Salicylic acid and niacinamide are two topical ingredients that are trending in the skincare world right now—and as someone who’s been using both for years, I couldn’t be happier.
One is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), and the other is a form of vitamin B3. Together, they’re especially helpful for oily skin, enlarged pores and adult acne. But even if you don’t deal with those conditions, they actually offer a long list of benefits for every skin type.
However, figuring out where these ingredients go in your skincare routine can be confusing. Can you apply them at the same time, or even in the same product? Will one inactivate the other? And in what order should you layer them?
I’ll be answering all of those questions and more in this tutorial. You will learn what salicylic acid and niacinamide can do for your skin, how to use them in your routine the right way, and the best products that I recommend trying.
What Does Salicylic Acid Do for Your Skin?
Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant and the most well-known BHA or beta-hydroxy acid. The BHA family also includes betaine salicylate and willow bark extract, which are gentler alternatives.
Here’s what salicylic acid and other BHAs do for your skin:
- Deep-cleans pores: The key difference between alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids is that BHAs are oil-soluble. That means salicylic acid is able to penetrate deep into pores to exfoliate their lining, remove excess oil and loosen clogged sebum.
- Prevents future acne: By keeping the pores clean and free of oil and dead skin cells, it acts as a comedolytic agent, preventing the comedones that lead to breakouts from forming.
- Exfoliates and smooths: Above the surface, it causes skin cells to shed off by dissolving intercellular cement, a.k.a. the “glue” that holds them together. This improves your skin’s overall texture and smoothness.
- Minimizes pore size: There are two ways that salicylic acid “shrinks” pores. Like all acid exfoliants, it creates a smoother look and feel to the skin surface that can give the illusion of decreased pore sizes. In addition, its ability to deep-clean the pores helps them to look smaller because they aren’t being stretched out by debris.
- Controls excess oil: It has been shown to decrease oily skin in acne sufferers, and also suppresses sebum-secreting cells from producing excess oil.
- Reduces inflammation and bacteria: Even at low concentrations, salicylic acid is bacteriostatic (prevents bacterial growth), and it has a mild anti-inflammatory effect.
- Fades post-acne marks and pigmentation: It can safely treat post-acne marks (both red and brown), even in darker skin tones, as well as hyperpigmentation, melasma and photodamage.
- Firms the skin: At higher concentrations, it can even thicken the epidermis (the uppermost layer of skin) and increase the density of collagen and elastin fibers for firmer, younger-looking skin.
What Does Niacinamide Do for Your Skin?
Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3, a water-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in restoring cellular energy and helping cells to carry out their functions.
Here’s what niacinamide does for your skin:
- Controls excess oil: As little as 2% has been shown to reduce the amount and rate of sebum excreted.
- Reduces acne: For mild to moderate acne, one study found that 4% niacinamide is as effective as 1% clindamycin (a topical antibiotic) at reducing the amount and severity of lesions, without causing bacterial resistance. Another study found that 5% niacinamide is as effective as 2% clindamycin, with no side effects.
- Smooths skin texture: Both 4% and 5% concentrations produce significant improvements in skin texture. (Some researchers theorize that it does so by speeding up epidermal turnover, similar to a mild exfoliant.)
- Minimizes pore size: Niacinamide significantly reduces pore size and pore count, likely by reducing surface sebum.
- Reduces dryness: It alleviates dry skin by reducing transepidermal water loss (TEWL).
- Strengthens the skin barrier: It also thickens the skin barrier and increases levels of ceramides and free fatty acids, which improves its function and ability to hold onto hydration.
- Evens skin tone and fades pigmentation: As little as 4% niacinamide can significantly improve skin tone evenness and hyperpigmentation in just six weeks.
- Reduces redness and sallowness: It reduces red, blotchy skin (even rosacea) as well as yellowing (sallowness).
- Reduces wrinkles: Multiple studies have demonstrated that niacinamide produces significant improvements in fine lines and wrinkles, likely because it stimulates new collagen synthesis.
Should You Use Both Salicylic Acid and Niacinamide?
While salicylic acid and niacinamide are each effective on their own, there are synergistic benefits from using both in one routine.
If you’re only using salicylic acid, then you won’t get the barrier-strengthening support of niacinamide. Since it is a chemical exfoliant, salicylic acid can make your skin feel drier, especially when you’re first starting treatment. (That said, it is still far less irritating than glycolic acid, due to its higher molecular weight.) Adding niacinamide to your routine can help to counteract any side effects from the acid by increasing your skin’s ability to retain moisture, supporting barrier function and reducing redness.
