What is niacinamide?
If you’ve heard of niacinamide, it is likely you’ve heard of vitamin B3. Vitamin B3 is often referred to as niacin, however vitamin B3 is actually a group of vitamins consisting of three forms. Those being, niacin (nicotinic acid), niacinamide (nicotinamide), and nicotinamide riboside. Whilst nicotinamide riboside is out of scope for this article, niacinamide and niacin are very relevant to the topic of cosmeceuticals.
There are two potential forms of vitamin B3 that can be found in cosmeceuticals, those being niacin and niacinamide. As seen below, the two differ in structure slightly (highlighted in red). Despite their different structure, both niacin and niacinamide are identical in their vitamin activity. However, due to their different functionalities (shown in red) they have different side-effects and mechanisms of action. Niacin has an advantage over niacinamide due to its drug-mediated effect on skin as a result of its ability to interact with nicotinic acid receptors present in the skin. However, topical use of niacin results in vasodilation, causing skin flushing. This undesirable side effect is not present if niacinamide is used topically. As a result, niacinamide is more commonly used in skincare products and there is more research on the anti-aging effects and mechanisms of topical niacinamide.
What does niacinamide do?
Niacinamide has been shown to behave as an antioxidant, improve epidermal barrier function, decrease skin hyperpigmentation, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, amongst other things. Read on to find out how this powerful little molecule can achieve all of these anti-ageing effects!
Reactive oxygen species (ROS) encourage both chronological ageing and photoageing of the skin. Antioxidants work to scavenge these ROS that result from oxidative cell metabolism (along with other processes). With age, the antioxidant capacity of the skin decreases and thus ageing of the skin happens at an increased rate.
Niacinamide is a vital component of two important coenzymes (and their reduced forms), namely nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP+). These coenzymes are involved in many cellular biochemical reactions in the human body. In addition, NADPH (the reduced form of NADP+) has powerful anti-oxidative properties and can protect cells from destruction by ROS; NADPH serves as a donor for a large majority of ROS-detoxifying enzymes.
Unfortunately, the levels of NADPH in the skin decrease with age. However, Oblong et al. found that supplementation of human dermal fibroblast cultures with niacinamide increased intracellular concentrations of NADPH.
Improvement of epidermal barrier function
Niacinamide has the ability to improve the function of the epidermal barrier through up-regulating epidermal ceramide synthesis. The stratum corneum (the outer layer of the epidermis) acts as a barrier to prevent unwanted substances from entering and also to prevent excessive loss of water from the skin. So why is the up-regulation of ceramides relevant?
The stratum corneum (SC) is composed of lipids (predominantly ceramides), amongst other things. The depletion or disturbance of the major lipids in the SC (due to genetic predisposition, soap, dry air and age) is thought to be one of the factors producing dryness and barrier disruption in skin conditions. The loss of SC lipids may be associated with eczema and dry skin in general.
Tanno et al. showed that niacinamide could induce up to a 5-fold up-regulation in ceramide synthesis in cultured human epidermal keratinocytes. Tanno and co-workers demonstrated that these in-vitro results had clinical significance in-vivo; topical application of 2% niacinamide to dry lower legs induced a significant increase in SC ceramide and free fatty acid lipids.
Skin hyperpigmentation reduction
Topical application of niacinamide has been shown to decrease hyperpigmentation. Although the specific mechanism by which this occurs is not known, it is thought that it works by inhibiting melanosome transfer from melanocytes to keratinocytes.
Tanno and co-workers found that when 5% niacinamide was applied exclusively to only one side of the face for 8 weeks, there was a significant lightening of hyperpigmentation on the niacinamide-treated side versus the other side where none was applied.
Fine line and wrinkle reduction
Oblong and co-workers found that dermal fibroblasts from an aged donor secreted significantly less collagen than those from a young donor. It was found that supplementation of the aged cell culture with niacinamide produced a 54% increase in collagen secreted, compared to a vehicle control.
More on collagen and its role in the formation of fine lines and wrinkles can be found here.
Our niacinamide top picks
Affiliate Disclosure: I receive a small commission for purchases made via affiliate links.
A cheap and cheerful favourite – this 10% niacinamide serum is also formulated with hyaluronic acid to ensure skin stays hydrated.
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% Serum
Another budget-friendly serum is the 10% niacinamide serum by The Ordinary, also containing 1% zinc (as zinc PCA) to help those with acne-prone skin due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Paula’s Choice CLINICAL 20% Niacinamide serum
This serum contains an unprecedented concentration of niacinamide – in a consumer study 81% of people agreed that this serum improved their overall skin tone. Other key ingredients include liquorice extract (for anti-oxidant benefits) and vitamin C (for fine lines and hyperpigmentation).
For those with skin slightly more on the sensitive side, this glossier serum might be a suitable option, containing only 5% niacinamide. This serum also contains zinc PCA.
La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3
This 0.3% retinol serum also contains niacinamide, so if you’re looking for an extra potent anti-ageing serum here it is!
Levin, J., & Momin, S. B. (2010). How much do we really know about our favorite cosmeceutical ingredients?. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 3(2), 22–41.
Boo, Y. C. (2021). Mechanistic basis and clinical evidence for the applications of nicotinamide (niacinamide) to control skin aging and pigmentation. Antioxidants, 10(8), 1315.
Woźniacka, A., Sysa-Jedrzejowska, A., Adamus, J., & Gebicki, J. (2003). Topical application of NADH for the treatment of rosacea and contact dermatitis. Clinical and experimental dermatology, 28(1), 61–63.
Oblong, J.E., Bissett, D.L., Ritter, J.L., Kurtz, K.K., and Schnicker, M.S., »Niacinamide stimulates collagen synthesis from human dermal fibroblasts and differentiation marker in normal human epidermal keratinocytes: Potential of niacinamide to normalize aged skin cells to correct homeostatic balance, 59th Annual Meeting American Academy of Dermatology, Washington, 2001.
Fernandez-Marcos, P. J., & Nóbrega-Pereira, S. (2016). NADPH: new oxygen for the ROS theory of aging. Oncotarget, 7(32), 50814.
Tanno, O., Yukiko, O., Kitamura, N., and Inoue, S., Effects of niacinamide on ceramide biosynthesis and differentiation of cultured human keratinocytes, 3rd ASCS Conference, Taipei, Taiwan, 1997.
Philips, N., Chalensouk-Khaosaat, J., & Gonzalez, S. (2018). Simulation of the Elastin and Fibrillin in Non-Irradiated or UVA Radiated Fibroblasts, and Direct Inhibition of Elastase or Matrix Metalloptoteinases Activity by Nicotinamide or Its Derivatives. Journal of Cosmetic Science, 69(1), 47-56.