If you have oily, acne-prone skin, you’ve probably heard that niacinamide and salicylic acid are two ingredients that can help you achieve a clearer complexion – but can you use them together?
Yes, you absolutely can! In fact, niacinamide and salicylic acid actually work better when paired together and here’s why…
Niacinamide is a water-soluble form of vitamin B3 that acts as an antioxidant and has a wide-range of benefits for your skin.
- It helps keep your skin firm by increasing the production of keratin (the main structural protein in your skin).
- It increases your skin’s natural production of lipids (ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids) that keep your skin barrier strong and your skin hydrated.
- It can reduce the appearance of enlarged pores by reducing the amount of sebum (oil) on the surface of your skin.
- It reduces hyperpigmentation by preventing the spread of melanin from your melanocytes (melanin producing cells) to your surrounding skin cells.
- It reduces inflammation which means less redness.
- It’s antibacterial.
- It boosts collagen production and reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
- It helps protect your skin from sun damage and skin cancer.
It pretty much does everything! One thing that it doesn’t do is increase skin cell turnover/exfoliate your skin (which may surprise you as some people often experience breakouts when using niacinamide) – that’s where salicylic acid comes in.
Salicylic acid is the most well-known beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that’s derived from willow bark. It acts as a chemical exfoliant by breaking down the bonds that hold your dead skin cells together so that they can be shed from the surface of your skin.
The main benefit of using salicylic acid for acne over other chemical exfoliants is its ability to penetrate and exfoliate your pores due to its oil-solubility. This means it’s also able to get into your oil glands and control the production of oil.
Other ways that salicylic acid benefit your skin are by:
- Reducing inflammation and soothing skin.
- Offering some protection from UV radiation.
- Preventing the growth of bacteria (due to its acidic pH).
- Increases collagen production to improve fine lines and wrinkles.
As salicylic acid acts as an exfoliant you have to be careful not to use it too frequently or it may damage your skin barrier and make your acne worse (research suggests that acne is associated with skin barrier damage).
Niacinamide vs Salicylic Acid
Now you know what each ingredient does for your skin – which one is right for you?
The main difference between niacinamide vs salicylic acid is that salicylic acid exfoliates your skin while niacinamide doesn’t. They also reduce oil production in slightly different ways with niacinamide controlling surface oiliness and salicylic acid reducing the amount of oil your skin produces.
Niacinamide is suitable for all skin types but salicylic acid may not be suitable for dry or sensitive skin as it can be too drying.
They’re also their most effective at different pH levels, with niacinamide working best at a pH of 5.0 – 6.0 and salicylic acid working best at a lower, more acidic pH.
Can You Use Niacinamide and Salicylic Acid Together?
If you can’t decide which ingredient you want to use, the good news is you don’t have to choose! You can use niacinamide and salicylic acid together! In fact, they actually work better when combined together.
The main reason for their complementary effects is due to their similar, yet different, effects on oiliness. Niacinamide works on the surface of your skin to reduce oil while salicylic acid reduces oil production and controls oil from within your pores. Specifically, niacinamide reduces the glyceride and fatty acid levels of surface oil which means it’s unlikely to be drying.
The combination of niacinamide and salicylic acid covers all four of the factors that contribute to acne (oiliness, clogged pores, bacteria, and inflammation) as well as the two main causes of enlarged pores (increased oil production and reduced collagen and elastin) which makes it an ideal combination to treat both.
Another way that niacinamide and salicylic acid work well together is due to niacinamides barrier-strengthening effects. A strong skin barrier means less chance of experiencing skin irritation from chemical exfoliants like salicylic acid.
It was originally thought that salicylic acid, like glycolic acid and other hydroxy acids, had to have a pH of less than 3.5 in order to be effective which would have suggested that it may not be compatible with neutral pH ingredients like niacinamide.
However, research suggests that there isn’t much of an increase in the effectiveness of salicylic acid when used at low pHs, just an increase in irritation and skin barrier damage.
One study actually found that neutralized salicylic acid with a pH of 6.5 was equally as effective as salicylic acid with a pH of 3.12 but caused less skin irritation.
Even if salicylic acid did have to be used at a low pH, your skin’s natural surface pH is around 5.0 – 6.0 so it would have to adjust to your skin’s more alkaline environment anyway.
How To Use Niacinamide and Salicylic Acid Together
There are many different ways that you can combine niacinamide and salicylic acid together but it depends on the type of product you’re using as to which is best.
For example, chemical exfoliators like salicylic acid are best used a maximum of 1-3x per week in order to reduce the risk of over exfoliation and skin barrier damage. However, in a multi-active serum or a cleanser it may be fine to use it daily.
Multi-active products are usually tested for irritation potential and designed to be used daily while cleansers are rinsed off which acts as short-contact therapy.
Some research has suggested that niacinamide and salicylic acid combined together in a skin patch penetrated skin more slowly than when either ingredient was used alone which means that the combination is less likely to irritate your skin.
Niacinamide can be used 1-2x daily with most clinical studies using it twice daily (note that clinical research uses niacinamide at 2-5% concentration which is a lot less than the 10% that many popular serums use).
While a multi-active product is probably the best way to combine the two ingredients, you can also combine niacinamide and salicylic acid together in the following ways:
- Salicylic acid cleanser, niacinamide serum, moisturizer, (sunscreen iif AM)
- Cleanser, salicylic acid serum (1-3x a week), niacinamide moisturizer, (sunscreen if AM)
- Cleanser, niacinamide serum, salicylic acid serum (1-3x a week), moisturizer, (sunscreen if AM)
If using both niacinamide and salicylic acid as serums it doesn’t really matter which way round you use them. However, you should only introduce them one at a time. This will help identify if your skin reacts negatively to one of the ingredients as well as help prevent skin barrier damage.
It’s best to introduce niacinamide first as it can help strengthen your skin barrier for when you then introduce salicylic acid. This niacinamide ‘pre-treatment’ technique was discovered in a clinical study that found that niacinamide reduced tretinoin irritation (prescription strength retinol) when used 4-weeks prior to use and twice daily thereafter.
Summary – Niacinamide and Salicylic Acid Together
If you have oily, acne-prone skin or enlarged pores then the combination of niacinamide and salicylic acid is an excellent choice for you as they both enhance each other’s effects. Plus niacinamide helps to reduce the irritation that is commonly experienced when using salicylic acid.