Niacinamide vs Retinol: How Do They Compare?

Niacinamide vs Retinol: How Do They Compare?

Reference Lab

MAR 22, 2022

People looking to add an anti-aging regimen to their skincare routine may consider the use of common skincare ingredients, niacinamide and retinol, both of which are available as topical skin care products in the health and beauty sections of retail stores or online.

While both niacinamide and retinol have the potential to deliver anti-aging benefits for your skin, they do present some key differences which are important to understand before introducing either to your skincare routine.

Discover the major differences between retinoids and niacinamide to determine which is the right skincare ingredient for you.

What is retinol?

So, what do retinoids do exactly? Retinol is a synthetic form of vitamin A. It can be applied topically via over-the-counter products or as a prescribed topical cream, which typically come in higher doses. Retinol can also be ingested, typically via products that have higher concentrations and need a doctor’s prescription to obtain. Retinol is generally used to treat various skin ailments1.

What is niacinamide?

Niacinamide, also known as nicotinamide, comes from the water-soluble type of niacin (vitamin B3). Your body needs vitamin B3 to stay healthy as an essential nutrient.2

What are the differences between retinol and niacinamide?

Niacinamide and retinol have similar benefits for skincare and help alleviate the symptoms of certain skin ailments.

However, there are three major differences:

1) Retinol is generally stronger than niacinamide.

2) Niacinamide does not have the same negative side effects as retinol.

3) Molecularly, retinol only penetrates the outer layer of your skin. Niacinamide, particularly when made with soy-based ingredients, penetrates deeper into your skin compared to retinol3

What does retinol do?

Retinol induces rapid cellular turnover in skin, which enhances collagen production, hyaluronic acid production, and has been reported to improve skin plumpness and elasticity.

Retinol is often used to treat:

  • Wrinkles
  • Acne
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Psoriasis (with a prescription)

What does niacinamide do?

Niacinamide helps rebuild healthy skin cells, helps build keratin, and contributes to a stronger lipid barrier, allowing skin to retain moisture better. It has also been known to enhance skin elasticity, improve skin tone, and it acts as an antioxidant to fight free radicals in skin and reduce inflammation.

Niacinamide helps with several issues, including:

  • Signs of aging skin
  • Acne
  • Rosacea
  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Autoimmune blistering disorders
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Itchiness
  • Pruritus
  • Damage caused by the sun

What are the benefits of using niacinamide vs retinol?

Niacinamide and retinol solve many of the same types of skin problems 4.

However, niacinamide tends to be gentler on skin, hydrating skin to solve the issue of skin irritation, while retinol often causes skin sensitivity and irritation.

Do I need retinol or niacinamide?

Consider using niacinamide if you have either highly-sensitive skin or begin to experience some of the more common negative side effects of retinol on skin . Because retinol is more concentrated, you might try niacinamide first if you already have natural skin sensitivities and you haven’t tried retinol yet.

Can niacinamide and retinol be used together?

Yes, especially since niacinamide can hydrate the skin. Retinol may cause skin dryness and irritation, so using these two substances together can actually benefit your skin. However, if you are able to reap the same benefits from both, consider using niacinamide alone, as it is better for your overall skin health and strength.

If you experience side effects of either skincare ingredient , discuss these with your doctor immediately.

Is retinol or niacinamide better for acne scars?

Medical science backs retinoids for inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne because of its concentration levels compared to niacinamide.

Can I use niacinamide every day?

Yes, since niacinamide is a natural vitamin, you can use it every day 6.

Can I use retinol every day?

Yes, but only as directed. There are several factors that determine how frequently you should apply retinol to your skin, of which your doctor should assess before prescribing an oral or topical retinoid. In the case that you notice a not-so-positive shift in the appearance of your skin, this will serve as the first indication for when to stop using retinol .

If you develop sensitivity or retinol burn after a few weeks of use, discontinue use and discuss your symptoms with your doctor to help find a solution that will better address your skin concerns5).

Are there natural alternatives to retinol?

Yes, including bakuchiol, rambutan, rosehip oil, and carrot seed oil. 7

Bakuchiol comes from the Psoralea corylifolia (babchi) plant. The substance has copious amounts of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Structurally, it activates different receptors in the skin compared to retinol. But bakuchiol still stimulates collagen and turns over your skin cells without causing the skin irritation common to retinol use.

Rambutan comes from an edible, tropical plant similar to lychee nuts. Studies have shown rambutan is safe for women who are pregnant, which is unlike retinol. This tropical plant can reduce wrinkles, improve skin elasticity, and support collagen production while firming and tightening the skin. When used with niacinamide, it can hydrate the skin. You can also use rambutan during the day when you are outdoors.

