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Lactic Acid Before or After Retinol? Yes, There’s a Correct Answer

by Ella Goodman 29 May 2024

When it comes to lactic acid and retinol, the same questions keep cropping up. 

Is it lactic acid before retinol or vice-versa? 

It feels like asking, "Which goes first? The chicken or the egg?". 

The answer could feel as convoluted as that age-old riddle. 

But, darling, worry not. This guide is here to straighten things out.

Do you put lactic acid on before or after retinol?

You might have found yourself torn between these two skincare heavyweights, lactic acid and retinol.

So which one takes the top spot in your routine? 

It's not about crowning a winner here, but enjoying a tag team where each product gets to shine! 

So, to break the tension: lactic acid generally goes before retinol

But why, you ask?

Enter the wondrous world of pH-dependent skincare. 

Skincare products such as acids, rely heavily on pH levels to function well. Lactic Acid prefers a slightly acidic setting to work its exfoliating magic. Lower pH means higher acidity—a skin cocktail where lactic acid is the life and soul of the party.

Now let's talk about retinol.

Unlike the flashy dance moves of lactic acid, retinol is more of a slow and steady type, taking its sweet time to deliver results. Retinol is less pH-dependent, so it doesn't mind going second, as long as it gets to the dance floor eventually. 

But, don't rush your skincare routine as if it's a 100-meter sprint. Imagine slow dancing to your favorite song; introduce your skin to lactic acid, then retinol, gradually.

First, spread a thin layer of lactic acid over your face, wait half a minute or so for your skin to soak it up. Once the lactic acid has had its moment on stage, it's retinol's turn to groove. Apply your retinoid, and let it get down to the business of anti-aging and skin-smoothing

Ah, the harmony when two top-of-the-line skincare ingredients work together!

But here's a word of caution.

Every skin is a unique masterpiece, so make sure this routine suits your skin type. If you notice any skin irritation or sensitivities, scale back or separate their use to maintain a healthy skin balance.

There's also the buzz about 'buffering'. 

If retinol is irritating your skin, don't shove it into the corner of your beauty drawer just yet! Instead, try 'buffering'. 

Apply a moisturizer after the lactic acid, but before the retinol. This intervening step aligns the pH levels, reduces irritation and affords retinol a smoother entry for its skin-repair work.

Now, there is an exception if you’re using a moisturizer infused with retinol (a skincare ninja move in itself). In this case, retinol simply occupies the same step as your moisturizer in your routine.

Let's top it all off with one more nugget.

When using an exfoliant like lactic acid and a potent ingredient like a retinol, never forget to invite SPF to your skincare party. 

These ingredients increase sun sensitivity. Sunscreen might be the latecomer to your routine, but let's be real, the party doesn’t get started until sunscreen is in the house!

So, there you have it! Lactic acid makes an entrance, followed by retinol, and SPF is the surprising showstopper. 

Get set, beautify!

Should you put lactic acid on wet or dry skin?

OK, skincare enthusiasts, let's get down to the details! 

If you've been wondering whether to put lactic acid on wet or dry skin, here's your answer: dry skin is best if you’re using lactic acid

Why? Glad you asked! 

Now, lactic acid, being an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), works best on dry skin because water can dilute the efficacy of this acid. And that would affect its stellar performance we're all after.  

When you apply lactic acid to damp skin, you're inviting an unnecessary risk. Water tends to push lactic acid deeper into your skin, which can potentially cause irritation. Ouch! We certainly don't want that.

Make sure your skin is completely dry before you introduce it to our friend, lactic acid. Cleanse your skin, pat dry, and then wait. 

Yes, wait. Give yourself a beauty time-out for about 15 minutes before applying the lactic acid. 

Chilling out post-wash and pre-acid allows your skin to return to its normal pH level. This ensures that the lactic acid can work its magic more effectively, giving you all the skin-enhancing properties it's loved for. 

Plus, it reduces the chance of any redness, sensitivity, or (heaven forbid) peeling from happening. 

Avoid the temptation of pairing lactic acid with other potent ingredients like retinol immediately in your skincare regimen. Remember, lactic acid itself is a powerful exfoliator, so let it take center stage in your routine. 

Lactic acid is a starlet needing a solo performance. Give her the space and time to shine and deliver her stellar skin benefits. Your skin will thank you for the thoughtfulness. 

Roll out this red carpet slowly. Start with a lower concentration if you're new to using AHAs. Easing into the treatment will give your skin time to acclimate and minimize potential irritation. 

Now let's talk about timing during the day. While you may apply lactic acid both in the AM or PM, I suggest it's best to incorporate it into your nighttime routine. At night, your skin does most of its repairing and regenerating, making it a prime time for this A-list ingredient.

