In the skincare world, retinol has long worn the crown as the triple-threat ingredient that does it all. (It reduces the appearance of fine lines! Addresses acne! Evens skin tone!) But retinol’s not the only J.Lo of skin actives: there’s another skincare star with multi-hyphenate qualities that’s just starting to get its due. We’re talking about niacinamide skincare. Like Jennifer Lopez, it has its own street name: vitamin B3. With credits that include boosting skin barrier function, controlling sebum production and minimizing hyperpigmentation, niacinamide seems primed to benefit just about any skin concern.
But is beauty’s buzzy ingredient really the cure-all that it appears to be—and does it really belong in just about every formulation out there? We talked to dermatologists for tips on how and when to use it and the extent to which it can really deliver. (Trust us, there are caveats galore.) Here’s how it works.
“It is believed that niacinamide helps to improve skin barrier function by increasing ceramide production and stimulating epidermal cell turnover,” says Dr. Shereene Idriss, a New York-based dermatologist and clinical instructor in dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. What’s so important about optimizing our skin’s barrier? For one, healthy cell turnover and ceramide production can manifest as moisturized, bouncy skin. But a reinforced barrier can also mean skin is better equipped to defend itself against external irritants, like air-born chemicals, wind chapping and even viruses—which couldn’t feel more important these days.
What’s more, a fortified barrier may prevent excess UV radiation and reduce hyperpigmentation, notes Dr. S. Manjula Jegasothy, a cosmetic dermatologist in Miami and associate professor of dermatology at the University of Miami.
If your skin is dry, it can likely use a boost in the barrier department, too—and niacinamide can serve as a key ingredient for long-term repair. “Niacinamide is one of those ingredients that can help when incorporated amongst others in a dry skincare routine,” says Dr. Idriss. “Given that ceramide production doesn’t get regulated overnight, combining it with a ceramide-rich product can be a huge boost for both instant and long-term soothing effects.”
Dr. Idriss’s go-to, niacinamide pairings for dry skin? Proven moisturizers, such as colloidal oatmeal, glycerin, beta-thio glucan and ceramides in combination with cholesterol and free fatty acids. She suggests reaching for thick creams or overnight masks made with vitamin B3 to build the skin’s barrier and amplify bounce.
Fades Dark Spots
For countless skincare products, niacinamide is touted as a callout ingredient to help fade dark spots and Dr. Idriss credits the ingredient as able to “decrease hyperpigmentation by minimizing the transfer of melanin to keratinocytes.” Those with sensitized skin may prefer niacinamide to others known to cause irritation in some, like vitamin C, hydroquinone, kojic acid or retinoids.
According to Dr. Jegasothy, those with compromised skin barriers, (such as psoriasis, eczema or chronic skin disease) may also be best treated with niacinamide to fade dark spots because the ingredient works to build the keratin barrier in the skin. This smoothes the skin and helps it become less inflamed. “Niacinamide promotes keratin production, and as such, can play a vital role in any skincare routine by building up the skin’s natural defense barrier, making it more resistant to external irritants such as chemicals in the air and wind chapping,” she says.
But before going all-in on niacinamide as a treatment for hyperpigmentation, know this: those who don’t suffer from atopic dermatitis or sensitized skin, there might be better first-line treatments. According to Dr. Jegasothy, those include kojic acid, hydroquinone and arbutin. “There were a few reports in the medical literature showing patients who used very high-strength hydroquinone (we’re talking 10 or 20 percent), would experience irritation and would end up with more hyperpigmentation, particularly in darker-skinned patients,” she says. But the dermatologist calls these reports and controversy “murky,” adding, “I doubt any of this is correct when looking at concentrations below two to four percent.”
In short, forget what thousands of product labels say about niacinamide’s ability to thwart hyperpigmentation. Instead, try a consultation with your dermatologist to figure out which skincare actives are best suited to address hyperpigmentation in your own skin.
Minimizes Acne and Inflammation
While Dr. Jegasothy may be lukewarm about niacinamide as a treatment for hyperpigmentation, the dermatologist says the ingredient really shines in its ability to address acne and acne-related inflammation. “Probably, the most proven and effective use of niacinamide is in addressing acne,” she says.
In acne, a blocked pore is typically exacerbated by an overproduction of sebum, something that can cause more inflammation to a pore that’s already enlarged. “So anything that would reduce sebum in the pore is going to help sort of all facets of the acne papule formation,” says Dr. Jegasothy. When used in lower concentrations, niacinamide does just that. “Up to a certain percentage, niacinamide helps to control sebum production, which in turn minimizes acne formation and inflammation,” she adds. Dr. Idriss puts niacinamide’s efficacy sweet spot at between two and five percent. “Anything more may induce irritations, resulting in inflammation,” she says. As always, check with your derm if you have any increased irritatation.
Not All Is Created Equal
That brings us to one more caveat: not any old niacinamide formula will work to minimize inflammation and irritation. With a pH of between five and seven, niacinamide is not acidic. As Dr. Jegasothy points out, formulas that pair niacinamide with acids (like kojic, glycolic and salicylic acid) are primed to neutralize the niacinamide and turn it to niacin, which causes rosacea, flushing and redness in the skin.
“I’m afraid that’s why some people are saying bad things about niacinamide’s effects, because they’re using formulas that pair it with acids,” notes Dr. Jegasothy. Since products made for acneic skin commonly contain alpha and beta hydroxy acids, Jegasothy says it’s important to read labels and choose a niacinamide product that isn’t also loaded with acids. This doesn’t mean we have to bypass the inclusion of acids in our skincare sessions altogether; Jegasothy suggests using AHAs and BHAs in a separate product instead.
