Imagine if there was a single skincare ingredient that could treat virtually all of your skin concerns. I’m talking about problems like pigmentation, wrinkles, acne, excess oil, large pores, dryness and redness, to name just a few.
Impossible, you say? Not if you’ve got niacinamide in your routine. Also known as vitamin B3, this active ingredient is so versatile, gentle and effective that I believe everyone should be using it.
In this tutorial, you will learn what niacinamide is, what it can do for your skin, how to incorporate it into your routine, and the best products to try (no matter what your skin type).
What Is Niacinamide?
Niacinamide, also known as nicotinamide, is a form of vitamin B3 (niacin), a water-soluble B vitamin.
Niacinamide and nicotinic acid are the two types of vitamin B3 that can be topically applied. To date, researchers aren’t sure if they have the same benefits, but niacinamide is more commonly used in skincare, and has been more studied, because it does not cause side effects like flushing.
How Niacinamide Works in Your Body
Niacinamide is formed when we eat foods that are high in niacin, such as beef liver, chicken breast and rice. The niacin is converted into niacinamide in the gut, and then absorbed. Once it absorbs, it gets metabolized into the coenzyme NAD and its derivative, NADP.
These coenzymes are essential for cellular metabolism, meaning they give our cells the energy they need to carry out their functions. In fact, they are involved in more than 40 biochemical reactions, including such important jobs as DNA repair and cell turnover.
How Niacinamide Works on Your Skin
Niacinamide has many topical benefits—which we’ll get into in a second—but the mechanism behind them is not fully understood yet. Researchers suspect its role as a precursor to the NADP family of coenzymes is the key factor. We know that it readily penetrates, and skin cells have been shown to have increased levels of NAD after application.
These are the main actions it has on the skin, depending on the concentration applied:
- Antipruritic (soothing)
- Antimicrobial (kills microorganisms)
- Vasoactive (improves circulation)
- Photoprotective (protects from sun damage)
- Sebostatic (sebum-reducing)
- Lightening (fades dark spots)
Now for a deep dive on exactly what this means for your specific skin issues.
What Does Niacinamide Do?
Here are all the ways that niacinamide can help your skin.
1. Fights Free Radicals
The most well-studied effect of niacinamide is its function as an antioxidant—a molecule that neutralizes free radicals and therefore reduces oxidative stress.
Free radicals are unstable molecules (which can come from sources such as the sun and environmental pollutants) that cause signs of aging by depleting the natural antioxidants in our skin. This imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals is known as “oxidative stress” and can damage proteins, DNA and other parts of skin cells.
Topically-applied niacinamide fights free radicals and oxidative stress by increasing the antioxidant capacity of your skin. This happens because it raises levels of the NAD coenzymes, which have potent antioxidant properties.
That makes it an excellent alternative to vitamin C-based antioxidant serums. Bonus: it’s gentler and more stable than L-ascorbic acid, which can be irritating and oxidizes quickly.
2. Fades Pigmentation
Niacinamide is a proven treatment for all sorts of pigmentation issues, from dark spots and discolourations to brown patches and melasma.
Several split-face trials have been conducted with participants using niacinamide on one side of their faces only. One study found that 5% produced a significant lightening of hyperpigmentation on the treated side after eight weeks, while another found that the same concentration significantly improved hyperpigmentation spots on the treated side after 12 weeks.
Even as little as 2% can produce results. In a comparison of an SPF 15 cream with and without 2% niacinamide, the group that used niacinamide had noticeable improvements in hyperpigmentation after four weeks.
It is also effective on deeper skin tones. A study of Indian women using a cream with 4% niacinamide, 0.5% provitamin B5 and 0.5% vitamin E found that it significantly reduced hyperpigmentation and improved skin tone evenness in six to 10 weeks.
Plus it is a promising treatment for melasma. In a split-face test, melasma patients applied 4% niacinamide on one side of their faces, and 4% hydroquinone on the other. After eight weeks, both sides showed pigment improvement, with no statistically significant difference in the outcomes. What’s more, the niacinamide side had fewer side effects.
3. Reduces Wrinkles
Although it’s not commonly marketed as an anti-aging treatment, niacinamide can reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Some researchers suggest that it does so by increasing the production of dermal collagen and epidermal proteins.
