Niacinamide and retinol are skin care ingredients that can treat acne and an uneven skin tone. While some people use them separately, others combine them to reap the benefits of both.

In this article, we discuss the benefits of niacinamide and retinol for skin health, and we explain how to use them together as part of a regular skin care routine.

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Niacinamide is an essential water-soluble vitamin and a form of vitamin B3 or niacin. It is also known as nicotinamide. As an essential vitamin, people must get niacinamide from their diet as the body cannot produce it.

In the body, it helps to reduce inflammation, increase cellular energy, and repair DNA damage.

Many skin care products now include niacinamide to deliver some of its benefits directly to the skin. When choosing a skin care product for its niacinamide content, people should not mistake it for products containing niacin, which is a different form of the chemical.

Retinol is an over-the-counter (OTC) form of retinoid, a vitamin A derivative. Vitamin A is another essential vitamin that people must get from their diets. It plays a vital role in immunity, eye health, and skin health.

Retinol is not the same as prescription-strength retinoids such as tretinoin. It is less potent than prescription products, although it is stronger than other OTC retinoids, such as retinyl palmate.

Topical (applied to the skin) niacinamide may help with skin concerns such as:

  • acne
  • hyperpigmentation (uneven skin tone)
  • itching
  • inflammation
  • rosacea
  • sun damage
  • wrinkles

As a result of these benefits, people can often find niacinamide in serums and creams to treat acne, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone.

There are several studies on niacinamide that support its use for these issues. For example, research notes that it may have anti-inflammatory effects, which could be helpful for the treatment of acne and rosacea.

A 2014 review notes that, depending on its concentration, niacinamide may also have anti-itching effects, antimicrobial effects, and it may inhibit the production of excessive amounts of sebum (the skin’s natural oil).

Another study notes that these effects may make niacinamide a good option for the treatment of pustular and papular acne, especially in cases where the acne does not respond to antibiotics.

A 2019 study notes that topical application of niacinamide may help to improve skin appearance and reduce fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.

Clinical trials using 2% niacinamide report a significant reduction in hyperpigmentation and an increase in skin lightness after 4 weeks of treatment.

Most people tolerate niacinamide well, and it is typically safe for use on sensitive skin. High concentrations, however, may cause skin irritation, so people should not overuse products containing niacinamide.

Retinol and other retinoids have similar effects to niacinamide, but they are more potent. Retinol is often a key ingredient in products that treat:

  • acne
  • hyperpigmentation
  • scarring
  • sun damage
  • wrinkles and fine lines

Research indicates that topical application of retinoids can increase the formation of collagen, which improves the appearance of signs of aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles.

A 2017 study notes that topical retinoids are effective on both non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne. Many dermatological guidelines agree that people should consider topical retinoids as the foundation of acne treatments.

Another 2017 study reports that retinoids may reduce sebum production and bring about other effects that can help control acne. The study also suggests that retinoids are a preferred choice for scars and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

As retinoids are more potent than niacinamide, they can often cause more side effects. Retinol may trigger inflammation and irritation that causes:

  • burning, tingling, or tightness of the skin
  • dryness and skin peeling
  • redness

One serious side effect of retinol and other retinoids is that they may thin the outer layer of the skin, causing increased sensitivity to sunlight (photosensitivity) and an increased risk of sunburn and sun damage.

Therefore, people using retinol should avoid the sun and use sunscreen products when outdoors. Experts often advise only using products that contain retinol at night.

Pregnant women, or those trying to get pregnant, should avoid the use of retinols as they may increase the risk of miscarriage and birth defects.

It is safe to mix niacinamide and retinol. In fact, many serums and formulas combine the two. People may commonly refer to both as cosmeceuticals.

Research on formulas that contain both ingredients suggest that the combination may be an effective acne treatment, and it may lead to improved skin tone and a reduction in the signs of aging.

The combination may also provide additional benefits over using retinol alone, because niacinamide may protect against some of the side effects of retinol.

Compared with using a product containing retinol alone, using one that combines both niacinamide and retinol may lead to a reduction in dryness and less irritation of the skin.

It is relatively easy to include both niacinamide and retinol in a skin care routine. As retinol can increase photosensitivity, people should typically apply these products before bed. A person using them during the day should apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen afterward.

Several serums containing both ingredients are available in stores or online. Apply the serum before putting on night cream or mix the serum into the cream.

Alternatively, people may choose to apply the ingredients separately. If taking this approach, it may be best to use niacinamide first to provide skin protection before applying retinol. People may also choose to use niacinamide during their day routine and retinol as part of their night routine.

For best results, apply these products to clean, towel-dried skin. Use them every day and expect to wait several weeks before seeing results. Avoid applying more than directed, as this can increase the risk of adverse skin reactions.

Niacinamide and retinol are popular skin care ingredients that can treat acne, hyperpigmentation, and signs of aging. While they have similar effects, retinol is more potent. However, it may also cause more significant side effects.

It is possible to use the ingredients alone or in combination. Research indicates that using both together may provide greater benefits and reduce the side effects of using retinol alone.

If people do not see significant changes after several weeks of use, they may wish to discuss their skin concerns with a dermatologist, who may recommend other treatments.