No matter what kind of skin concern you’re using niacinamide to address, the ingredient can be easily added to a skincare routine already rich in actives if your skin is generally tolerant to products, our pros say. “Niacinamide can be mixed with pretty much any active ranging from retinols, to vitamin C, AHAs/BHAs or even peptides. As long as your skin can handle it, you can mix it,” says Dr. Idriss. “If in doubt, then spread out its use and apply the niacinamide in the morning and your other active at night.”
Whether you’re in the market for a skincare solution for acne, hyperpigmentation, or dry skin, find 14 ways to do it with niacinamide, ahead.
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Cosmedix Surge Hyaluronic Acid Booster
It’s no accident this gel-cream makes us think of a pricey pressed juice. To start, the citrus and ginger extracts inside make the lightweight moisturizer smell as fresh as a superfood drink. But it’s also chock full of nutritiative ingredients: niacinamide addresses large pores; a cocktail of hyaluronic acids hydrate; and moringa extract (straight out of California’s Coachella Valley, no less) and papaya extract de-gunks pores and minimizes shine.
Farmacy Daily Greens Oil-Free Gel Moisturizer with Moringa and Papaya
This silky emulsion serum is designed to fade acne scars, redness and inflammation, thanks to niacinamide and an award- winning technology that stops the stimulation of melanocytes, making it a solid choice for oily and blemish-prone skin types.
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%
This no-nonsense serum is designed to balance runaway sebum production, (thanks to a generous 10 percent dose of niacinamide) and brighten skin, (thanks to 1 percent zinc), making it a solid and wallet-friendly choice for oily and blemish-prone skin types who don’t easily succumb to irritation.
First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Niacinamide Dark Spot Serum
Teeming with plant-derived ingredients, this serum contains pumpkin seed, avocado oils, prickly pear, hemp seed oil, guava papaya mimosa extracts. It’s a no-brainer for those who love vitamin-rich products that brighten (thanks to niacinamide and vitamin C) and neutralize free radicals.
Doctor Rogers Restore Face Cream
“This enhanced keratin production created by niacinamide may also reduce pore size, although this has yet to be proven in placebo-controlled studies,” says Dr. Jegasothy. This fragrance-free, no BS moisturizer puts that idea to the test. Made with niacinamide among its tight edit of ingredients—all geared to hydrate and soothe skin while addressing large pores and uneven tone—the rich cream left our complexion looking soft lit and absent of the slick shine that magnifies pores.
Shani Darden Skin Care Intensive Eye Renewal Cream with Firming Peptides
Even if this eye cream wasn’t loaded with peptides—which constrict blood vessels and therefore, reduces puffiness—and niacinamide, we’d still reach for this formula created by Hollywood’s go-to esthetician because it sinks into skin without irritating eyes or causing makeup to slide.
Aethera Beauty Sunset Botanical Rejuvenating Serum with Cannabis Sativa Seed Oil
What hyperpigmentation? This oil and fragrance-free serum uses a trifecta of melanocyte-suppressing ingredients (niacinamide, licorice root and kiwifruit) to fade residual acne marks and other forms of discoloration over time. But it also packs immediate rewards: the milky liquid melts into our skin without leaving a tacky residue in its wake.
Hero Cosmetics Lightning Wand
A Godsend for those with combination skin who want to address dark spots only and not the surrounding skin, this pen allows for precise application of proven melanocyte inhibitors including vitamin C, niacinamide and tranexamic acid.
The Inkey List Niacinamide Oil Control Serum
This gel serum is designed to fade acne scars and balance sebum without drying out the skin thanks to 10 percent niacinamide (and 1 percent hyaluronic acid), making it a great choice for oily and acne-prone skin that isn’t too sensitive.
Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops
This niacinamide jelly bills itself as a highlighting serum—and it does leave skin with a lit-up sheen that tricks people on Zoom into thinking we’ve found our best light. But it also quenches skin’s thirst (compliments of hyaluronic acid and glycerin) and addresses hyperpigmentation, too.
Cle Cosmetics Multi Cream
This ultrarich cream may smell like the desert (thanks to cedar, frankincense and palo santo essential oils and extracts), but it hydrates like a tall drink of water (thanks to niacinamide and hyaluronic acid), without leaving a greasy finish on skin.
Pop Beauty Lit AF Essence Skin Perfecting Essence
With an lineup of ingredients that includes yuzu extract, ginseng, squalane, green tea, peptides, caffeine, niacinamide and peptides, we’d expect this essence to ring in at $50 or more, but the hydrating multitasker costs less than a movie rental on Amazon.
Dermalogica PowerBright Dark Spot Serum
Made with niacinamide (to slow the delivery of melanin to the skin cells) and hexylresorcinol (a flower compound that slows the enzyme that triggers melanin production), this brightening serum tackles post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma, but without irritation. The brand says the formula can be used during pregnancy and by those with sensitized skin, unlike formulas containing more aggressive skin brighteners, like hydroquinone or alpha hydroxy acids.
It Cosmetics Hello Results Wrinkle-Reducing Daily Retinol Serum-in-Cream
Part serum, part moisturizer, this twofer features a double dose of retinol countered by soothing and hydrating vitamins (B3, B5 and E), making it gentle enough for daily use.