Rosehip oil is rich in vitamin A, and it helps to increase collagen production and enhance skin elasticity. Rosehips are rich in antioxidants.

Carrot seed oil promotes skin cell turnover, much like retinol does. It is also high in antioxidants.

What foods are high in niacinamide?

Several common foods are high in niacinamide, otherwise known as vitamin B38.

Liver. Although liver is high in cholesterol, it is very high in vitamin B3. Liver also represents a good source of vitamin A, although not as good of a source as vegetables.

Chicken breast. Much lower in cholesterol than liver, three ounces of chicken breasts provide as much as 70 percent of your daily supply of vitamin B3.

Tuna. One serving of tuna provides 100 percent of your daily vitamin B3. It’s also good for omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and vitamin B12. Watch out for mercury levels, though.

Turkey. Although not as high as tuna, chicken, or liver, one 3-ounce serving of turkey has roughly 46 percent of your daily supply of vitamin B3. The tryptophan in turkey may make you sleepy.

Wild-caught salmon. Why wild caught? It has less mercury in it, and the natural diet of wild salmon enhances its nutrient profile. One 3-ounce serving of salmon has 61% of your daily supply of vitamin B3.

Anchovies. If you want a small fish that packs a lot of vitamin B3 punch, anchovies are the way to go. Just one anchovy contains 5 percent of your daily supply of niacin. Eating 10 anchovies gives you half of your daily dose.

Beyond these foods high in niacin, you can also eat other foods good for your skin.

What foods are healthy for my skin?

If you want to boost your skin naturally from the inside-out, consider eating these foods to help you achieve that healthy glow9.

Fatty fish, like herring, tuna, and salmon. You need to watch out for mercury, though, so try to limit these choices to one per week. Sockeye salmon generally has the least amount of mercury in them. Fatty fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation. A lack of omega-3s can cause dry skin.

Avocados. These tasty foods are high in healthy fats. A study of 700 women concluded that eating avocados can lead to soft and supple skin.

Walnuts . Like salmon, these nuts are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Take it easy on walnuts because they also contain omega-6 fatty acids, and those can cause inflammation.

Sunflower seeds. Pour some on your salad to get vitamin E, selenium, zinc, and protein, all of which help your skin tone and skin texture .

Sweet potatoes. That dark orange color of sweet potatoes is the key to their nutrient profile because, like carrots, sweet potatoes contain beta carotene. When you consume beta carotene, it turns into vitamin A in your body. Consider pumpkin and carrots for a vitamin A boost, too.

Red or yellow bell peppers . Both of these tasty peppers are rich in beta carotene. One cup provides 156% of your daily supply of vitamin A.

Key Takeaways

  • Retinol and Niacinamide are often used to treat similar conditions, such as signs of aging skin , acne, and hyperpigmentation , which can ultimately result in the appearance of dark spots .
  • Both niacinamide and retinol induce the formation of new skin cells, however retinol does this by degrading the skin barrier, while niacinamide works by strengthening the skin barrier.
  • Retinol works by penetrating the top layer of skin and inducing cellular turnover. Retinol often causes negative side effects, such as increased skin irritation and sensitivity.
  • Niacinamide penetrates deeper than retinol and works by helping to rebuild new skin cells and keratin, enhancing the skin’s natural lipid barrier to improve barrier function.
  • Both can be used in conjunction with each other , however you may find that incorporating a nourishing peptide moisturizer can help supplement your skincare routine especially when using retinol on a consistent basis .
  • Eating foods that contain the core vitamins that niacinamide and retinol are derived from, vitamin B3 and vitamin A, respectively, may help your skin.
  • Other natural substances have been found to work just as well as retinol without the side effects.


  1. Nunez, Kirsten. "What to Know About Combining Niacinamide and Retinol." Healthline. 21 September, 2020.
  2. "Niacin." NIH
  3. Levin, Jacquelyn, and Saira B Momin. “How much do we really know about our favorite cosmeceutical ingredients?.” The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology vol. 3,2 (2010): 22-41.
  4. Leonard, Jayne. "What are the skin benefits of niacinamide and retinol?" Medical News Today. 14 April, 2021.
  5. Kathryn, Watson. "What Is Retinol Burn and How to Prevent It." Healthline. 5 February, 2021.
  6. "Niacinamide - Uses, Side Effects, and More." WebMD.
  7. Intner, Katie. "The Ultimate Guide to Natural Retinol." Harper's Bazaar. 1 June, 2021.
  8. Julson, Erica. "16 Foods That Are High in Niacin (Vitamin B3)." Healthline. 5 October, 2018.
  9. Arnarson, Atli. "The 12 Best Foods for Healthy Skin." Healthline. 26 February, 2020.
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