Estheticians Are Begging You to Use *This* Type of Serum for Soft, Smooth Skin

Anyone with extremely sensitive or acne-prone skin knows soft, smooth, clear skin can feel like a pipe dream at times. But with this little ingredient, it's not only possible but also 100% achievable. I'll first share a personal anecdote about lactic acid and how it changed my skincare routine for the better. I'd been dealing with some moisture-barrier damage, sensitivities, and breakouts all at the same time. I couldn't find a chemical exfoliant that helped keep my skin clear without causing further barrier damage. That was until I discovered lactic acid—a gentle AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) that both exfoliates and moisturizes the skin. 

If you've been struggling with anything similar, it's definitely worth giving it a try. When paired with the right ingredients in a serum, lactic acid can seriously work wonders for your complexion. Even if you have fine lines, dull skin, dark spots, or a bit of texture, lactic acid can help with that too! It's truly a multiuse ingredient you won't want to skip. For an even deeper dive into lactic acid's benefits and the best serums with it that money can buy, keep scrolling.

What is lactic acid, and what are the benefits?

Holistic esthetician Tammy Fender shares exactly what lactic acid is and where it comes from. "Lactic acid is typically derived from milk or fermented vegetables and is known for its ability to exfoliate the skin, bringing out its tone and brightness," she explains.

According to board-certified dermatologist Brendan Camp, MD, lactic acid is one of the gentlest chemical exfoliants you can use, making it suitable for dry or sensitive skin types. "Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that acts as a gentle exfoliant," he says.
"As an exfoliant, it helps remove dry, dead skin cells from the skin's surface, revealing smoother, softer, healthier skin." Joie Tavernise, NYC medical esthetician and founder of JTAV Clinical Skincare, also shares an interesting tidbit of info about lactic acid. "It will not disrupt the pH balance of the skin or cause redness and irritation," she says. 

Lactic acid is also unique in the way that it has both exfoliating and hydrating properties, so it's a great option if you're dealing with acne and moisture-barrier damage or just have dry, sensitive skin. I can personally attest to this, as I struggled to find an exfoliating product I could use daily that didn't irritate my sensitive skin or cause my barrier damage to get worse. Camp says, "Lactic acid is often suitable for dry or sensitive skin types. It does not penetrate the skin deeply, and as a result, there may be fewer side effects than other acid products. If you do have a history of sensitive skin, it is a good idea to do a test spot on the inside of your arm prior to applying it more liberally."

What should you look for in a lactic acid serum?

Lactic acid is one of the gentlest AHAs, and that's why it's great for sensitive or acne-prone skin. It still gets the job done without irritation. However, depending on how sensitive your skin is, you'll still want to start with a product that has a lower percentage of lactic acid and work your way up if you can tolerate it. This is especially important if your skin is hypersensitive or teeters on reactive. Mine is definitely both of those things, and incorporating lactic acid into my daily skincare routine was the best decision I've ever made. Not everyone's skin is the same, so you'll want to proceed with caution when using any kind of new chemical exfoliant. Many of the products listed in this article contain a 10% concentration of lactic acid, which is on the stronger side, but you can start small by choosing one of the gentler options on this list and seeing how you like it. Keep scrolling—our top lactic acid serum picks are below.

Best Overall: Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment

Pros: Gently resurfaces the skin, clarifies blemishes, fades dark spots, and soothes redness.

Cons: Expensive.

Camp recommends this lactic acid serum from Sunday Riley because it gently resurfaces the skin, improves fine lines, and clarifies blemishes. It also contains licorice and lemongrass to brighten dark spots and prickly pear extract to soothe redness and sensitivities.

Customer Review: "I've been using Sunday Riley products almost exclusively for years, but if I was stranded on an island and could only bring one skincare product (aside from sunscreen, of course), it would be this. it does everything it says and more. It's not cheap, but it truly does make a difference as soon as you apply it. I use one pump, and it covers my whole face and even a little of my neck. Use with the CEO serum and your skin will look like you just left the spa!"

Pros: Gentle enough for sensitive skin, combats clogged pores, can be used daily.

Cons: Strong smell.

This lactic acid serum from Typology has a 10% concentration of lactic acid along with acerola extract, which is rich in antioxidants that combat free radical damage.

Customer Review: "A great beginner's chemical exfoliant! It's gentle enough for everyday use but really does seem to help. I think it's already helping keep my skin clearer and pores less clogged. The first day, I did have the redness Typology warned about as my skin adjusted, just looks like you're flushed or spent too much time in the sun, but that went away in a day. This is a great option for someone looking to get a chemical exfoliant or even someone with sensitive skin!"

Pros: Designed for sensitive skin and contains gentler AHAs than other exfoliating serums.

Cons: May not be strong enough for those with moderate to severe acne.

This resurfacing serum from Beekman is designed specifically for sensitive skin. Willow bark, caviar lime, and lactic acid work together to gently exfoliate dead skin cells and help prevent clogged pores. 