But it may be more accurate to suggest that it normalizes collagen, keeping it supple and flexible. “Niacinamide inhibits protein glycation, effectively reducing deposition of cross-linked collagen and elastin molecules in the skin,” says Dr. Patti Farris. “Cross-linked collagen and elastin molecules are stiff and rigid, resulting in altered viscoelastic properties of the skin.”
Whatever the mechanism, studies show that a concentration of 5% produces significant improvements in fine lines and wrinkles after 12 weeks, while 4% reduces eye-area wrinkles after eight weeks.
4. Clears Acne
With its antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and sebum-controlling properties, niacinamide can help to clear up mild to moderate cases of acne. Plus it does not cause side effects like more common acne treatments, such as antibiotics and retinoids.
For moderate inflammatory acne, 4% was found to produce comparable results to 1% clindamycin, a topical antibiotic. Both produced statistically similar reductions in the number of breakouts and their severity—but clindamycin can lead to bacterial resistance, while niacinamide does not. Another study on acne patients found that 5% niacinamide was comparable to 2% clindamycin, with no side effects.
5. Controls Excess Oil
Maybe you don’t have acne, but you struggle with oily skin. Well, niacinamide can help with that, too. Researchers have discovered that as little as 2% can lower the amount of sebum produced and the rate of sebum excretion. These changes took place after two, four and six weeks.
This is an important difference versus most “mattifying” products. They typically work by absorbing excess oil with ingredients like talc, clay and starch. In contrast, niacinamide targets oily skin at its source by reducing how much oil your skin makes, and slowing down its release.
6. Shrinks Pores and Smooths Texture
You’ve probably heard that you can’t shrink your pores. But actually, you can—with niacinamide. “Clinically it reduces pore size, and improves skin texture,” says Dr. Farris.
Researchers conducting double-blind clinical trials of niacinamide have observed that it significantly reduces the look of pore size and rough skin texture. Further image analyses showed significant reductions in pore size and pore count as early as two to four weeks after commencing treatment.
Using salicylic acid and niacinamide can give you even better results. A 12-week study found that a topical regimen that includes both ingredients improves pore size, pore count and skin surface texture.
Again, this likely happens because of niacinamide’s ability to reduce sebum. Pores will always appear larger when they are filled with oil and dead skin. With less oil, they won’t be as stretched out, so they’ll “shrink.” Of course, with smaller pores, your skin texture looks smoother.
7. Reduces Redness
If you’re prone to redness, niacinamide is one of the best ingredients that you can apply. It is thought to be effective because it improves the function of the skin barrier, thereby reducing redness and irritation when the skin encounters triggers (such as harsh detergents).
One study found that 5% significantly improved red, blotchy skin after 12 weeks. Another found that a cream containing a concentration of 2% improved the signs and symptoms of rosacea after just four weeks, with a marked decrease in redness.
8. Strengthens the Skin Barrier
If your skin is not only red but also intolerant—even stinging when you apply your skincare—then it’s possible that your skin barrier has become damaged. This can happen when you’re using harsh ingredients (think: sulfates, acids, retinoids or gritty scrubs) that strip and dehydrate your skin. Invisible cracks develop between skin cells, allowing water to escape and irritants to enter.
Niacinamide can help to restore a strong and healthy skin barrier. It does so by increasing levels of ceramides and free fatty acids in the skin barrier, increasing its thickness, improving its moisture content, and reducing transepidermal water loss (TEWL).
9. Reduces Dryness
Another way that you can use niacinamide is to treat dry skin, as an alternative to the usual hydrating serums. Its ability to thicken the skin barrier and improve its function means that your skin will be more capable of holding onto hydration.
A study had patients with eczema use a 2% niacinamide cream on one forearm, and petroleum jelly on the other. The niacinamide side significantly decreased transepidermal water loss (TEWL), but the petroleum jelly did not. The niacinamide was also significantly more effective at increasing hydration in the skin’s outermost layer. In another study on rosacea patients, the same concentration improved dryness, scaling and peeling.
10. Reduces Sallowness
Ever noticed how some people’s skin seems to take on a sallow, yellow cast as they get older? It happens in response to oxidative stress, which increases as we age, and causes proteins in the skin to turn a yellowish-brown colour.
Fortunately, niacinamide can help. By increasing the skin’s levels of NADP and NADPH (which are both antioxidants), it is thought to inhibit oxidative processes and therefore treat or prevent the yellowed, oxidized skin proteins.
