Niacinamide Vs. Salicylic Acid For Inflammatory Acne | Skin Fit Well

If you are suffering from inflammatory acne, niacinamide and salicylic acid are great ingredients to resolve these issues. 

Finding what works best for your skin can involve a lot of trial and error. By understanding how each of these ingredients work and how they can affect your skin, you will be better able to decide if you want to incorporate these into your skincare routine. 


What Is It?

Niacinamide, otherwise known as vitamin B3, provides a multitude of benefits for every skin type. It is especially great for sensitive, red, dry skin that is prone to breakouts and irritation. 

What Does It Do?

Niacinamide has been shown to significantly penetrate into the skin (1). This is important because it means the product can actually do something when applied, rather than sitting atop the skin. 

Let’s go through a few of the many benefits provided by niacinamide in cosmeceutical products.

It has antioxidant effects on the skin. When we are exposed to certain stressors, such as UV rays from the sun, X-rays, and air pollutants, the body produces Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) (2). These are molecules that contribute to aging, inflammatory conditions, and heart disease. Specifically for the skin, ROS damages our DNA, disrupts cell function, and affects collagen production, leading to visible aging (3). Niacinamide works to reduce the damage caused by ROS.

Niacinamide is a great anti-inflammatory ingredient. This ingredient has been shown to reduce erythema, which is redness in the skin (1). When the skin comes into contact with environmental stressors, niacinamide reduces the irritation experienced as a result of these interactions, thus leading to a decrease in redness.

It can improve barrier function (1). Your epidermis is the outer layer of your skin. An incredibly important aspect of keeping your skin healthy involves regulating its water content. Niacinamide reduces transepidermal water loss, otherwise known as the loss of water from the skin, keeping your skin strong, healthy, moisturized, and able to fight against pollutants and other irritants.

Niacinamide reduces hyperpigmentation. Those dark spots that appear on the skin after an acne breakout may take awhile to go away. Niacinamide affects the formation of the dark spots, and increases skin lightness (4).

How Does It Work?

Niacinamide undergoes a variety of mechanisms once it is absorbed by the skin. 

The first includes its ability to increase Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide Phosphate or NAD(P) in the skin. It is a substance that is essential in metabolic processes. It plays an important role in repairing molecules affected by free radicals, thus showing its antioxidant activity (5). In other words, applying niacinamide to the skin leads to an increase in NAD(P) which leads to better skin that is less irritated from ROS. 

Niacinamide also works to increase the amount of serine palmitoyltransferase in the skin. This is an enzyme that promotes sphingolipid formation, which is a type of fatty acid (1). Ceramides are a type of sphingolipid that contribute to the function of the skin and its moisture content. Niacinamide increases the amount of ceramides in the skin, thus leading to a better and stronger epidermal barrier.

In terms of pigmentation of the skin, dark spots occur when melanosomes (a type of cell organ) gets transferred to a skin cell, producing dark pigmentation (6). Niacinimide has been shown to inhibit this transfer, reducing pigmentation in the skin (1).

Who Should Use Niacinamide?

Everyone can benefit from niacinamide use in some way.

If you have red, inflamed, or acne-prone skin, niacinamide can reduce erythema.

This ingredient is also beneficial if you have dry or irritated skin. Since niacinamide decreases water loss, it can help retain moisture in the skin.

You can try to incorporate niacinamide into your routine if you have used harsh products, such as aggressive cleansers or strong acne treatments. It will help to repair the disrupted skin barrier.

Salicylic Acid

Now onto another wonderful acne treatment.

Salicylic acid is available in many over the counter products and is easily accessible. 

Let’s dive into why salicylic acid may be right for you.

What Is It?

Salicylic acid is a colorless substance that has been used in cosmeceutical products for many years. It comes in concentrations up to 2% in over-the-counter products, but is available in higher percentages at skin clinics. 

What Does It Do?

Salicylic acid is a desmolytic agent. This means that it interferes with the structure of desmosomes in the skin. Desmosomes are like rivets that hold skin cells together (7). By disrupting these junctions between cells, salicylic acid plays a role in improving a variety of skin conditions.

It has been shown to decrease the production of sebum (oil) in the skin, leading to a decrease in acne formation (7).

In addition, salicylic acid has been shown to be directly comedolytic. This means that it promotes the shedding of skin cells, leading to less debris that could clog pores (8). 

The exfoliation properties of salicylic acid contributes to the appearance of smaller pores and more even skin tone (8).  

In a study of participants that used salicylic acid at a concentration of 0.5% for 12 weeks, it was shown that the amount of inflammatory acne lesions were significantly decreased (8). 

How Does It Work?

Salicylic acid is a lipophilic substance – This means that it dissolves well in oil or sebum (7). In this way, it is able to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin when applied topically.  In doing so, salicylic acid removes the proteins that make up desmosomes (the “rivets” that connect skin cells together). This causes skin cells to break away from each other, allowing for adequate exfoliation of the skin.

This ingredient directly interferes with the lipids that are attached to skin cells. In this way, this topically applied acid promotes a peeling effect on the skin, leading to exfoliation and a decrease in bumps or rough texture (7). 

Who Should Use Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid should be used by anyone experiencing small skin-coloured bumps, blackheads, rough skin texture or red bumps. It is not recommended to use if you have a disrupted skin barrier.


From this chart, it is evident that both salicylic acid and niacinamide share many properties together. Primarily, niacinamide should be geared towards those looking to repair your skin barrier or suffering from red or inflamed skin. Salicylic acid is more reserved for those with blackheads, smaller bumps or rough texture. 

Take a look at salicylic acid vs. azelaic acid to learn if azelaic acid may also be an option for you.


  1. Levin J, Momin SB. How much do we really know about our favorite cosmeceutical ingredients? J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2010 Feb;3(2):22-41. PMID: 20725560; PMCID: PMC2921764.
  2. Lobo V, Patil A, Phatak A, Chandra N. Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacogn Rev. 2010 Jul;4(8):118-26. doi: 10.4103/0973-7847.70902. PMID: 22228951; PMCID: PMC3249911.
  3. Rinnerthaler M, Bischof J, Streubel MK, Trost A, Richter K. Oxidative stress in aging human skin. Biomolecules. 2015 Apr 21;5(2):545-89. doi: 10.3390/biom5020545. PMID: 25906193; PMCID: PMC4496685.
  4. Hakozaki T, Minwalla L, Zhuang J, et al. The effect of niacinamide on reducing cutaneous pigmentation and suppression of melanosome transfer II. Br J Dermatol. 2002;305:260–268.
  5. Kirsch M, De Groot H. NAD(P)H, a directly operating antioxidant? FASEB J. 2001 Jul;15(9):1569-74. doi: 10.1096/fj.00-0823hyp. PMID: 11427489.
  6. Wu X, Hammer JA. Melanosome transfer: it is best to give and receive. Curr Opin Cell Biol. 2014 Aug;29:1-7. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2014 Mar 21. PMID: 24662021; PMCID: PMC4130791.
  7. Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015 Aug 26;8:455-61. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S84765. PMID: 26347269; PMCID: PMC4554394.
  8. Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter Acne Treatments: A Review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012 May;5(5):32-40. PMID: 22808307; PMCID: PMC3366450.

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