Is Niacinamide Everything It’s Cracked Up to Be?
Decoding the latest “miracle ingredient”
by Katherine Lalancette
Hyaluronic acid, retinol and vitamin C have all had their turn in the sun. Now, it’s niacinamide’s time to shine. “It’s kind of an underrepresented ingredient, says Dermalogica skin therapist Maicy Dizon. “Companies and people are starting to understand the benefits of it.” And those benefits are said to be manifold. Niacinamide is purported to lock in moisture and regulate sebum, banish pimples and fade dark spots. “I personally like to call it my ‘everything ingredient,’” says Dizon. But is it too good to be true? Here, we break down everything you need to know about skincare’s latest star.
What is niacinamide?
“It’s a form of vitamin B3, which is niacin,” explains Dr. Lisa Kellett of Toronto’s DLK on Avenue. The antioxidant, which can also go by the name of nicotinamide, is water-soluble and often found in serums, though you can spot it in moisturizers, eye creams and a host of other things, too.
What does it do for skin?
According to many, the question is what doesn’t it do? Niacinamide gets top billing in products addressing everything from dryness to acne to hyperpigmentation. The thing is “there isn’t a huge amount of data on it in terms of evidence-based medicine,” says Kellett. Let’s go through the specifics, shall we?
Does niacinamide help with acne?
It has been shown to regulate sebum and reduce acne, but a 2017 review of previous studies stated “additional studies are needed comparing nicotinamide to other first-line acne treatments and evaluating the efficacy and side effect profile of nicotinamide over an extended period of time.” That’s why Kellett says “there are better things for acne,” namely tried and true ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.
But those can be quite drying, which is why Dizon often recommends using them in conjunction with niacinamide, which is less irritating. “Anyone who’s acneic is usually using very stripping ingredients and products, so I find it’s a nice gentle accompaniment for someone who’s got a routine that has more of those astringents or stronger active ingredients in it.” Dermalogica’s AGE Bright Clearing Serum, for example, blends salicylic acid with niacinamide.
Does niacinamide help with moisture?
“It’s thought that niacinamide might help to increase the production of ceramides, which are very important to the lipid barrier of the skin,” says Kellett. That barrier is what allows our skin to hold on to moisture, making it key to combatting dryness. But again, “we need more studies to ascertain that,” she says.
Can niacinamide help with inflammation?
Niacinamide has indeed been found to have anti-inflammatory properties, including when taken as an oral treatment. “Anyone who has super-sensitive skin, it really helps to calm down some of the redness,” says Dizon. However, it may have the opposite effect when used in high concentrations. Thus, you might want to proceed with caution if you have rosacea or dermatitis, says Kellett. Also, make sure not to confuse niacin with niacinamide, as the former can actually lead to flushing.
Does niacinamide help with hyperpigmentation?
“It helps to promote skin healing, so it’s good for anyone who has damaged or broken skin,” says Dizon, adding that this makes it particularly helpful for reducing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. “There are a ton of people out there who whenever they get a pimple, there’s always going to be some kind of a scar that’s left over because of it.” The idea is that by promoting healing and curbing inflammation, which triggers the production of pigment, niacinamide can alleviate acne scarring.
The evidence supporting niacinamide’s effects on hyperpigmentation is unfortunately limited. One 2011 study found that a 4 per cent niacinamide treatment was less effective than 4 per cent hydroquinone (an ingredient only available by prescription in Canada) for treating melasma, but was accompanied with fewer side-effects. Kellett’s take? “There are other things that you can use for hyperpigmentation that are more effective.” She recommends things like azelaic acid, kojic acid or arbutin, depending on the underlying cause. Dizon also says, “You can’t go wrong with vitamin C when you’re concerned about pigmentation.”
Can you combine niacinamide with other actives?
“It’s a pretty forgiving ingredient,” says Dizon. However, make sure to check what else is in the bottle. “If you’re using a vitamin C and your serum with niacinamide has another ingredient in it, say salicylic acid, you don’t want to be mixing those two ingredients together because you risk irritation.”
It has also been claimed that niacinamide can help make potentially irritating ingredients like retinol more tolerable. “The question is, ‘Is it actually just the base that’s doing that?’” says Kellett, noting that niacinamide is often used with a humectant.
What’s the verdict?
Kellett gives it to us straight: “If your problem is acne, niacinamide isn’t bad for acne, but there are better things. If you want an antioxidant, vitamin C is a more powerful antioxidant. If you want something for pigment, niacinamide isn’t bad, but there are things that are better. It’s been touted as the be all and end all and it’s not.”
However, niacinamide can be used instead of these more powerful ingredients if your skin has trouble tolerating them, since it’s gentler. “The thing is, though, it’s not as effective,” says Kellett. “It’s a trade-off.”
If you’re thinking about incorporating a new ingredient into your skincare regimen, it’s a good idea to speak with an expert first. “Clients will often self-diagnose themselves,” says Dizon, noting that she can’t even count the number of times clients have told her they put anti-dandruff shampoo on their face because they thought they had fungal acne. “It’s definitely reassuring to look for those answers on the internet, I totally get that. Dr. Google is super popular! But it’s always better to get a professional opinion.” Kellett agrees: “In general, I always tell people, ‘Get a proper diagnosis and management plan, and treat the issue appropriately.’”
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