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, it is actually so versatile, gentle and effective that I believe it's the one active ingredient everyone should be using.
In this tutorial, you will learn:
- What it is, and how it works
- What it can do for your skin
- Whether it's safe or has side effects
- The best products to try now (no matter what your skin type)
If you're new to this wonder vitamin, I'm so excited for you to discover it!
What Is Niacinamide?
Niacinamide is the active form of vitamin B3 (niacin or nicotinic acid). Another name for it, commonly used in studies, is nicotinamide.
As a water-soluble vitamin, it comes in powder form and will not dissolve in oil. So you'll typically find it in water-based serums, along with essences, face mists and gel moisturizers. Perfect 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). So unlike alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids, certain forms of vitamin C (like L-ascorbic acid) and retinoids, it is non-acidic and non-irritating.
How Does Niacinamide Work?
In our bodies, niacinamide is formed when we eat foods that are high in niacin, such as beef liver, chicken breast and rice. We convert the niacin into active niacinamide, which in turn acts as a precursor to the coenzymes NADH and NADPH.
These coenzymes boost cellular metabolism, meaning they give our skin cells the energy they need to carry out their functions. In fact, NADH and NADPH are involved in more than 40 biochemical processes, including such important jobs as DNA repair and cell turnover.
But we don't have to rely solely on our diets for our skin cells to benefit from this vitamin. Since niacinamide readily penetrates, we can also apply it topically to get even more of what it has to offer.
These are its main mechanisms of action:
- Sebostatic (sebum reducing)
- Antipruritic (soothing)
Here's a deep dive into exactly what this means for your skin.
What Does Niacinamide Do for Your Skin?
Now, let's talk about the specific benefits of niacinamide in your skincare routine (it's a LONG list!).
Here are all the ways it can help your skin:
1. Fights Free Radicals
Niacinamide has been found to protect from free radicals and prevent oxidative stress. (Free radicals are unstable molecules that cause signs of aging by depleting the natural antioxidants in our skin and damaging proteins, DNA and other parts of skin cells.)
According to the Journal of Clinical Aesthetic Dermatology, it "increases the antioxidant capacity of skin after topical application."
That means you can use it as your daily antioxidant, instead of vitamin C. It's gentler and more stable than L-ascorbic acid, which oxidizes quickly and is often irritating.
2. Fades Pigmentation
Niacinamide is a proven treatment for dark spots, discolourations, brown patches and melasma.
This study found a significant decrease in hyperpigmentation after participants applied as little as 2% for four weeks.
For melasma, this study found that 4% niacinamide is comparable to 4% hydroquinone (a skin-bleaching agent), but with fewer side effects and a much better safety profile.
3. Reduces Wrinkles
Niacinamide significantly improves fine lines and wrinkles, according to this double-blind study in which females aged 40 to 60 used a 5% concentration for 12 weeks.
Another study found that 4% significantly reduced wrinkles in the eye area after eight weeks.
Although some researchers suggest it works by increasing collagen production, it's more accurate to say that niacinamide helps to normalize collagen, keeping it supple and flexible. As per Dermatology Times, it "inhibits protein glycation, effectively reducing deposition of cross-linked collagen and elastin molecules in the skin. Cross-linked collagen and elastin molecules are stiff and rigid, resulting in altered viscoelastic properties of the skin."
4. Clears Acne
With its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, niacinamide can help to clear up mild to moderate cases of acne.
For moderate inflammatory acne, this study found that 4% niacinamide gives comparable results to 1% clindamycin, a topical antibiotic. And it doesn't carry the risk of inducing bacterial resistance.
Another study concluded that the same amount, 4%, "is effective and safe in alleviating symptoms of mild to moderate acne." Bonus: it's also a lot gentler on your skin than acids, retinoids or benzoyl peroxide.
5. Regulates Oil Production
Maybe you don't have acne, but struggle with oily skin. Well, niacinamide can help with that, too.
This study found that just 2% can lower sebum production as well as the rate of sebum excretion.
This is an important difference versus most over-the-counter mattifying and oil-controlling products. They only "work" by absorbing excess sebum with ingredients like talc, clay and starch.
In contrast, niacinamide targets the root cause of oily skin by reducing how much sebum your skin makes, and slowing down its release. It can take two to four weeks of consistent use before you'll notice these changes.
6. Shrinks Pores and Smooths Texture
You've probably heard that you can't shrink your pores. But actually, you CAN—with niacinamide.
Don't believe me? Take it from Dermatology Times: "Clinically it reduces pore size, and improves skin texture."
A 12-week study cited in Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Practice also found that niacinamide and salicylic acid together significantly reduced pore size and bumpy skin texture.
Again, this happens because of niacinamide's ability to reduce sebum production and excretion. Pores will always appear larger when they are filled with oil and dead skin. If less sebum is being trapped, they won't be as stretched out. And with smaller pores, skin texture looks softer and smoother.