On the flip side, if you’re only using niacinamide, then your pores won’t get the deep-cleaning that salicylic acid can provide. While niacinamide has shown positive results for mild to moderate acne, it plays more of a supporting role by reducing oil. It can’t remove dead skin cells or dislodge clogged sebum like salicylic acid can. Adding salicylic acid to your routine will do more to clear existing breakouts and prevent future acne.
As you’ve probably noticed, there’s also an overlap in what these two ingredients can do. They control excess oil, smooth the skin texture, minimize pores and fade discolourations. But they work through different pathways—so by using both, you can target these issues in two different ways for the best possible results.
Can You Mix Salicylic Acid and Niacinamide?
Mixing salicylic acid and niacinamide together, or layering one ingredient on top of the other at the same time, is a no-no. Here’s why.
Decreased Absorption of Salicylic Acid
In order to penetrate the skin and work as it should, salicylic acid is formulated with an acidic pH, typically between 3.0 and 4.0. A study comparing salicylic acid at various pH levels (pH 2.0, 5.0 and 7.0) found that the higher the pH, the less the skin absorbs.
In contrast, niacinamide is formulated with a neutral pH, usually around 6.0. So if you mix salicylic acid and niacinamide together, the niacinamide can raise the pH level of the acid, making it less acidic. That means less salicylic acid will be able to get into your skin, so it won’t be as effective.
The “Niacin Flush”
Mixing salicylic acid and niacinamide can also affect the performance of your niacinamide. Like I said, it normally has a neutral pH, but acidic conditions can trigger its conversion into niacin, another form of vitamin B3.
Niacin is notorious for producing the “niacin flush”—an episode of hot, red, flushed skin due the release of prostaglandin D2. If you’ve ever taken an oral niacin supplement, you’ve no doubt experienced it, but it can also happen when you use salicylic acid and niacinamide at the same time.
Fortunately, it’s only temporary, but when this happened to me, it lasted a couple hours (and there’s no way I could have covered it up with makeup!). I suspect this may be why some people believe that they are having a “reaction” to salicylic acid, niacinamide or both. It could simply be from applying them too close together in your routine.
From The Skincare Edit Archives
How to Use Salicylic Acid and Niacinamide Together
Fortunately, you can still use salicylic acid and niacinamide in the same routine. Here are your best options:
1. Apply Them in a Single Product
Taking two separate products and mixing them together isn’t a good idea, but you can try a pre-made formula that includes both salicylic acid and niacinamide in its ingredients list. Unlike a DIY concoction, it’ll be expertly formulated to be stable and effective at certain pH (which brands often disclose).
The downside is that it likely won’t be as potent. The concentration of active ingredients will probably be lower, and the pH level may not be as acidic. However, this trade-off may be worth it to you for a convenient, all-in-one product. If so, here are a few options:
- COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid: This gel-like treatment contains 4% betaine salicylate (equivalent to 2% salicylic acid) and 2% niacinamide. See my review here.
- Luzern Serum Absolut Recovery: This gentle serum has both 5% niacinamide and 2% natural salicylates from willow bark.
- Tarte Knockout Tingling Treatment: This toner features a 10% AHA-BHA complex with lactic, citric, malic, salicylic and acetic acids plus gluconolactone. It’s also high in niacinamide, which is second on the ingredients list.
- Dermalogica Age Bright Clearing Serum: Although we’re not told their percentages, this serum is high in both salicylic acid and niacinamide.
2. Apply Them at Different Times of Day
If you’d rather maximize your results by using two separate products, the easiest way to apply them is at different times of day. Both ingredients are safe to use day or night, depending on your preference.
I find that most people like to use their niacinamide serum in the morning because it has the same neutral pH level as most moisturizers and sunscreens. So, you can apply it underneath your hydrators and sun protection without needing to wait in between layers, since it won’t affect their performance.
Salicylic acid needs to be separated from higher-pH products by about 30 minutes, to give it enough time to work at its lower (acidic) pH. Most of us have more time to incorporate this waiting period at night. So, you’d apply your salicylic acid to bare skin after cleansing, and then wait half an hour before proceeding with any hydrating serums or night creams.
3. Apply Them on Alternate Mornings or Nights
You can also try using your salicylic acid on alternating mornings or nights. So, one morning you could apply salicylic acid after cleansing, and the night morning, niacinamide. Or, you could do the same thing at night, depending on what works best with your skincare routine.
Again, you’ll want to be mindful of pH levels when layering your other products on top of these ingredients. My general rule is that whenever two skincare products are more than about pH 1.0-2.0 apart, I incorporate a 30-minute waiting period.
