If you haven’t heard about niacinamide, you must have been living under a skincare rock for the last few years. This humble B vitamin has taken the cosmetic world by storm, and for a good reason.
NIacinamide does everything.
Do you have a friend who’s a jack of all trades, that you can always go to with technical questions? Maybe they’re a little quiet, but they’re competent, knowledgeable, and always happy to help - no matter what problem you’re dealing with.
That’s niacinamide. Unassuming, but extremely beneficial.
Whether your skincare routine is focused on combating sensitivity, dehydration, minimizing wrinkles, or reducing breakouts, niacinamide is there to help. It’s not harsh or aggressive, but it improves the look of nearly any skin concern you can imagine.
So what does niacinamide do to the skin? We’ll get into that in detail in this post.
This guide at a glance:
- What is niacinamide?
- What does niacinamide do for your skin?
- How niacinamide works
- Can you use niacinamide every day?
- Finding the best niacinamide product for you
- How does niacinamide compare to other actives?
Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3. While vitamin B3 doesn’t occur naturally in the human body, we get plenty of it in our diet because it’s in just about everything. It plays a major role in how our body metabolizes nutrients and creates or repairs DNA.
It acts as a coenzyme, which means that it binds to enzymes in the body and facilitates their activity. Different coenzymes will activate different enzymes in the body, so what’s remarkable about vitamin B3 is responsible for the action of over 400 different enzymes.
In skin care, niacinamide is the best version of vitamin B3. It’s fairly stable and non-irritating, and its benefits are very diverse with pretty much no side effects or drawbacks.
Niacinamide is sometimes also called nicotinamide. Despite the name, it’s not related to nicotine from tobacco in any way, shape, or form. The only connection is that nicotine competes with the body’s ability to use niacinamide since the two compounds act on the same enzyme binding sites.
So what does niacinamide do to the skin? Asking what it doesn’t do might be easier to answer.
Niacinamide is beneficial to just about all skin types, and it helps with every single one of the most common skin concerns we see, from anti-aging and brightening to breakouts.
Here’s a summary of its research-backed benefits.
The skin barrier is a hot topic right now. The term refers to how well your skin is able to keep the bad stuff out (i.e. bacteria, mites, and sources of free-radical damage) and the good stuff inside (i.e. water). A healthy skin barrier depends on having a solid balance of lipids among the skin cells, especially ceramides.
Ceramides have become a popular and genuinely wonderful ingredient in skincare, but they need to be used in a precise ratio with cholesterol and fatty acids to be truly beneficial. We discuss this in detail in our post about TEWL.
However, we can get the skin to produce more of them all on its own… With the help of niacinamide. An in vitro study showed that niacinamide can increase the skin’s ability to produce ceramides and free-fatty acids that play a crucial role in skin barrier defense.
That’s why we’ve made it a key ingredient in all of our moisturizing formulas.
Niacinamide also exhibits anti-aging effects, both for prevention AND reversal. If you’re already experiencing wrinkles, it’s a worthwhile addition to your skincare routine that will help fill in fine lines slowly and gently.
In one study, a 5% concentration showed the ability to reduce facial wrinkles and improve skin elasticity in just 12 weeks. How it does this is multi-faceted, connecting to its potent impact on so many enzymatic processes that relate to how our body produces new cells, as well as its antioxidant ability.
Other anti-aging studies that combine niacinamide with other antioxidants and anti-aging molecules show even better results!
Now let’s talk about niacinamide as a preventer of skin aging. In other words, its antioxidant effects.
Over time, exposure to forces of destruction like the sun and pollution causes a chain reaction of skin cells to break down that leads to more wrinkles, dryness, splotchiness, and hyperpigmentation over time.
Antioxidants neutralize these harmful processes on a molecular level. We explain this in more detail in our guide to vitamin C, the ultimate antioxidant in skincare.
But niacinamide has very respectable antioxidant effects, as well, especially when it comes to exposure to pollution. With modern formulations, it plays nicely with vitamin C. This means that no matter how old you are, it’s worth adding to your routine.
Niacinamide is also beneficial if you’re prone to dark spots. It inhibits the delivery of melanin from the melanocytes to your surface skin cells, thereby preventing hyperpigmentation. Clinical studies show that, in practice, it effectively fades dark spots in the skin.
It’s sometimes advertised as a skin-lightening treatment, but this mechanism of action is slow-acting compared to actives like vitamin C, so it’s more effective for support and prevention.
It’s also worth noting that niacinamide will not actually lighten your skin. It can correct discoloration slowly over time, but it cannot change your skin tone. Be wary of products that make “skin whitening” claims, since they may include unsafe and highly irritating ingredients.
At this point, niacinamide has been studied on a fairly broad range of sensitive skin conditions, including rosacea and atopic dermatitis. While these studies focus on its barrier-repairing effect when used at a 2% concentration, it was also found to reduce facial redness and flakiness.
That means that if you have sensitive skin, you may notice some significant improvement in dryness, blotchiness, and irritation by making it a part of your routine.
That said, many users find that high concentrations of niacinamide (sometimes paired with zinc) have the opposite effect, triggering inflammation and irritation.
Regulates oil production and pore size
This is where things get really wild.
We already explained that niacinamide helps fortify the skin barrier by improving the production of ceramides, which are a type of lipid. But niacinamide is inherently balancing, and when applied to oily skin, it actually reduces sebum lipids on the surface of the skin.
In other words, you get an increase in protective lipids that are produced by epidermal cells to maintain skin hydration, and you get a reduction in “bad” lipids that can lead to clogged pores and acne.
In another study, it was also found to reduce pore size, which is another common issue of concern for those with oily skin.
