Niacinamide: What It Is, What It Can Do for Your Skin SKINTASTIC

Niacinamide: What It Is, What It Can Do for Your Skin

The Skincare Edit home

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.[7]

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.[1] 

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,[8] while another found that the same concentration significantly improved hyperpigmentation spots on the treated side after 12 weeks.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

3. Reduces Wrinkles

Kawada et al., 2008

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.[1] 

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.”[12]

whatever the mechanism, studies show that a concentration of 5% produces significant improvements in fine lines and wrinkles after 12 weeks,[9] while 4% reduces eye-area wrinkles after eight weeks.[13]

4. Clears Acne

With its antimicrobial,[6] anti-inflammatory[12] and sebum-Controlling[14] 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.[15] Another study on acne patients found that 5% niacinamide was comparable to 2% clindamycin, with no side effects.[16]

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.[14]

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.[12]

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.[17]

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.[17]

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).[1]

One study found that 5% significantly improved red, blotchy skin after 12 weeks.[9] 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.[18]

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,[19] increasing its thickness,[20] improving its moisture content, and reducing transepidermal water loss (TEWL).[21]

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.[22] In another study on rosacea patients, the same concentration improved dryness, scaling and peeling.[18]

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.[1]

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.[1]

This has been demonstrated by researchers who had subjects apply a concentration of 5% twice daily over a 12-week period, and noted significant improvements in sallowness or yellowing.[9][23]

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.[24] Other research has confirmed that it aids in DNA repair after sun exposure,[25] and is a promising agent for skin cancer prevention.[26]

How to Use Niacinamide

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.”[17]

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.[27]

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.[1] 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.

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!

