Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are key ingredients in our never-ending search for healthy-looking skin. But sometimes, they can be a little too harsh to use, especially if you have skin that is prone to irritation. If you're looking to get the same benefits as AHAs but also wanting something a whole lot gentler on your skin, though, we think we've found the answer. Give a warm hello to lactobionic acid. (And no, it's not the same thing as lactic acid.)
Meet the Expert
- Melissa Doft, MD is a double board-certified plastic surgeon based in Manhattan.
- Dhaval Bhanusali, MD, is a dermatologist based at the Hudson Laser & Dermatology clinic in New York City.
- Rachel Ho is a cosmetic chemist and the founder of Rho Cosmetics.
We consulted plastic surgeon Melissa Doft, MD; Dhaval Bhanusali, MD, from Hudson Laser & Dermatology clinic; cosmetic chemist Rachel Ho, founder of Rho Cosmetics; and Michelle Wong, MD, science educator and content creator behind LabMuffin to get the lowdown on the gentle acid.
Type of ingredient: Acid.
Main benefits: Exfoliates, is gentler than regular acids, acts as humectant.
Who should use it: In general, people with sensitive skin benefit most from lactobionic acid usage.
How often can you use it: Once a day.
Works well with: Other acids.
Don't use with: Retinol.
What is Lactobionic Acid?
"Lactobionic acid is the oxidized form of lactose, which is derived from milk," says Doft. "As lactobionic is a larger molecule than glycolic acid, it will not penetrate the skin as well and thus is considered less strong and less irritating." Or as Bhanusali puts it, it's "a polyhydroxy acid that tends not to be irritating and works as a great humectant that helps hydrate the skin and keep it plump." Humectants attract and absorb moisture either from the air or the skin, keeping the skin's surface hydrated.
According to the Omorovicza team, because lactobionic acid doesn't penetrate the skin as well, it only provides exfoliation on the surface. "This makes it perfect for those with sensitive skin who are prone to irritation sometimes caused by AHAs," they say. We asked both Doft and the Omorovicza team to break down the acid down for us, from the exact benefits we'd be getting to how we should be incorporating it into our skincare routine.
"Lactobionic acid is a polyhydroxy acid that has similar effects to alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid, but with less irritation," says Wong. In case you only know them by their acronyms though, it's a PHA, which is similar to an AHA—PHAs are kind of a subcategory of AHA. But there are some added benefits that come when you're using lactobionic acid over other acids. "It also acts as an antioxidant, soaking up skin-damaging free radicals as well as a humectant moisturizer to attract water to the skin. It doesn't need to be used at a low pH, which reduces irritation."
Benefits of Lactobionic Acid
According to both Doft and Omorovizca, the skin benefits of lactobionic acid are numerous. They include the standard effects of acids, but some are unique to lactobionic acid's gentle nature.
- Exfoliates: Because lactobionic acid is a PHA, it functions to gently exfoliate and remove the outermost layer of dead skin cells on the skin, but is considered more gentle than AHAs due to their larger size, which limits skin penetration. "This means the shallow layers of the skin's surface are receiving exfoliation, making it a great option for exfoliation for those with sensitive skin," says Ho.
- Protects against sun damage: One 2016 study found that lactobionic acid works "as antioxidant chelating agents, absorbing free radicals generated by ultraviolet exposure," thereby helping to protect against further sun damage.
- Gentle enough for sensitive skin: As Ho notes above, lactobionic acid is a gentle exfoliator, making it ideal for everyday use (particularly among those who can't handle stronger acids, such as AHAs).
- Brightens skin: Because of the increased cellular turnover rate to prevent buildup, it may result in a brighter skin tone for all skin types.
- Reduces lines: It also evens out skin tone, including the reduced appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Fades dark marks: Lactobionic acid also aids in the lessening of scars and hyperpigmentation.
- Helps hydrate: Increased elastin and collagen lead to better hydration.
