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Niacinamide vs Lactic Acid: The Ultimate K-Beauty Face-off

by Yu-Jun Park 25 Oct 2023

Hey there, skincare savant!

If you’re like us, you’re probably knee-deep in the world of Korean skincare.

And as we dance through the steps of our skincare routines (10-step, anyone?), we often wonder about the products we layer on.

Today, we’re diving deep into a debate that’s been making waves: Niacinamide vs Lactic Acid.

Which is the true KBeauty superstar?

Let’s break it down — with a dash of science, and a whole lot of Seoul!

Can I Use Niacinamide and Lactic Acid Together?

Honey, we get it. You’ve got all these fabulous products and you're itching to layer them up.

But wait! Before you go all mad scientist on your face, let’s understand what’s what.

The Scoop on Niacinamide

Alright, skincare enthusiasts, let’s talk niacinamide.

Often hailed as the unsung hero in the skincare universe, niacinamide is more than just Vitamin B3.

Beyond its hydrating properties, here's the nitty-gritty:

  • Barrier Strengthening: Niacinamide fortifies your skin's barrier, making it resilient against environmental stressors. And a strong barrier means better moisture retention. Translation? Plump, hydrated skin.
  • Anti-inflammatory Power: Redness, puffiness, or any unwanted inflammation can meet their nemesis in niacinamide. It actively reduces inflammation, giving you a calmer complexion.
  • Hyperpigmentation Be Gone: Those annoying dark spots or uneven tones? Niacinamide minimizes melanin production, which can lead to a more even skin tone.

Now that's a multi-tasking powerhouse!

Lactic Acid Lowdown

On the other corner, we have the gentle giant of exfoliation: lactic acid.

A favorite AHA among skincare aficionados, this milk-derived acid is all about refining and rejuvenating:

  • Gentle Exfoliation: Unlike some of its harsher siblings in the AHA family, lactic acid offers a kinder, gentler exfoliation. It dissolves dead skin cells, making way for newer, fresher ones.
  • Moisture Magnet: Believe it or not, lactic acid is also a humectant. That means it draws moisture to the skin, combating the dryness often associated with exfoliants.
  • Collagen Boost: Want firmer skin? Lactic acid nudges your skin into producing more collagen. So, not only are you exfoliating, but you're also firming up. Talk about double-duty!

Marrying the Two

Now, down to the million-dollar question: can these two K-Beauty rockstars join forces without causing a skin mutiny?

Short answer? Absolutely, yes! 

When used together, they're like that dream team that nails every project:

  • Complementary Actions: While lactic acid works on the skin's surface, clearing away dead skin cells and drawing in moisture, niacinamide works deeper, reinforcing the skin barrier and regulating oil production.
  • Boosted Radiance: With lactic acid revealing fresh skin and niacinamide addressing inflammation and unevenness, you're in for a serious glow-up.
  • Balanced Act: If you're worried about lactic acid being too strong, niacinamide comes to the rescue. Its calming properties can counteract potential irritation from the acid, ensuring a balanced, harmonious effect.

What Goes First: Lactic Acid or Niacinamide?

If you’re ready to mix these two, order is the key, darling!

In the Korean skincare game, layering isn't just a technique; it's an art form.

Understanding the "Why" Behind the Order

Diving straight into the heart of the matter, let’s first grasp the rationale behind the sequence:

  • Consistency Matters: In Korean skincare, the golden rule is layering products from the lightest consistency to the heaviest. This ensures maximum absorption. Thin, watery products pave the way, allowing the denser, creamy ones to lock in all that goodness.
  • Active Ingredient Absorption: Actives, like lactic acid, are formulated to penetrate deep into the skin's layers to deliver visible results. Their smaller molecular size makes them speedy workers. On the flip side, niacinamide, often found in serums or creams, has a slightly larger molecular structure, making it a slow and steady winner.
  • Optimal Functionality: Lactic acid’s primary job is exfoliation. By applying it first, you’re giving it a clean canvas to work on. Follow it up with niacinamide, and you're ensuring your skin is hydrated, strengthened, and inflammation-free after the exfoliating process.

The Layering Lowdown

Alright, now that we're all nerded out on the science, let's walk you through the steps:

  1. Prep Time: Start with a clean, dry face. A gentle cleanser to remove all traces of makeup and impurities is a must.
  2. Lactic Acid, Your First Player: Apply a small amount of your lactic acid product. Whether it's a toner, serum, or another formulation, make sure you spread it evenly. Since this AHA is exfoliating the surface of your skin and speeding up cell turnover, you're essentially making way for the subsequent layers to penetrate even deeper.
  3. Wait, Literally: Let the lactic acid do its thing. This isn't just a filler step; it’s crucial. Giving it time ensures that the pH level of your skin returns to its natural state after the mildly acidic nature of the AHA. A waiting period of about 10 minutes should do the trick. Use this time for a quick meditation, dance break, or checking out your favorite K-drama snippets.
  4. Niacinamide's Grand Entrance: Now that your skin is primed and ready, introduce it to the hydrating and soothing benefits of niacinamide. Massage it in with gentle, upward strokes, and visualize all that barrier-strengthening and redness-reducing action.
  5. Lock and Load: Finish off with your favorite moisturizer to seal in both the lactic acid and niacinamide. It’s like the final protective seal on your artful layering masterpiece!

Cautionary Tales

While this order generally works for many, remember that everyone's skin is its own unique universe. Some might experience a slight tingling when layering these two.