Finally, while lactic acid is beautiful, remember that it may make your skin more sensitive to the sun. 

Wearing a broad-spectrum SPF during the day is a MUST. It's your ultimate skin protection step, especially when using any AHA, including lactic acid. 

So the short version is: apply lactic acid on dry skin, wait post-wash before you put it on, and always, always follow up with an SPF

Your skin will be in tip-top condition in no time, and you'll be wondering how you ever managed without this skincare gem!

How long to wait between lactic acid and moisturizer?

Slathering on lotions and emulsions may make your skin feel fantastic, but let's not forget, we're dealing with chemistry here. 

How long you wait between applying lactic acid and your moisturizer can make all the difference to your skincare results! 

We've got the keys to unlock those scientific mysteries. And don’t worry. Although there’s science involved, we promise, it won't be as dull as a night out with a pet rock.

The rule of thumb when it involves lactic acid is to let it sink into the skin for around 5 minutes before applying moisturizer. 

Why so, you ask? Cue the suspenseful music because we're diving into the ‘how’ and ‘why’ now.

Your skin has its own pH level, hovering around 5.5. Lactic acid, being an alpha-hydroxy acid, loves a slightly more acidic environment to show off its skin-smoothing skills. It operates optimally at a pH of around 3.5 to 4.

Apply your moisturizer right after your lactic acid? Hold up. Your moisturizer, which generally has a higher pH, may raise your skin's acidity levels too soon. Too much change too quickly can affect the workings of our superstar, lactic acid, robbing it (and you) of the full exfoliating potential. 

This waiting period not only allows the lactic acid to work its magic but also stops different beauty products from reacting with each other on your skin. After all, your face isn’t a cocktail shaker, it's a canvas!

You don’t need to count the minutes down on the clock, though. Just keep the 5-minute rule in mind and work it into your skincare routine. Lactic acid application time is the perfect moment for a little self-care - perhaps a moment of deep breathing or a quick meditation. 

Now you know all about the timing, but let's make sure you're not slapping on these products any old way. 

Skincare application is an art. Start with your lactic acid, smoothing it over your skin with your fingertips; we recommend using an upward sweeping motion.  

After the magic 5 minutes, gently apply your moisturizer, using light strokes so as not to undo your lactic acid's fine work. 

And there you go: a simple but effective protocol to squeeze all the skincare goodness out of your lactic acid and moisturizer combo.

Remember, everyone's skin has its own unique story, and reactions can vary. 

Keep a keen eye on your skin. If you notice redness or irritation, consider reducing the frequency of lactic acid application. Your skin's health always comes before any skincare regimen, no matter how trending it might be! 

Armed with this new know-how, go forth, and jazz up your beauty routine! You now have the perfect recipe for skin success: the right products, the right order, and the right timing. 

No more fumbling in the dark corners of skincare confusion!

Do you leave lactic acid on overnight?

In the star-studded saga of your nighttime skincare routine, lactic acid asks, "Shall I stay or should I go?" 

Here's your Rolling Stones moment, honey - "You can always get what you want!" 

Indeed, lactic acid can comfortably camp out on your skin overnight. 

Why? Time equals more marvels for your skin. It allows lactic acid to work uninterrupted on the dead skin cells, resulting in a deeply exfoliated, radiant complexion. 

Skinsmith suggestions: the game of top picks

Welcome to our skincare board game, the Game of Top-Picks, where every roll of the dice levels up your beauty regime. 

Firstly, we land on the hydration square. 

Following up the lactic acid with a spritz of a hydrating, pH-balancing toner helps calm the skin. Conjure ingredients like cucumber or aloe vera, known for their mild and moistening capabilities.

Secondly, let's gear up for mixology. 

Combining lactic acid with a pacifying serum can translate to less prickling, less redness. It's like the perfect skincare cocktail that eases the intensity of the lactic acid.

Lastly, and yes, we’ll say it again — sunscreen! It’s your constant during sun-drenched days. 

Retinol, a sun-sensitive ingredient, demands this faithful companion to protect your now exfoliated and more exposed skin from the sun's harsh glare.

All wrapped up

And with that, we come out the other side of the “lactic acid or retinol?" maze — a lot wiser, and a lot less confused! 

When you find yourself locked in a dilemma between these two skincare titans, revisit this guide.

And remember: your skin is akin to a fine piece of literature or an avant-garde movie; ever-changing, never repeating. 

The story of your skin unfurls with each pack or potion you entrust it with. 

So, bid adieu to the stress lines, make your skincare debut, and enjoy the unfolding narrative. 

You're not just the protagonist but the unchallenged director of your skin's blossoming epic!

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