- Thickens skin: Research published in 2012 indicated that hydroxy acids, such as lactobionic acid increase epidermal thickness.
Side Effects Of Lactobionic Acid
"Like all acids, lactobionic acid can be irritating to the skin. If you have dry or sensitive skin, some formulations may be too strong," says Doft. She suggests using it three times a week as a test to see how well (or poorly) your skin can tolerate it, and from there you can go up or down. Overall, just go with how often it seems like it's needed for your skin in particular.
How To Use It
According to Omorovizca, you can find lactobionic acids in treatment products such as scrubs, serums, peels, and masks. The only precaution you should take is if you have sensitive skin. Regarding when you should use it, Wong says, "It should be used on bare skin after cleansing, before moisturizer."
As for mixing exfoliators, Doft advises against it. "I would be careful using too many exfoliants at once," she says. "For example, I would not use a glycolic acid wash and a lactobionic wash during the same day. Also, you may want to be careful using a mechanical exfoliator like a Clarisonic brush in conjunction with a lactobionic acid polish."
The Best Products With Lactobionic Acid
Made with lava stone extract, this polisher cleanses, purifies, and refines dull skin to give you the smoothest and brightest skin possible. It also reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles through its use of fruit extracts to smooth the skin. Plus, it's great at combatting the effects of the sun, even going so far as to be a mild protectant.
This serum combines mandelic and lactobionic acids meant to speed up cellular turnover rates and reduce the appearance of fine lines and hyperpigmentation. It also contains marine botanicals that promise to calm and soothe any irritation, which is ideal for sensitive skin. The focus in creating it was on eliminating seven effects of photoaging: fine lines, wrinkles, rough texture, uneven skin tone, dull skin, enlarged pores, and loss of firmness.
This peel gives you a brighter complexion and firms up your skin while also exfoliating away dead particles without irritating it. Exfoliating and brightening? How? Well, it contains AHAs to slough off dead skin, but they didn't stop there when formulating it. Added amino acids and copper are combined to increase collagen production so your skin will be more elastic.
Something described as "part peel, part moisturizer" might sound too good to be true, but it's very real. Dr. Jart uses a combination of seemingly every acid in the book for this product (AHA, BHA, PHA,) but don't worry—it's nourishing too. According to the brand, salt from the dead sea, which contains 21 distinct minerals, serves as an antibacterial and disinfectant. The final touch is coconut water meant to moisturize and nourish your recently exfoliated skin.
You might not look for acids in your moisturizers, but they're absolutely a beneficial ingredient. Case in point, this anti-aging face cream from NeoStrata. It's made for delicate, post-procedural skin, the kind you might experience after things like laser treatments. Gentle gluconolactone (another PHA) and lactobionic acid are included to wash away fine lines and wrinkles. Meadowfoam seed oil, on the other hand, is meant to eliminate things like irritation and redness. Overall, it's a great rich cream for hypersensitive skin.
This super-clean polish may not have the most elaborate packaging, but it packs a punch when it comes down to it. Lactobionic acid is only one of the many ingredients in this enzyme polish that are used to slough off dead skin gently and without irritation. In fact, papaya and pineapple are the first two listed ingredients. Volcanic minerals are included in the formula as well for some extra exfoliating power. It also contains nourishing micro-algae meant to cleanse and revitalize the skin without depleting the skin's delicate lipid barrier.
Is lactobionic acid safe for sensitive skin?
While it does work to exfoliate the outermost layer of dead skin cells, lactobionic acid is considered more gentle than AHAs, so it's safe for sensitive skin.
Can lactobionic acid help acne-prone skin?
While it doesn't necessarily fight acne the way some other acids do, lactobionic acid does aid in the lessening of scars and hyperpigmentation.
Can lactobionic acid help dry skin?
As it works to boost hydration and thicken skin, lactobionic acid is a great choice for those with dry skin.
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