Breakouts and acne
If you suffer from breakouts, the hybrid of niacinamide’s skin-soothing and oil-controlling properties can help with your skin clarity. In a head-to-head comparison between 4% niacinamide and the topical antibiotic clindamycin, niacinamide showed particular promise when it came to fading the look of more red and inflamed papules. If your skin is acne-prone but also sensitized, it’s a fantastic ingredient.
While we have a fairly good understanding of niacinamide's benefits thanks to different clinical studies, the reality is that we don’t fully understand its mechanism of action.
But we have some very good guesses.
Niacinamide is a precursor to two coenzymes that exist naturally in human cells and help with a whole range of metabolic processes. These coenzymes, NADH and NADPH, keep the skin functioning well, preventing inflammation, producing new collagen, protecting it from free radical damage, and a lot more.
With age or when the skin gets damaged, the levels of these coenzymes in the body and in individual cells deplete. It’s possible that topical niacinamide works because depleted cells are able to use it to make up for what they lack.
This is why its benefits are so wide-ranging, and why it can improve skin function in a balanced way, regardless of the type of concern.
Yes! Niacinamide is safe to use on a daily basis and doesn’t require an “easing-in” period the way retinoids or exfoliants do. Most of the research on niacinamide’s benefits had participants using it once or twice a day, which suggests that would be the ideal frequency to see results.
Niacinamide is easy and versatile, especially compared to pickier molecules like retinol or vitamin C. That said, we still have a few suggestions on what to keep in mind when looking for your ideal niacinamide product:
- As research shows, niacinamide is extremely effective at 2-5%. For some odd reason, brands love to sell products with 10% niacinamide, when the reality is that your skin doesn’t need so much of it. In fact, dermatologists like Dr. Shereen Idriss note that higher percentages may lead to irritation.
- Leave-on formula. All of niacinamide’s researched benefits come from leave-on formulas like serums and creams, so we don’t know if it can work in a cleanser or mask. Realistically, it probably wouldn’t, because it’s water-soluble and would simply wash off.
- Pick a texture you like. Niacinamide is water-soluble, so it’s most effective in serums. That said, there’s been some research showing that niacinamide creams still have visible and impressive skin benefits, so don’t feel constrained - any leave-on format will still show results.
- Fits your routine. With niacinamide’s versatility in mind, choose a niacinamide product that will fit into your routine easily! We love having it in our moisturizer or as part of a serum that also includes other actives. You can also find it in sunscreens, toners, and essences.
Designing a full skincare routine when so many ingredients seem like “must-haves” can be confusing. Can you use niacinamide with vitamin C or retinol? Which is better?
To quickly summarize: Niacinamide is mild enough that some would argue it’s not an active ingredient at all. It can do a lot of different things, but slowly and gently. If you want speedier results, combine niacinamide with more powerful actives, and it’ll support their action!
Niacinamide vs retinol
Retinol is the more extreme anti-aging and smoothing choice between the two. It renews the skin and promotes overall cell regeneration within a very short time period, while niacinamide is milder and more slow-acting.
That said, using them together is very easy! Both molecules function best in water-based serums, and they’re both happy at around a 6 pH level.
That means you can use products that contain both! Studies show that the combination of retinol and niacinamide is effective at reducing all markers of skin aging, including fine lines and age spots.
Niacinamide vs vitamin C
There is no head-to-head research comparing vitamin C and niacinamide, but the general consensus is that vitamin C is the more potent of the two ingredients - assuming it's the pure form of vitamin C, ascorbic acid.
The two vitamins work differently in the skin, but they have overlapping benefits. Both will brighten, protect and soothe the skin. Between the two, vitamin C is more protective and brightening, while niacinamide is the better soothing agent.
More importantly, the two ingredients probably work better when they're in the same routine. Strong antioxidants tend to support each other (that's why using both vitamin C and E in a formula is standard), and one study showed that the combination of ascorbic acid and niacinamide might be particularly useful for hyperpigmentation.
Once upon a time, there were some issues combining niacinamide with vitamin C, because of a chemical reaction that would lead to facial flushing. Nowadays, modern formulations are a lot more stable, so incidences of flushing are pretty much unheard of. That said, if you do experience flushing when you layer both together, you may want to reserve niacinamide usage for the night and vitamin C for the morning.
Niacinamide vs hyaluronic acid
Niacinamide boosts long-term hydration and barrier strength, while hyaluronic acid is more of an immediate hydrating agent. Day-to-day when your skin needs moisture, HA is ideal, but for long-term benefits, you’ll want niacinamide.
Niacinamide is a no-brainer
When an ingredient can do so much with pretty much no side effects, we can’t think of a good reason not to use it! It won’t work for everyone (nothing in skincare will), and high percentages of it can be irritating.
But in 2%-5% concentrations, it’s a gentle dream of a molecule that addresses every concern and supports the other elements of your skincare routine.
Want to find it in Protocol Skincare? Easy! We use it at a 5% concentration in our Hyaluronic Acid & Niacinamide Hydration Cream, to encourage long-term improvement in the skin’s lipid profile. Hyaluronic acid and glycerin are in there for immediate hydration and revitalization, with silky, lightweight fatty acids locking that moisture into the skin for a springy, healthy look.
We also added a touch to our best-selling Retinol Serum, a formula that uses the enzyme-activated version of retinol (i.e. retinal with an “A”) to provide 20x the wrinkle-fading and skin-smoothing effects without an increased risk of irritation.
In this formula, niacinamide is responsible for controlling oil and reducing the look of pores while providing an antioxidant boost that protects the skin from the early signs of aging.
There aren’t any good reasons to use high percentages of niacinamide all on its own. It’s a supportive, helpful ingredient that plays well with other actives - so look for it everywhere and anywhere. It's a no-brainer addition to your skincare routine.