11. Protects from UV Damage
Lastly, consider layering niacinamide under your sunscreen if you are spending time in the sun. Research has shown that it can repair damage and has some important photoprotective properties.
One study had participants apply 0.2% or 5% niacinamide immediately after UV exposure. The 5% group had the biggest reduction in UVA- and UVB-induced immunosuppression, suggesting that it can optimize photoprotection when used in conjunction with sunscreen. Other research has confirmed that it aids in DNA repair after sun exposure, and is a promising agent for skin cancer prevention.
How to Use Niacinamide
As a water-soluble vitamin, niacinamide comes in powder form and will not dissolve in oil. So you’ll typically find it in water-based serums, which are the most effective way to treat your skin. They contain the highest concentrations of this ingredient, and penetrate more deeply than creams.
Not only is niacinamide ideal for anyone whose skin hates oils and oily solvents, it’s also one of the gentlest and most stable active ingredients, with a neutral pH (around pH 6.0). That makes it a great option if you want to treat your skin with an active ingredient, but can’t handle retinoids, chemical exfoliants or L-ascorbic acid. It is also considered safe if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
How to Choose the Right Strength
If you’re new to niacinamide, I recommend starting with a concentration around 5%. This is more than enough to get results, since the clinical studies demonstrating its efficacy were conducted with amounts between 2-5%.
At this strength, it has virtually no side effects. “Niacinamide can be used at high doses topically (at least up to 5%...) and is generally well-tolerated,” noted one group of researchers, adding that “in some rare cases mild skin irritation has been observed.”
According to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, irritation is usually because of another ingredient. “It likely was one of the preservatives in the product causing the irritation, not the niacinamide itself,” he says.
That said, higher concentrations between 15-20% have recently become available for treating stubborn clogging and textural issues. These are more likely to cause stinging or redness in sensitive skin. If this happens, try switching to a 5-10% product instead.
When to Use Niacinamide
Niacinamide is safe to use as often as twice per day, morning and night.
Can You Use Niacinamide with Glycolic Acid?
You can use glycolic acid and niacinamide in the same skincare routine. But since they are formulated at different pH levels, mixing them or applying them at the same time is not advised. See my glycolic acid and niacinamide tutorial to learn how to use both in your routine.
Can You Use Niacinamide with Salicylic Acid?
You can use salicylic acid and niacinamide in the same skincare routine. However, combining them or layering them at the same time is not recommended, due to their different pH levels. See my salicylic acid and niacinamide tutorial to learn how to use both in your routine.
Can You Use Niacinamide with Retinol?
You can use niacinamide and retinol in the same skincare routine. Since they are typically formulated at a similar pH level, you can apply them at the same time. Apply the thinnest product first (which will usually be your niacinamide serum).
Can You Use Niacinamide with Vitamin C?
You can use niacinamide and vitamin C in the same skincare routine. But whether you can apply them at the same time or not depends on the pH level of your vitamin C. Non-acidic vitamin C derivatives (such as ascorbyl glucoside and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate) can be applied at the same time as niacinamide, since they will have a similar pH level. Acidic forms of vitamin C (such as L-ascorbic acid) should be used at a different time than niacinamide, since they have very different pH levels.
Can You Use Niacinamide with Hyaluronic Acid?
You can use hyaluronic acid and niacinamide in the same skincare routine. Both are formulated at a similar pH level, so it is generally safe to mix or layer them at the same time. If you are layering them, apply the thinnest product first.
Does Niacinamide Cause Purging?
If you experience acne after starting to use niacinamide, you might be wondering if what you’re experiencing is “purging.”
Skin purging is an initial breakout that occurs when you start using an active skincare product that speeds up cell turnover. This causes dead skin cells to shed at a faster rate than normal, thereby loosening trapped sebum and bringing blemishes up to the skin surface all at once. (For more on this phenomenon, see my skin purging vs breakouts tutorial.)
Some researchers have theorized that niacinamide does in fact speed up cell turnover similar to a mild exfoliant. However, its activity is so gentle that it is not comparable to the more common triggers of purging: acid exfoliants and retinoids. Therefore, it is unlikely that niacinamide is triggering a true “purge.”
What is probably happening is one of two possible reactions:
- A reaction to the niacinamide: Some users of 10-20% niacinamide serums have reported getting tiny, rash-like bumps, which suggest that the concentration may be too high and is causing irritation (not a “purge”).