7. Reduces Redness
If you're prone to redness, niacinamide is one of the best ingredients you can apply.
The reason it helps is because niacinamide improves the function of the skin barrier, which means less irritation and less reddening.
8. Strengthens the Skin Barrier
If your skin seems very intolerant—even stinging when you apply your skincare—then it's possible that your skin barrier has become compromised. I often hear from people who are experiencing this after over-using aggressive topicals, such as glycolic acid or prescription retinoids. Invisible cracks develop between skin cells, allowing water to escape and irritants to enter.
To restore a strong and healthy skin barrier, I always suggest trying niacinamide. According to the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, "it has a stabilizing effect on epidermal barrier function."
It works by increasing the production of ceramides, decreasing inflammation, reducing transepidermal water loss and increasing the moisture content of the stratum corneum (outer layer of skin).
9. Reduces Dryness
Another way you can use niacinamide is to treat dry skin.
This study compared a 2% concentration with white petrolatum (a.k.a. mineral oil), and found that the niacinamide significantly decreased water loss—but the petrolatum did not. It was also proven to be more effective at increasing hydration in the skin's outermost layer.
Another study found that a twice-daily application of niacinamide reduced water loss, lowered inflammation and increased the thickness of the stratum corneum.
So you could definitely use it in place of the usual hyaluronic acid-based hydrating serums, especially since it offers many other benefits.
10. Reduces Sallowness
Ever noticed how some people's skin seems to take on a sallow, yellow cast as they get older?
It happens due to oxidative stress, which increases as we age—and which niacinamide, as an antioxidant, can inhibit.
11. Protects from UV Damage
Lastly, consider niacinamide as an adjunct to your sunscreen if you are spending a lot of time in the sun. Research has shown that it can repair damage and has some important photoprotective properties.
This study showed that niacinamide aids in DNA repair after UV exposure, while this study declared it is "a promising agent for skin cancer prevention." Finally, this study discovered that it helps prevent photocarcinogenesis.
Does Niacinamide Have Side Effects?
As if niacinamide didn't have enough going for it, here's one more benefit: it has virtually no side effects. According to Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Practice, it "can be used at high doses topically (at least up to 5%) and is generally well tolerated."
So it's one of the safest and gentlest active ingredients, and an excellent alternative to harsh retinoids, acids and L-ascorbic acid. It is also considered safe if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
That said, some people do experience irritation, but according to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, it's usually because of another ingredient. "It likely was one of the preservatives in the product causing the irritation, not the niacinamide itself," he says.
If you want to be on the safe side, stick to formulations with a concentration of 10% or lower. That's more than enough to get results, since the majority of clinical studies were conducted with only 2-5%.
In rare cases, higher doses—like the 15-20% formulas that are now available—might cause some stinging or redness in sensitive skin. If this happens, try a lower concentration instead.
Also be aware that using niacinamide at the same time as acidic ingredients (like AHAs, BHAs and L-ascorbic acid) can cause a reaction. See my niacinamide and acids tutorial for how to layer them correctly.
The Best Niacinamide Serums
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.
The Inkey List Niacinamide
The Inkey List Niacinamide boasts 10% niacinamide in a light, silky serum. It's both hydrating and oil-controlling, free of fragrance and silicones, and has an affordable price point.
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 high-dose 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 and is boosted by zinc for its additional oil-balancing properties. It's also oil-free, silicone-free and fragrance-free. Note: this one does have a tendency to ball up under other products, but you can try these tips to prevent pilling.
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
Alpha-H Vitamin B 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—hence the blue tint—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, is free of oil, silicone and fragrance, and has a surprisingly short ingredients list.
Skin Inc Supplement Bar Vitamin B3+ Serum
Skin Inc Supplement Bar Vitamin B3+ Serum is a fast-absorbing serum that's also free of oil, silicones and fragrance. Although the brand doesn't disclose the exact percentage of niacinamide, it is the fourth ingredient in this formula, and bolstered by panthenol (provitamin B5) and hyaluronic acid.
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, go for this formula if you're looking to treat clogged, stretched-out pores and an orange-peel texture.
Now you're up to speed on the magic of topical niacinamide. Honestly, is there anything it can't do?!
Personally, it has been part of my daily skincare routine for several 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 (which is rare), any post-acne marks fade quickly. I used to get IPL treatments for pigmentation on my cheeks, but no more!
As per the study here, my routine includes both a niacinamide serum and a salicylic acid derivative (my trusty COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid, reviewed here). Together, they are the most effective combination I've found for my finicky, acne-prone skin.
Plus, like I said, I've found niacinamide to be a superior alternative to L-ascorbic acid for antioxidant protection. Not only do I tolerate it better, it's also a lot more economical because of its resistance to oxidation and long shelf life.
I can't recommend niacinamide enough, no matter what skin conditions you're trying to target. It truly does it all!
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