4. Apply Them 30 Minutes Apart
But what if you want to apply salicylic acid and niacinamide at the same time of day? Well, you can—but you do need to allow for a waiting period in between them.
Acidic products always go on first, so in this case, it would be your salicylic acid. It should be applied to clean, bare skin, and left for 30 minutes so that it can do its thing and fully absorb.
This waiting period also allows time for your skin’s pH to return from an acidic state to its normal, higher level (around 5.5). After the time is up, you can proceed with the niacinamide, as well as any other hydrators and/or SPF. In my experience, 30 minutes is the “magic” number to prevent flushing from an unwanted conversion to niacin.
Depending on how well your skin tolerates the acid, you can apply these ingredients as often as once or twice per day.
The Best Salicylic Acids to Try
Farmacy Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore Cleaning Toner
Farmacy Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore Cleaning Toner is a non-drying, alcohol-free toner that gently exfoliates and tightens pores with 2% salicylic acid.
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant is possibly the strongest 2% salicylic acid formula on the market, and best for oily, acne-prone skin types.
The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid
The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid is an affordable leave-on BHA serum with 2% salicylic acid to exfoliate and 1% hyaluronic acid to hydrate.
Peach Slices Acne Exfoliating Toner
Peach Slices Acne Exfoliating Toner is a K-beauty acne treatment that combines 2% salicylic acid with soothing Centella Asiatica, cucumber and allantoin.
First Aid Beauty FAB Pharma White Clay Acne Treatment Pads
First Aid Beauty FAB Pharma White Clay Acne Treatment Pads are a convenient way to swipe on 2% salicylic acid, in pre-soaked pads that are safe for sensitive skin.
The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution
The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution was just reformulated, so now its 2% salicylic acid is in a gentler, non-irritating base that is suitable for all skin types.
Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum
Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum is one of the only treatments available with a 0.75% concentration of salicylic acid—and it’s also full of natural ingredients.
Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner
Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner is comprised of 80% aloe and 0.5% salicylic acid, making it soothing, hydrating and gentle enough for all skin types.
COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid contains 4% betaine salicylate, which is said to be equivalent to 2% salicylic acid, but gentler on the skin and more hydrating.
The Best Niacinamide Serums to Try
The Inkey List Niacinamide
The Inkey List Niacinamide is a lightweight, silky gel with 10% niacinamide and 1% hyaluronic acid (thus eliminating the need for a separate hydrating serum).
Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster
Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster features 10% niacinamide in a fast-absorbing, water-like serum that layers beautifully underneath other products.
Allies of Skin Prebiotics & Niacinamide Pore Refining Booster
Allies of Skin Prebiotics & Niacinamide Pore Refining Booster is packed with an array of actives, including 10% niacinamide, in a lightweight, non-greasy gel.
Sobel Skin Rx 15% Niacinamide Gel Serum
Sobel Skin Rx 15% Niacinamide Gel Serum boasts a concentrated dose of 15% niacinamide in a non-sticky gel with few other ingredients.
Glossier Super Pure Niacinamide + Zinc Serum
Glossier Super Pure Niacinamide + Zinc Serum is a weightless clarifying serum with 5% niacinamide plus zinc for added oil control.
Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Soothing B3 Serum
Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Soothing B3 Serum is an ultra-clean option with 10% niacinamide, all-natural humectants and no fragrance or essential oils.
Good Molecules Niacinamide Serum
Good Molecules Niacinamide Serum has 10% niacinamide in a simple, lightweight serum.
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% is aimed at oily and acne-prone skin, promising to restore balance with 10% niacinamide and 1% zinc.
Paula’s Choice Niacinamide 20% Treatment
Paula’s Choice Niacinamide 20% Treatment is the strongest niacinamide formula on the market, with 20% of the active ingredient to target “orange peel” skin and hardened, clogged bumps.
Conclusion + Further Reading
Salicylic acid and niacinamide are two ingredients that are always in my skincare routine. Together, they keep oil in check, calm my redness, and reduce breakouts and any dark marks left behind. Whenever I’m asked about oily skin or acne, they are my go-to recommendation as a “first line of treatment.”
However, I personally believe that there’s a place for both ingredients in most skincare routines, even if you don’t deal with these skin conditions.
Since salicylic acid has a high molecular weight, as well as anti-inflammatory properties, it is actually a great exfoliant for all skin types—you just need to choose the appropriate strength and frequency for your skin. Niacinamide, of course, is non-irritating and boasts a wide range of benefits, even at low concentrations.
Whether you apply them at different times of day, on alternating days or nights, or 30 minutes apart is up to you. Just remember to always use them away from each other, so that each ingredient can work at its optimal pH level for best results.
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