Customer Review: "I definitely have acne and oily skin, but this product has literally made me have smoother skin and reduced redness! I LOVE IT."

Pros: Gently exfoliates and hydrates, reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and improves skin texture.

Cons: Strong smell.

This overnight treatment from StriVectin contains lactic acid to hydrate and exfoliate, blue cypress oil to soothe dry skin, and nonapeptide-1 to improve skin's overall radiance.

Customer Review: "Very happy with this product—you actually do see results quickly! My skin looked 'fresher' within one or two uses. I got this as a sample and will be buying the full size. Only complaint is that I do not love the smell, but it is gone after application."

Pros: Budget-friendly, high-strength formula.

Cons: May be too strong for sensitive or reactive skin.

In addition to lactic acid, this exfoliating serum contains Tasmanian pepperberry, an ingredient that helps reduce inflammation and the sensitivity associated with using AHAs. 

Customer Review: "I was starting to see some lines on my forehead and noticed a bit of texture and dullness. … I use this at night a few times a week and I wake up with plump and glowing skin. Great packaging too."

Pros: Great for sensitive and dehydrated skin, contains skin-conditioning and moisturizing microalgae and snow mushroom extract, contains niacinamide to help repair the skin barrier and fade dark spots.

Cons: Expensive.

Although this is technically a toner, I'd call this a toner-serum hybrid. The texture definitely feels like a serum, but it exfoliates powerfully and gently with lactic acid and provides antioxidant protection to the skin. I use this twice a day, and let me tell you—the texture and tone of my skin have improved dramatically. It also contains niacinamide to help with dark spots, hydration, and barrier repair, so it's great for anyone struggling with dehydration or moisture-barrier damage.

Pros: Provides heavy-duty exfoliation and contains a hydrating complex of hyaluronic acid, aloe, and green tea to combat dryness and irritation.

Cons: Expensive and may be too strong for sensitive or reactive skin.

Many folks love celebrity esthetician Shani Darden's Retinol Reform, but her lactic acid serum deserves a bit more love too, IMO. It contains 9% lactic acid, gluconolactone for further exfoliation, and a soothing complex of hyaluronic acid, aloe, and green tea to hydrate skin overnight. 

Customer Review: "After trying multiple face creams when my regular one was discontinued, I completely damaged the texture of my skin. After just one use of this serum, it has already smoothed out my skin and diminished the blemishes I was so insecure about. 100% will be adding to my regular routine."

Pros: Budget-friendly, designed to exfoliate and hydrate the skin, reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots, and is ideal for dry skin types.

Cons: May not be ideal for sensitive skin or those with eczema.

Using organic ingredients along with lactic acid and glycolic acid, this serum from ArtNaturals is designed for those with dry skin. It gently resurfaces the skin but also hydrates with sodium hyaluronate and glycerin.

Customer Review: "I rarely write reviews, owing to such little spare time. However, I was so impressed by this product I felt compelled to do so. This serum is nongreasy and sinks into my skin rapidly. It feels clean, fresh, natural, and does not irritate (my occasionally) sensitive skin. It remains to be known if the anti-aging claims ring true—only time will tell. Regardless, the quality of this product actually outrivals other (much more expensive) brands that I have tried. Disclaimer—I was not given this product in return for a review—I purchased this product and loved it!"

Pros: Smooths uneven texture, minimizes fine lines and wrinkles, clears congested pores, and contains squalane for hydration and barrier repair.

Cons: May be too strong for sensitive or reactive skin.

The 10% lactic acid in this serum resurfaces and brightens while squalane promotes hydration within the skin and can help repair a damaged moisture barrier.

Customer Review: "Absolutely love the overnight exfoliation that it provides. I could see a significant difference in my skin tone in just one night. My skin felt so smooth and radiant in the morning. Highly recommend it for all skin types."

Pros: Contains a blend of three AHAs to combat acne, dark spots, and fine lines and bakuchiol (a natural retinol alternative).

Cons: Expensive and may be too strong for sensitive skin.

Containing a blend of three key acids—salicylic, mandelic, and lactic—this serum lifts away pigmentation and really exfoliates dead skin. Active peptides in the formula also boost collagen and inhibit excess melanin production while bakuchiol reduces fine lines, wrinkles, and dullness.

Customer Review: "I began using this product after getting the mini travel size as a gift with purchase. After several uses, I began to see results, and now, I'm hooked. It helped prevent acne breakouts and also brightened my overall complexion. I can definitely see a difference when I'm not using it and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a boost in their skincare routine."

Pros: Mild exfoliants and enzymes remove excess oil and congestion, stimulate cell metabolism, and hydrate the skin.

Cons: Expensive.

"My favorite product that contains lactic acid is Beta Enzyme from MBR. It acts as a mini facial in a bottle, removing excess oil and congestion from the skin, stimulating cell metabolism, and exfoliating while hydrating to reveal smoother, more radiant skin," Tavernise says.