- A reaction to another ingredient: One of the other ingredients in the formula may not agree with your skin. Algae extracts—sometimes called carrageenan—are often found in water-based serums and are one of the worst culprits for clogging pores. (Anecdotally, many people got breakouts when The Ordinary formulated its niacinamide with carrageenan, which has fortunately been removed now.) You can also get acne if a formula is drying out your skin, causing a build-up of dead skin cells that clog pores.
My advice? Stop using the product that caused the breakout. Once your skin is back to normal, try a milder strength (again, 5% is all you really need). If you suspect that one of the other ingredients in the formula was problematic, look for an alternative without it (the fewer ingredients, the better). Patch test first to make sure your skin can tolerate it, and consider applying it less frequently if necessary.
The Best Niacinamide Serums for Your Skin
Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster
Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster was one of the first niacinamide serums on the market, and it’s still one of the best. This light and watery liquid is free of fragrance and silicones, and feels completely weightless on the skin.
Allies of Skin Prebiotics & Niacinamide Pore Refining Booster
Allies of Skin Prebiotics & Niacinamide Pore Refining Booster is a gel-like serum featuring 10% niacinamide plus prebiotics, probiotics, antioxidants and skin-soothers. Together, they work to minimize pores and brighten tone while strengthening the skin barrier.
The Inkey List Niacinamide
The Inkey List Niacinamide boasts 10% niacinamide in a light, silky serum. It’s both hydrating and oil-controlling and is free of fragrance and silicones. Plus the price point is super-affordable.
Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Soothing B3 Serum
Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Soothing B3 Serum is ideal if you’re looking for a clean and natural option. This gel is chock-full of calming botanicals, 10% niacinamide and no fragrance, essential oils or silicone.
Sobel Skin Rx 15% Niacinamide Gel Serum
Sobel Skin Rx 15% Niacinamide Gel Serum is a concentrated 15% niacinamide treatment that was found in clinical tests to increase skin elasticity by 60% and skin firmness by 48%. It has a gel texture and is free of oil, silicone and fragrance.
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% is aimed at acne-prone skin, with 10% niacinamide boosted by 1% zinc for its additional oil-balancing properties. Not only is it budget-friendly, it’s also oil-free, silicone-free and fragrance-free.
SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense
SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense is ideal for stubborn discolourations, brown patches and post-acne marks. Not only does it contain 5% niacinamide, it also has three other pigmentation-fighting ingredients: 3% tranexamic acid, 1% kojic acid and 5% HEPES (sulfonic acid).
Alpha-H Vitamin B Serum with 5% Niacinamide
Alpha-H Vitamin B serum with 5% Niacinamide combines 5% niacinamide with 1% panthenol (provitamin B5) and hyaluronic acid to retain moisture and support your skin barrier. It’s also spiked with copper peptides to assist in building healthy collagen.
Glossier Super Pure Niacinamide + Zinc Serum
Glossier Super Pure Niacinamide + Zinc Serum is comprised of 5% niacinamide along with zinc to target congested pores and excess oil production. It has a thin, watery texture, and is free of oil, silicone and fragrance.
Paula’s Choice Niacinamide 20% Treatment
Paula’s Choice Niacinamide 20% Treatment is a maximum-strength formula with a 20% concentration (the highest dose I’ve seen). Although most skin won’t need this much, you may benefit from it if you’re looking to treat clogged, stretched-out pores and an orange-peel texture.
Conclusion + Further Reading
Now you’re up to speed on the magic of topical niacinamide. Is there anything it can’t do?!
Personally, it has been part of my daily skincare routine for years now, and I can’t imagine ever being without it. I’ve noticed that my skin is less oily, more hydrated, more even-toned, and has a healthy, rosy colour.
When I do get a breakout, it helps any post-acne marks to fade quickly. I’ve also noticed that I no longer get sun spots on my cheeks in the summertime. I used to go for IPL treatments to erase that pigmentation, but no more!
What else do I love about niacinamide? How about the fact that there are so many great, inexpensive product options—and they can replace the need for separate antioxidant and hydrating serums in your routine?
Honestly, I can’t recommend niacinamide enough, no matter what skin conditions you’re trying to target. It truly does it all, and it won’t break the bank!
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