Further Reading

  1. Levin, Jacquelyn Levin & Momin, Saira B. (2010). How Much Do We Really Know About Our Favorite Cosmeceutical Ingredients? The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. 2010 Feb; 3(2): 22–41.
  2. Office of Dietary Supplements (2021, March 26). Niacin. National Institutes of Health.
  3. Fouquerela, Elise & Sobola, Robert W. (2014). ARTD1 (PARP1) activation and NAD+ in DNA repair and cell death. DNA Repair. 2014 Nov; 0: 27–32.
  4. Feldmann, R. J. & Maibach, H. I. (1970). Absorption of Some Organic Compounds Through the Skin in Man. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 1970 May; 54(5): 399-404.
  5. Bissett D. L., Oblong J. & Saud, A. (2003). Topical niacinamide provides skin aging appearance benefits while enhancing barrier function. Journal of Clinical Dermatology. 2003; 32S: 9–18.
  6. Wohlrab, Johannes & Kreft, Daniela. (2014). Niacinamide - mechanisms of action and its topical use in dermatology. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology. 2014; 27(6): 311-5.
  7. Poljšak, Borut & Dahmane, Raja. (2012). Free Radicals and Extrinsic Skin Aging. Dermatology Research and Practice. 2012; 2012: 135206.
  8. Hakozaki, T., Minwalla, L., Zhuang, J., Chhoa, M., Matsubara, A., Miyamoto, K., Greatens, A., Hillebrand, G. G., Bissett, D. L. & Boissy, R. E. (2002). The effect of niacinamide on reducing cutaneous pigmentation and suppression of melanosome transfer. The British Journal of Dermatology. 2002 Jul; 147(1): 20-31.
  9. Bissett, D. L., Miyamoto, K., Sun, P, Li, J. & Berge, C. A. (2004). Topical niacinamide reduces yellowing, wrinkling, red blotchiness, and hyperpigmented spots in aging facial skin. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2004 Oct; 26(5): 231-8.
  10. Jerajani, Hemangi R., Mizoguchi, Haruko, Li, James, Whittenbarger, Debora J. & Marmor, Michael J. (2010). The effects of a daily facial lotion containing vitamins B3 and E and provitamin B5 on the facial skin of Indian women: a randomized, double-blind trial. Indian Journal of Dermatology. Jan-Feb 2010; 76(1): 20-6.
  11. Navarrete-Solís, Josefina, Castanedo-Cázares, Juan Pablo, Torres-Álvarez, Bertha, Oros-Ovalle, Cuauhtemoc, Fuentes-Ahumada, Cornelia, González, Francisco Javier, Martínez-Ramírez, Juan David & Moncada, Benjamin. (2011). A Double-Blind, Randomized Clinical Trial of Niacinamide 4% versus Hydroquinone 4% in the Treatment of Melasma. Dermatology Research and Practice. 2011; 2011: 379173.
  12. Farris, Patti. (2015, October 14). The anti-aging effects of niacinamide. Dermatology Times.
  13. Kawada, Akira, Konishi, Natsuko, Oiso, Naoki, Kawara, Shigeru & Date, Akira. (2008). Evaluation of anti-wrinkle effects of a novel cosmetic containing niacinamide. The Journal of Dermatology. 2008 Oct; 35(10): 637-42.
  14. Draelos, Zoe Diana, Matsubara, Akira & Smiles, Kenneth. (2006). The effect of 2% niacinamide on facial sebum production. Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy. 2006 Jun; 8(2): 96-101.
  15. Shalita, A. R., Smith, J. G., Parish, L. C., Sofman, M. S. & Chalker, D. K. (1995). Topical nicotinamide compared with clindamycin gel in the treatment of inflammatory acne vulgaris. International Journal of Dermatology. 1995 Jun; 34(6): 434-7.
  16. Shahmoradi, Zabiolah, Iraji, Farib, Siadat, Amir Hossein & Ghorbaini, Azamosadat. (2013). Comparison of topical 5% nicotinamid gel versus 2% clindamycin gel in the treatment of the mild-moderate acne vulgaris: A double-blinded randomized clinical trial. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences. 2013 Feb; 18(2): 115–117.
  17. Berson, Diane S., Osborne, Rosemarie, Oblong, John E., Hakozaki, Tomohiro, Johnson, Mary B. & Bissett, Donald L. (2013). Niacinamide : A Topical Vitamin with Wide-Ranging Skin Appearance Benefits. Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Practice.
  18. Draelos, Zoe Diana, Ertel, Keith & Berge, Cindy. (2005). Niacinamide-containing facial moisturizer improves skin barrier and benefits subjects with rosacea. Cutis. 2005 Aug; 76(2): 135-41.
  19. Tanno, O., Y Ota, Y., Kitamura, N., Katsube, T. & Inoue, S. (2000). Nicotinamide increases biosynthesis of ceramides as well as other stratum corneum lipids to improve the epidermal permeability barrier. The British Journal of Dermatology. 2000 Sep; 143(3): 524-31.
  20. Mohammed, D., Crowther, J. M., Matts, P. J., Hadgraft, J. & Lane, M. E. (2013). Influence of niacinamide containing formulations on the molecular and biophysical properties of the stratum corneum. International Journal of Pharmaceutics. 2013 Jan 30; 441(1-2): 192-201.
  21. Gehring, W. (2004). Nicotinic acid/niacinamide and the skin. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. 2004 Apr; 3(2): 88-93.
  22. Soma, Yoshinao, Kashima, Masato, Imaizumi, Akiko, Takahama, Hideto, Kawakami, Tamihiro & Mizoguchi, Masako. (2005). Moisturizing effects of topical nicotinamide on atopic dry skin. International Journal of Dermatology. 2005 Mar; 44(3): 197-202.
  23. Bissett, Donald L., Oblong, John E. & Berge, Cynthia A. (2005). Niacinamide: A B vitamin that improves aging facial skin appearance. Dermatologic Surgery. 2005 Jul; 31(7 Pt 2): 860-5; discussion 865.
  24. Sivapirabu, G., Yiasemides, G. E., Halliday, G. M., Park, J. & Damian, D. L. (2009). Topical nicotinamide modulates cellular energy metabolism and provides broad-spectrum protection against ultraviolet radiation-induced immunosuppression in humans. The British Journal of Dermatology. 2009 Dec; 161(6): 1357-64.
  25. Thompson, Benjamin C., Surjana, Devita, Halliday, Gary M. & Damian, Diona L. (2014). Nicotinamide enhances repair of ultraviolet radiation-induced DNA damage in primary melanocytes. Experimental Dermatology. 2014 Jul; 23(7): 509-11.
  26. Malesu, Rashi, Martin, Andrew J., Lyons, J. Guy, Scolyer, Richard A., Chen, Andrew C., McKenzie, Catriona A., Madore, Jason, Halliday, Gary M. & Damian, Diona L. (2020). Nicotinamide for skin cancer chemoprevention: effects of nicotinamide on melanoma in vitro and in vivo. Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences. 2020 Feb 19; 19(2): 171-179.

Other sources: [27]

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