There are no ‘miracle’ ‘skincare ingredients, but if we had to pick one that we can safely recommend to anyone, it would be niacinamide. Also known as vitamin B3 or nicotinamide (nothing to do with cigarettes, don’t worry), it’s been lurking in your skincare for decades. More of a trusty workhorse than a temperamental show pony such as vitamin C or retinol, it never really captured the imagination until Covid came along. Once we were all riddled with maskne , that unholy combo of spots and irritation, the multiple, seemingly contradictory benefits of niacinamide truly came into their own. An active that hydrates while minimising oiliness and beats back hyperpigmentation while extinguishing redness and inflammation seemed like a promise too far – but it wasn’t.
So today, the market is awash with niacinamide serums, creams, cleansers and toners: on top of everything else, the ingredient is pH neutral and doesn’t oxidise (go off when paired with the wrong substances), so it’s easily formulated in both water and oil-based products (that is to say, any texture you like). AND it irritates almost nobody’s skin, even at high concentrations (there are always exceptions! But reactions to niacinamide are rare). Highlighted in our ‘8 anti-ageing ingredients that actually work’ feature as a "brilliant all-rounder" by dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting and a firm favourite of consultant dermatologist Dr Emma Wedgeworth , it’s also a top-class barrier-building ingredient and antioxidant, mitigating environmental damage from free radicals and from UV radiation in particular.
We asked our derms to get under the skin of this hard-working skin vitamin. From exactly how niacinamide works on a cellular level to precisely how to incorporate it into your skincare regime, here's your guide to beauty’s queen B.
How does niacinamide work?
Niacinamide is naturally present in the body, where it’s involved in a LOT of processes that don’t function well without the presence of vitamin B3. It works in a number of ways:
1) Taken as a supplement, certain forms of B3 help restore cellular energy and repair DNA (it is related to NAD+, the molecule that helps convert food into energy and ensures proper cell function). Topically, it also helps modulate cellular energy*, which may explain why it has such a vast array of benefits. Cellular energy is at the heart of healthy, balanced skin – and if niacinamide does one thing, it’s the balancing out of any issues from a propensity to oily spots all the way to a propensity to dryness and sensitivity.
2) Niacinamide also acts as a powerful antioxidant. According to consultant dermatologist Dr Emma Wedgeworth, doctors sometimes use it in tablet form to help prevent skin cancer, while it has topical sun-protective benefits as well: it prevents UV suppressing the skin’s immune system and becoming vulnerable to DNA damage.
3) It also, says Bunting, boosts the skin barrier ., your first line of defence against environmental aggressors, UV, pollution and irritants, which weakens with age and bad habits. “Niacinamide does so by increasing ceramide production,” says Bunting. Ceramides are fatty acid derivatives that make up 50 per cent of the uppermost layer of the skin. Like the mortar between bricks (skin cells, in this case), they and other substances like cholesterol and omega fatty acids maintain the integrity of the barrier to as to retain moisture and keep the skin hydrated. Basically, niacinamide is one crucial ingredient for ensuring moisture stays inside the skin and irritants are kept out, and that has many beneficial effects for how your skin looks and feels.
4) To boot, niacinamide regulates sebum production in the skin – down or up-regulating the amount of oil skin produces in case of an imbalance. AND it functions as a tyrosinase inhibitor, suppressing the enzyme that sets off the transfer of melanin to the skin surface, which can result in dark spots and blotches.
What are the key benefits of niacinamide?
So how do the many talents niacinamide has translate into better-looking skin? Let us count the ways….
- It’s an effective blemish-buster.
“Thanks to its sebum-regulating properties, niacinamide has anti-acne benefits, and it also has an anti-inflammatory action (which is essential for clearing blemishes as these are partly a result of inflammation),” says Dr Bunting. “Niacinamide, therefore, reduces the papules and pustules seen in acne. And there’s no risk of antibiotic resistance to it, making it a good alternative strategy to tackling acne with antibiotics.”
- It makes pores look smaller
Niacinamide is one of the few ingredients that can help minimise the appearance of pores, thanks to its ability to stop them pumping out too much oil.
