Effectively combining skincare ingredients can be a tricky task. Do their pH levels affect each other? Are you going to end up with angry irritated skin? Is there a risk that they are going to interact and cause your eyebrows to fall off?
Sometimes you feel like you need a chemistry degree just to figure out the answers to these questions!
We previously covered 12 skincare ingredients that work better together, but one pairing really stands out from the crowd – niacinamide and retinol, together, can really make an awesome pairing!
We figured that this skincare power couple deserved their own dedicated article.
So, what makes niacinamide and retinol such a perfect skincare pairing?
Niacinamide and Retinol Together
Niacinamide is one of those skincare ingredients that just seems to do everything! It’s anti-aging, reduces pigmentation, fights acne, reduces facial redness, and hydrates skin.
The latter of which particularly makes it an ideal companion to retinol.
Retinol is another all-rounder that increases the rate of skin cell turnover – the speed at which dead skin cells are shed from the surface of the skin.
However, while some research suggests that retinol can increase skin hydration, it often initially causes irritation by damaging your skin’s barrier and increasing the amount of water lost from your skin.
That’s where niacinamide comes in!
Niacinamide is able to stabilize your skin’s barrier function, reducing the amount of water lost, and increasing overall hydration. It is thought that this hydrating effect is due to the fact that niacinamide increases the number of natural lipids within your stratum corneum (the outer-most layer of the skin that protects you from environmental pollutants).
The stratum corneum has a ‘brick and mortar’ like structure where the lipids (mortar) fill the gaps between the skin cells (bricks) to create a barrier.
The Evidence for Using Niacinamide and Retinol Together
Research suggests that pre-treating skin with niacinamide prior to commencing retinol treatment can increase the skin’s tolerance towards retinol and reduce the chances of irritation.
In a clinical study, participants applied a moisturizer containing niacinamide to one half of their face and a plain moisturizer to the other half of their face twice-daily for two-weeks.
At the end of this two-week treatment period, each participant was given 0.025% tretinoin (a prescription-strength form of retinol) to apply to the whole face at night. They were instructed to apply each of the moisturizers to the designated part of their face five-minutes after applying the tretinoin.
The results demonstrated that the side of the face that had been treated with the niacinamide-containing moisturizer tolerated tretinoin better than the side of the face treated with the plain moisturizer. This finding appeared to be down to the improved skin barrier function observed with the use of the niacinamide-containing moisturizer.
Not only can niacinamide help reduce the irritation potential of retinol, but it may also help improve the effects of retinol by facilitating the increased rate of skin cell turnover.
This is due to the fact that dead skin cells are held together by structures called ‘corneo-desmosomes’ that need to be broken down in order for the skin cells to be shed from the surface of your skin.
These structures are broken down by enzymes called ‘proteases’. The activity of proteases is highly dependent on skin hydration and they are unable to function properly when the water content of the skin is below a ‘threshold’ concentration.
In the study mentioned earlier, not only did niacinamide increase skin barrier function and reduce irritation, but it also improved the effects of retinol. Specifically, improvements in fine lines, wrinkles, pigmentation, and skin texture were more pronounced with the combination of niacinamide and retinol.
This may be due to the fact that improvements in skin hydration increased the rate of skin cell turnover. Alternatively, it may purely be due to the fact that both niacinamide and retinol are effective treatments for the above-mentioned skin complaints and enhance each other’s effects when used together.
Either way, niacinamide, and retinol, together, make a perfect pair!
How Should You Use Niacinamide and Retinol Together?
The key takeaway from this article is that you don’t necessarily have to use niacinamide and retinol together at the same time in order to reap their combined benefits.
Pre-treatment with niacinamide for a couple of weeks before starting retinol treatment will help reduce skin barrier damage and irritation. But what if you want to layer these ingredients? Does pH matter?
The optimal pH for retinol activation is somewhere between 5.5 and 6, while niacinamide is most effective at a pH of between 5.0 and 7.0.
As you can see, there is an overlap here which means that neither ingredient should alter the pH of the other.
This is further evidenced in the study mentioned earlier. If niacinamide altered the pH of retinol enough to reduce its effectiveness, then the results of this study would not make sense.
Especially as research suggests that it takes at least two hours for the skin’s pH to correct itself after the application of a product that alters the skin’s natural pH level. If this were the case for niacinamide and retinol then the five-minute delay between product application wouldn’t be anywhere near enough.
Should You Use Niacinamide Before Or After Retinol?
Whether you use niacinamide before or after retinol will be largely determined by what type of product you are using. Generally speaking, as niacinamide is water-based and retinol is oil-based, niacinamide would usually be better of being applied before retinol.
This is because water-based ingredients are absorbed into your skin faster than oil-based ingredients.
However, the research studies demonstrated that applying niacinamide after retinol was effective.
In this case, the niacinamide was contained within a moisturizer. Overall, it probably doesn’t make a huge difference which order you apply niacinamide and retinol as long as both ingredients are able to penetrate your skin.
For example, it would be better to apply niacinamide before retinol if using a niacinamide serum but better to apply a niacinamide-based moisturizer after retinol.
Products That Combine Niacinamide And Retinol Together
For those of you that prefer the minimalist approach, there are a number of excellent products that already combine niacinamide and retinol together for you, such as:
Summary and Takeaway Tips
Niacinamide and retinol work well in combination with each other. Niacinamide can help reduce the irritation experienced with retinol use and can also enhance its therapeutic effects.
How to get the most out of niacinamide and retinol together:
- Use niacinamide twice a day for a couple of weeks prior to starting treatment with retinol.
- Continue to use niacinamide as a ‘buffer’ during treatment with retinol.
- Niacinamide and retinol can be used together with a five-minute gap between application but are likely to be just as effective if you use them at separate times of the day.
- If you are applying niacinamide and retinol together at the same time then it is probably best to apply the niacinamide first if it is in the form of a serum or last if it is in the form of a moisturizer.
- Always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily when using retinol (you should be using sunscreen daily anyway).
- For those with particularly sensitive skin, start by using retinol once a week and gradually increase the frequency as your skin builds up a tolerance.
Laura is a skincare addict and sunscreen enthusiast with more than 10 years of experience working in healthcare and over 5 years of experience working as a nurse. She has experience in plastic and reconstructive surgery, dermatology, and aesthetics and has received training in laser treatments. Laura is currently working in healthcare education and writes for ScienceBecomesHer in her spare time. Read More.