Niacinamide is a medication that’s available in both oral (tablet) and topical (cream, serum, or gel) forms. You might have heard of it referred to as nicotinamide or nicotinic acid amide, but when used in skincare it’s most commonly referred to as niacinamide.
Niacinamide has an excellent reputation within skincare, and for good reason. It’s a bit of a wonder ingredient: it can do almost anything. It’s often used to combat the signs of aging, as it can increase skin brightness and elasticity while reducing wrinkles and fine lines, but it has also been used to fight everything from acne to eczema—and it’s even been suggested that it might prevent some skin cancers.
Exactly how niacinamide works its magic is something that scientists are still trying to figure out. One major theory is that niacinamide can stop—and even repair—damage done to the skin by free radicals.
You might have heard the term ‘free radicals’ before, because it gets mentioned around skin care a lot. Magazines and television ads warn us about the free radicals on our skin, but don’t always say a lot about what they are, what causes them, or how exactly skin care products and medications can fix them.
So here comes the science: free radicals are atoms or molecules that have an uneven number of electrons. Electrons normally like to exist in pairs, so when a free radical emerges it will seek out other atoms and molecules to steal an electron from so it can even itself up. Free radicals are sometimes created by the body as it goes through its normal metabolic processes, but they can also be generated in larger amounts by outside sources like cigarette smoke, pollution, chemicals, and the sun.
When we have an excess of free radicals our skin can experience oxidative stress. Oxidative stress occurs when the free radicals start taking electrons from our healthy cells to restore their balance. This damages the cells, and speeds up the aging process exponentially. It has been suggested that part of the reason niacinamide is so effective at reducing the appearance of aged skin is because it’s an antioxidant: that is, a chemical that can donate an extra electron to free radicals without becoming a free radical itself.
That’s not all niacinamide can do, though. It can boost the outermost, protective layer of our skin by increasing production of ceramides and lipids, improve skin elasticity and reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing collagen production, and decrease blotchiness, hyperpigmentation, redness of the skin, and sallowness of the skin. It can also directly combat acne by reducing sebum production, and retain skin moisture while reducing oiliness. No wonder it has such a good reputation!
Niacinamide is right for anyone who has acne, aging skin, dull skin, dry skin, or oily skin. So, basically everyone!
Topical niacinamide has very few side effects and skin irritation after usage is rare, which means it’s an excellent choice for people who have sensitive skin. It’s also highly compatible with many other medications, ingredients, and skincare products.
One study showed that applying a moisturiser containing niacinamide prior to treating skin with topical tretinoin reduced irritation (when compared to a moisturiser that did not contain niacinamide). Niacinamide and azelaic acid are so compatible that they’re regularly combined even in over-the-counter products, and niacinamide can also be a great bacterial acne treatment for people who are unable to take antibiotics like clindamycin.
Of course, as with every medication and skincare ingredient, negative reactions are possible—but in the case of niacinamide, very unlikely. If you have particularly sensitive skin you can try using niacinamide every other day and building up to daily usage. You can also try using a product with a lower concentration of niacinamide: some products have up to 10% niacinamide, but 2—5% will also be effective.
Topical niacinamide is applied to the face the same way you’d apply any other lotion. While it’s true that niacinamide can decrease things like oiliness and dryness while increasing skin moisture, you’ll still want to make niacinamide a part of your skincare routine rather than the only step.
Start by washing your hands to make sure they’re clean, and apply a cleanser then a toner. Hypo-allergenic, non-comedogenic, and oil-free products are best, as they will reduce the chance of a negative reaction with your skin, help prevent comedones (clogged pores), and won’t add any oil to your face!
After your cleanser and toner, you can use the niacinamide. You won’t need heaps—a dollop of product about the size of a five-cent piece should be plenty, unless you’ve been recommended otherwise by a doctor or dermatologist. Note that you should apply niacinamide to your entire face, not just where you notice acne or fine wrinkles. Just make sure you avoid the sensitive skin of your eyelids and lips.
Last, you’ll need to apply a moisturiser. If you have oilier skin, you can choose a lighter moisturiser like a gel or a serum, and if you have drier skin you can go for a cream or lotion moisturiser. If it’s the beginning of the day, don’t forget to top all of this off with sunscreen that provides at least SPF30+ protection.
Oral niacinamide will be taken in tablet form. Taking more niacinamide more often won’t accelerate its effects, so you should follow the instructions given by your doctor or dermatologist about how frequently to take oral niacinamide.
Niacinamide takes between eight to twelve weeks to really show an effect, but you might start to see changes in your skin within a week or two of beginning treatment. Over time you can notice a decrease in oil (sebum) production which can help decrease acne, a decrease in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, an increase in skin brightness, some pore shrinkage, and a reduction in skin redness and sallowness.
Niacinamide can do a lot for the skin, but it’s not a ‘set and forget’ ingredient. It needs to be used regularly to make sure you can achieve and maintain the kind of skin you want. Once you start to see the effects of niacinamide, take it as confirmation that it works and keep using it to make sure it keeps working!
You might also choose to keep using niacinamide, in a lower concentration, once your desired skin effect is achieved. There’s no limit on how long you can keep using niacinamide—this is an ingredient you can plan to keep in your skincare routine for months and even years. Just make sure to keep up regular usage, and watch your skin shine!