- It calms irritation and inflammation
Due to its skin barrier-boosting action, niacinamide makes skin less prone to getting inflamed and irritated by attack from environmental factors such as pollution and stress. In short, it makes skin less sensitive; it’s one ingredient that’s used in the treatment of dermatitis and rosacea. It also reduces inflammation from aggressive ingredients such as retinol and AHA’s. “It’s a good ingredient to combine with retinol, as it mitigates potential irritation,” says Wedgeworth.
- It’s hydrating
Thanks to niacinamide helping skin to create more ceramides, more moisture will stay inside the skin, helping it to stay hydrated, supple and glowing at all times.
- It evens out skin tone
Calmer skin means less redness and flushing. And “thanks to niacinamide reducing the transfer of pigment molecules to the top skin layers, it’s helpful in reducing hyperpigmentation (brown spots and blotches, and melasma),” says Bunting. Not only that, it makes dull skin look brighter and it reduces sallowness in those with a lot of yellow undertones: basically, it helps even out any skin tone.
- It evens out skin texture
Niacinamide’s combined antioxidant (protective) prowess, hydrating ability and sebum-regulating properties help it minimise fine lines, small bumps and pores, giving an overall smoother, more even-textured effect. And smooth skin is fresher, glowier, more youthful-looking skin.
Who can use niacinamide?
Due to the all-encompassing benefits of niacinamide, it’s impressively universal in its appeal. “It’s suitable for all ages – from teens through to those with mature skin,” says Dr Bunting.
Are there any skin types that should steer clear of it? According to Bunting, no. “It’s suitable for even those with sensitive skin,” she says. “It’s a fantastic all-rounder that’s brilliantly well-tolerated so most people can benefit from it. It’s also safe in pregnancy and during breastfeeding.”
How should you use niacinamide?
“It’s suitable for morning and evening use,” recommends Bunting. “One of my favourite products incorporates it into a sunscreen.” Which, given its sun-protective and anti-hyperpigmentation qualities, is a great idea. But niacinamide works just as well in serum formulations, layered under day cream and/or sunscreen.
How does niacinamide fit in with other ingredients?
Seamlessly, basically. Niacinamide is one of the most versatile ingredients out there. It works very well in conjunction with other actives, and when these have a potential to irritate, niacinamide will reduce the risk of reactions. It’s worth starting on niacinamide before you start a retinoid if you have sensitive skin,” recommends Dr Bunting.
In hyperpigmentation-reducing serums and creams, niacinamide’s ability to reduce melanin transfer (it’s called a ‘tyrosinase inhibitor’) is fantastic combined with ingredients that lighten and brighten skin, such as kojic acid, licorice and vitamin c (the online hype that it can’t be teamed with vitamin C is a myth and a misunderstanding of the facts), and exfoliating acids such as lactic and salicylic acid. It also works beautifully with other antioxidants such as green tea for broad-spectrum free radical protection and repair. In anti-acne products, it sits well with other blemish-busting staples such as salicylic and azelaic acid and retinoids.
What risks and side-effects does niacinamide have?
Refreshingly, there are very few red flags to take heed of before incorporating niacinamide into your regime. “It’s very low-irritancy – I’ve not seen any patients have problems using it,” says Dr Bunting. Having said that, there are quite a few very high-concentration (10 per cent and over) products on the market right now, which can cause flushing and irritation in very sensitive skins. The added benefits of 20 or 30% concentrations haven’t really been proven yet so you may want to avoid overdoing it.
How much niacinamide do we need?
Any concentration of niacinamide from about 0.5 per cent will help to maintain the health and appearance of your skin, with dosages from two per cent recommended as a minimum for visible results and five per cent being seen as a real ‘sweet spot’ for faster results without any irritation. 10 per cent niacinamide is a potent concentration for those who are used to the ingredient and want to see dramatic results. But as always, don’t stare yourself blind on single-ingredient concentrations and go for formulas with lots of actives that work in synergy towards a particular goal instead. That way you maximise the benefits of niacinamide without inviting any drawbacks.