How Does Niacinamide Work?

Quick! Take a look at the ingredient lists of all the skincare products you own. It will probably surprise you how often niacinamide might appear in your routine. Niacinamide, or vitamin B3, is really the jack-of-all-trades when it comes to skin benefits. 

It’s been quietly playing the support role for a few decades, but it’s been finally getting the limelight it deserves in recent years. Although all the mechanisms of niacinamide are not completely ironed out, it has been found to help with oil control, strengthen the skin barrier, and even combat pigmentation. So, let’s learn all about the ultimate skin-active chameleon—niacinamide.

What is Niacinamide?

Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that also happens to be pretty versatile. Quick chemist confession! Because it can be easily incorporated into formulas, this active ingredient often gets thrown into all types of products as an “efficacy insurance policy.” 

With its recent rise in popularity, you can find it in all sorts of products: serums, treatments, moisturizers, and even body lotions—which is great, since niacinamide has quite the résumé of benefits. But because it’s in so many products, people are quite confused about what niacinamide is actually for. So, let’s give it the proper love and attention it deserves by first figuring out what it actually does.

How Does It Work?

Niacinamide is directly tied to the metabolism. (Anyone remember the Calvin cycle from high school chemistry?) Without getting into the nitty-gritty, this means that it happens to be linked to many biological pathways. Other than whats mentioned here, it’s also been studied as a glycation fighter.

What’s glycation, you ask? It’s a reaction that occurs involving free sugars that leads to resulting advanced glycation ends (AGEs). And, yes, that acronym is just as foreboding as it sounds, since these AGEs can impact and impair skin-tissue elasticity, along with blood vessels, tendons, and the progression of certain diseases.

It promotes a healthy skin barrier and improves skin texture

Studies have shown that creams with as little as 2% niacinamide can improve skin moisture and overall skin-barrier function in the long run. This is great news for those of you with dry skin! Better skin-barrier function means your skin is better at retaining moisture, even during harsh winter. The general theory is that niacinamide promotes keratin synthesis and the stimulation of ceramides, both significant contributors to a healthy skin barrier.

It’s an oily-skin regulator

Oil control can be a very frustrating issue for people, since almost nothing works for the long term. In fact, most oil-control products only mask this problem short-term with oil-absorbing powders. Yet, good news! Niacinamide is actually one of the few ingredients out there that has demonstrated long-term sebum-regulation effects when used consistently at topical concentrations of 2-4%. 

Not surprisingly, other studies show this active as an effective acne treatment that can even help reduce the appearance of pores. How niacinamide achieves this is not well understood. Sebum production is a complex process—there are some recent studies out there that try to understand where niacinamide may come into play in a ten-page-long pathway.

It can help tackle unwanted pigmentation

Niacinamide has been clinically demonstrated to effectively treat hyperpigmentation at topical concentrations as low as 2%. What makes niacinamide’s brightening prowess special is the biological pathway that it targets. Unlike most brightening superstars—like hydroquinone, kojic acid, and vitamin C, which work as tyrosinase inhibitors—this guy actually works downstream from the tyrosinase step to deter pigment transfer. 

It targets melanosomes and prevents these cells from transferring pigment. This means that instead of competing for the same position, niacinamide works alongside other brightening superstars, boosting the efficacy of your products.

So, lots of good things, right? It gets better. Of all the actives, this ingredient has the best temperament from a Chemists’ perspective, meaning it’s easy to work with in almost any formula—creams, gels, serums, toners, you name it. This means pretty much everyone can reap some benefits from having a bit of niacinamide in their lives. So let’s figure out the optimal way to utilize this baby in your routine!

How Much Niacinamide Do I Need?

Niacinamide has been shown to be effective at as low as 2%, with many of the tests done at 4%. So, a good target would be a 4-5% niacinamide product for most people, with 2% being a good starting point for those with sensitive skin. 

Because niacinamide happens to play nice with most actives, many brands can easily toss this into any of their products. Do remember to skim your products’ ingredient lists to get a sense of how much niacinamide is already in your existing routine.

A recent trend has been serums touting 10% niacinamide and more. That’s actually overkilling! Even vanilla, gentle ingredients like niacinamide can be irritating at unnecessarily high levels. Please proceed with caution should you give one of these highly concentrated products a go.

How Do I Choose a Niacinamide Product?

To recap, niacinamide really does seem to do it all. For dry, compromised skin, niacinamide can help support a healthy skin barrier. For oily skin types, it can assist with oil control. It can even help tackle unwanted pigmentation and uneven skin tone. All of that at just about a 2–5% concentration. So, how do we get this ingredient into our routine?

Check In with Your Existing Routine

Start by reading the labels on your existing products. You might be surprised to find that you already have a few products in your arsenal that contain this ingredient. The key to incorporating niacinamide into your routine is to make sure you don’t end up overlaying too many niacinamide products. Because it’s such a prolific ingredient, you’d be surprised how easily you can overdo it without even realizing you’ve been layering eight niacinamide-boosted products.

Aim to Get Niacinamide in Your Moisturizer

One of niacinamide’s greatest strengths is that it can play nice with everyone. Instead of dedicating a whole product step to a niacinamide serum, consider a chemist-favorite move and leave niacinamide to your moisturizer. Plus, you end up saving yourself a step in your routine. Time is money, people!

Give the Ingredient List a Quick Scan

Always give the ingredient list a quick scan. If the product doesn’t list a percentage, look for niacinamide in the top seven or so ingredients for a practical level. Other than that, niacinamide is really the most easygoing of the actives we cover here. There really isn’t much else to consider formula-wise, other than personal preference. It’s a truly chill fellow.

Final Words

More and more products are using 10% niacinamide concentrations and higher. While most people won’t experience many issues at this concentration, just remember you don’t have to hit those levels to see benefits, and there’s no evidence that using five times more niacinamide gives you five times the benefit.

Screen the products in your routine—you might be surprised where niacinamide hangs out.

Niacinamide FAQs

Q: I found this cream that’s 30% niacinamide. What are your thoughts?

A: There is such a thing as too much of a good thing in skincare. Most niacinamide studies use 2—5% of the ingredient. There’s no reason to think 30% niacinamide is six times as effective as 5% niacinamide. You’re more likely to irritate your skin with ultra-high concentrations than anything else.

Q: Are all niacinamide products alike?

A: Niacinamide is a very vanilla, stable ingredient. Unlike vitamin C and retinol, you don’t have to worry about its stability. And unlike acids, you don’t have to think about pH too much. So, other than concentration, most niacinamide-based products are fairly similar.

Q: Is there a difference between the vitamin Bs used in skincare products?

A: The two vitamin Bs commonly found in skincare are niacinamide and panthenol, two completely different molecules. While panthenol doesn’t fight pigmentation like niacinamide, it’s a much better hydrating ingredient. We love the combination of the two!

Q: Will niacinamide overlighten my skin if I overuse it for hyperpigmentation?

A: Nope! It regulates pigment transport, but won’t stop it.

Q: Can too much of it lead to excessive oil control?

A: Nope! This is the coolest thing about niacinamide: It actually improves barrier function, so it regulates sebum and improves hydration at the same time.

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