiting for? This cult classic melts away dull, rough skin and any signs of texture. Add this pick to your routine ASAP—you’ll love the results.u003c/pu003e

OSEA Ocean Cleanser

u003cpu003eLactic acid is the secret star of this clean-ingredient packed cleanser. It works beyond the surface of the skin and gets deep in your pores to flush out any and all grime. This resulting, refreshingly clean feeling has short- and long-term benefits for clear, glowing skin.u003c/pu003e

PCA SKIN Nutrient Toner

u003cpu003eThis nutrient toner primes your skin for the rest of your routine by using lactic acid to cut through the top layer of skin so the combination of vitamins, enzymes, and amino acids can penetrate even deeper for fully-nourished skin.u003c/pu003e

REN Clean Skincare Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Toner

u003cpu003eThis gentle, daily toner is the most effective first step before any makeup routine. Lactic acid and willow bark extract work together to smooth, tone, and brighten your skin a little more each day.u003c/pu003e

Tata Harper Resurfacing Serum

u003cpu003eFor the ultimate skincare experience, this luxe resurfacing serum is a daily brightening solution that combines vitamin C with lactic acid to polish away dullness. The Tata Harper all-star is your secret to the perfect summer glow, year-round.u003c/pu003e
Megan O'Neill applying beauty products in mirror_glycolic acid vs lactic acid
Image by Belathée Photography

The Best AHA-Blends for a Boost of Glycolic and Lactic Acid

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial AHA + BHA Mask

u003cpu003eThis is a skincare holy grail. The name says it all: slather it on for baby-smooth skin. Glass-like skin, here you come.u003c/pu003e

Moon Juice Acid Potion Resurfacing Exfoliator

u003cpu003eSweep away the dead skin with this clean beauty chemical exfoliating powerhouse. It combines 25% AHA+BHA acid complex with other nourishing ingredients to combat signs of environmental damage and oxidative stress.u003c/pu003e

Shani Darden Skin Care Lactic Acid AHA Exfoliating Serum

u003cpu003eRenowned LA esthetician Shani Darden has one of the best skincare lines in the game. This lactic acid serum also contains glycolic acid for an effective skin-smoothing serum.u003c/pu003e

WLDKAT AHA Yucca + Lactic Acid Liquid Exfoliant

u003cpu003eApply this leave-on exfoliator to harness the magic of lactic and glycolic acids while glycerin and yucca bring moisture to the surface for smooth skin and a strong moisture barrier.u003c/pu003e

SkinCeuticals C AHA

u003cpu003eUse this daytime AHA and Vitamin C antioxidant serum to achieve a daily glow. It heals the effects of premature aging and sun damage while protecting from future environmental stress.u003c/pu003e

Juice Beauty Green Apple Peel Sensitive Exfoliating Mask

u003cpu003eFinally! An exfoliating mask that works for sensitive skin. This mask combines malic acid from organic green apples and glycolic and lactic acids while nourishing with vitamins C, E, and organic aloe.u003c/pu003e

Let’s keep the list going! Share your favorite chemical exfoliant picks in the comments below.