What is Lactic Acid? - Structure, Formula & Uses

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  • 0:03 What Is Lactic Acid?
  • 0:27 Properties, Structure,…
  • 1:27 Uses
  • 3:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Lactic acid is commonly thought of in the context of exercise, but this compound is actually manufactured on an industrial scale for many uses. Find out more in this lesson.

What Is Lactic Acid?

If you're a big reader of health and exercise blogs, you've probably heard about a compound that builds up in your body when you've been exercising strenuously for a long time. It's lactic acid, formed as a result of energy-producing processes in your body. In this lesson, you're going to learn a little more about lactic acid: its structure, formula, and uses.

Properties, Structure, & Formula

Lactic acid is known by many names, such as:

  • DL-lactic acid
  • 2-hydroxypropanoic acid
  • 2-hydroxypropionic acid

Note how the latter two differ in spelling ever so slightly it's almost unnoticeable. Since the three names above are kind of hard to write and pronounce, we'll stick to calling it plain old lactic acid in this lesson.

Lactic acid has a viscous (syrupy) consistency. It's odorless and it is colorless or yellow. It is a liquid above 16.8 C (62.2 F) and forms crystals below this temperature.

Its formula is written out in one of two common ways:

  • C3 H 6 O3

The 'C' stands for carbon; the 'H' stands for hydrogen; and the 'O' stands for oxygen. Its structure can be shown two-dimensionally or three-dimensionally, as seen in these images:




While your body can most definitely make lactic acid on its own, it wouldn't make nearly enough for all of the things the world relies on lactic acid for. Lactic acid is produced industrially, either synthetically or via fermentation. Fermentation involves using nutrients such as amino acids, peptides, vitamins, salts, glucose, sucrose, and lactose. Those nutrients are combined with microbes, which then use the nutrients to produce lactic acid.

Once the lactic acid is produced, it can be used in:

  • Personal and healthcare products
  • Cleaning products
  • Food preservatives
  • Paint and coating additives
  • Electrical products
  • Laundry products
  • Dairy goods, such as yogurt
  • Dishwashing products
  • Furniture care products

Let's look a little closer at some of these uses.

Personal and Healthcare Products

First, we have health care and personal products. Now this one may sound weird to you, but it's true. Lactic acid creams can be used to treat dry, itchy, and scaly skin. Such creams act as a humectant and keratolytic.

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