That’s why, before going full-face, always test the combo on a small patch of skin. A little behind-the-scenes sneak peek, if you will.

So, the verdict in a few words: Lactic Acid → Wait → Niacinamide.

Is Lactic Acid or Niacinamide Better for Acne?

Struggling with acne? Ugh, we feel you.

Let's see which contender can help you combat those blemishes.

The Battle Begins: Understanding Acne

Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: acne isn’t just about those little red mountains on your face.

It’s a result of multiple factors — excess oil production, bacteria, dead skin cells, and even hormones.

Knowing the root of your acne issues will guide you in choosing the best warrior for your skin.

Lactic Acid: The Exfoliating Gladiator

Mechanism: Lactic acid, a member of the AHA family, is all about exfoliation.

When applied, it gently dissolves the bonds between dead skin cells, ensuring they don't hang around and clog up your pores. And hey, fewer blockages equal fewer acne flare-ups!


  • Surface Renewal: It promotes faster skin cell turnover. This means newer, fresher skin comes to the surface more quickly, pushing out those problematic dead cells.
  • Post-Acne Marks: Struggling with dark spots post-breakout? Lactic acid aids in fading these pesky reminders, giving you a clearer complexion over time.

Best For:

  • Clogged Pores: If blackheads and whiteheads are your main concern, then this exfoliating savior can work wonders.
  • Sensitive Skin: Given its larger molecular size compared to other AHAs, lactic acid is a bit gentler, making it suitable for those with sensitive skin.

Niacinamide: The Calming Strategist

Mechanism: Niacinamide, aka Vitamin B3, is like that friend who’s good at everything. It doesn't just take a one-pronged approach; it targets multiple facets of acne.


  • Oil Regulation: Niacinamide can dial down sebum production. And with less oil on your face, there’s a reduced chance of pores getting clogged and causing breakouts.
  • Redness and Inflammation: It's like the skincare equivalent of a cold compress on a hot day. Niacinamide can soothe those inflamed acne spots, reducing their angry appearance.
  • Strengthens Skin Barrier: A robust skin barrier is essential in preventing acne. Niacinamide fortifies this barrier, ensuring harmful elements and bacteria are kept at bay.

Best For:

  • Oily Skin: If you’ve got that perpetual shine (and not the dewy kind!), niacinamide can help keep things matte.
  • Inflamed Acne: Those with red, painful pimples will find solace in niacinamide’s calming properties.

And The Winner Is…

Hold up!

The answer isn’t so straightforward. The true victor really depends on your skin's individual needs.

If you're battling clogged pores and dullness, lactic acid might be your knight in shining armor.

However, if excess oil and inflammation feel like your never-ending saga, then niacinamide is ready to step into the fray.

What Should You Not Mix Niacinamide With?

It's like making a perfect cocktail, right? You want that amazing blend where every ingredient shines, but one wrong mix, and the whole thing goes south.

Niacinamide, as stellar as it is, can be a bit finicky when mixed with certain ingredients.

Let’s deconstruct the do's and don'ts of pairing niacinamide.

Niacinamide & Vitamin C: The Controversial Couple

History Lesson: Way back when, the beauty streets buzzed with whispers saying niacinamide and Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) were frenemies. The fear was that they might neutralize each other, rendering both ineffective.

The Current Scoop: Modern studies suggest that they can be used together without canceling each other out. But there's a catch! Combining them might reduce the potency of Vitamin C's antioxidant properties. While they're not exactly at war, they're not the dream team either.

Pro Tip: To get the best of both worlds, apply Vitamin C in the morning for that antioxidant protection against sun and pollution. Save niacinamide for nighttime when its reparative properties can shine.

Niacinamide & Strong Acids: The Delicate Dance

The Players: While niacinamide plays well with most ingredients, strong hydroxy acids, like glycolic acid or salicylic acid, might make things... spicy.

Why the Drama?: Both niacinamide and strong acids have a thing for controlling sebum and renewing the skin. When you get them together, it's like two alphas in one room. The result? Potential irritation, especially for sensitive skin types.

Play It Safe: If you're keen on using both, consider alternating them. Maybe use the strong acid on Monday night and niacinamide on Tuesday. Giving your skin a breather can prevent unwanted reactions and keep things smooth.

Niacinamide & Retinol: The Power Pair

Okay, this isn’t a “don’t mix”, but it’s too juicy to skip. Contrary to what you might think, retinol and niacinamide are like that iconic duo that just vibes. Retinol is fantastic for anti-aging, but it can be drying. Enter niacinamide, which hydrates and soothes, minimizing potential dryness from retinol. If you’re up for some advanced skincare alchemy, this pair is golden!

The Ultimate Mixologist Advice

Skincare is both art and science. While we've got the science part down, the art is all about you.

Every skin type is a unique canvas. Always, always do a patch test when introducing new combinations. It might seem tedious, but your skin will thank you.

And don't forget the golden rule: simplicity can sometimes outshine complexity.

If you're unsure, pare back. Let each ingredient have its moment.

In the sprawling world of skincare, especially with the endless treasures Korean skincare offers, it can be tempting to throw everything on. Resist the urge, prioritize, and craft a routine that’s tailor-made just for you.

The Final Verdict

So, who's the winner in the Niacinamide vs Lactic Acid face-off? Both!

They're like the dynamic duo of the Korean skin care world. They each bring something valuable to the table, making your skin care routine more diverse and holistic.

Until next time, keep shining and remember: Your skin deserves the best, and in the world of KBeauty, there's always something new to discover and adore.

Cheers to radiant, Seoulful skin!

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