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Last updated April 4, 2020. 7 minute read

Niacinamide for acne: benefits and possible side effects

Niacinamide may improve the appearance of your skin by treating sun damage, preventing breakouts, and improving fine lines and wrinkles. The concentration of topical niacinamide products goes up to 10%, but studies have shown effects with as low as 2%.

Linnea Zielinski Written by Linnea Zielinski
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

Strengthening your understanding of vitamins can feel a bit like studying the dictionary. You’ll need a bit of rote memorization, especially since individual vitamins, like words, can serve different purposes. And then there’s vitamin B. Vitamin B is a group of vitamins, similar to vitamin D and vitamin K. But unlike those other two, learning about vitamin B can feel like studying the thesaurus: you learn the purpose of each, but you’ll also need to learn the different names that mean almost the same thing⁠—and the number of these names can feel dizzying. Niacinamide is the perfect example because this vitamin is a form of vitamin B3.

But it actually gets a little more complicated from there, because niacin is also a form of vitamin B3. It’s like learning the relationship between the words “young” and “green.” They can both be used to explain age, but “green” can also add another layer to the meaning and indicate that a person is naive. Similarly, niacin (also called nicotinic acid) and niacinamide (also called nicotinamide) are both essential to maintain healthy cells and for fats and sugars to function properly in your body. But niacin can help lower cholesterol levels, whereas niacinamide does not. Niacinamide is also specifically used in skincare products due to its long list of benefits for your skin.

Vitals

  • Niacinamide, also called nicotinamide, is one form of vitamin B3.
  • Since the skin easily absorbs it, niacinamide is an effective topical treatment.
  • Niacinamide may improve the appearance of your skin by treating sun damage, preventing breakouts, and improving fine lines and wrinkles.
  • The concentration of topical niacinamide products goes up to 10%, but studies have shown effects with as low as 2%.

You can get both niacinamide and niacin from foods such as eggs, milk, beans, fish, and green vegetables. But you don’t need to get niacinamide directly from food sources. Your body can also use excess niacin to create this vitamin or convert tryptophan (an amino acid) into niacinamide. In addition to seeking out food sources of this vitamin, you can also reach for topical applications. Both niacinamide and niacin are used in some over-the-counter skincare products⁠—there are plenty of good reasons for it⁠—as well as some prescription products.

Benefits of niacinamide

As we mentioned, there are plenty of reasons niacinamide shows up in skincare products. It’s essentially a Swiss Army knife for skin conditions, from wrinkles and fine lines to acne and redness, and improving the appearance of skin. Even better, this B vitamin easily penetrates the skin, which means it can effectively be used as a topical skin-care ingredient (Berson, 2014).

May build lipid barrier and lock moisture into skin

Our epidermis, or skin barrier, serves multiple functions, from keeping out sources of infection (such as viruses and bacteria) to preventing water loss in order to help you stay hydrated. Applying niacinamide topically may help stabilize all the functions of this outer protective layer by helping your skin grow a ceramide (lipid) barrier. This lipid barrier, in turn, helps prevent the loss of water so that your skin can better retain the moisture it needs (Gehring, 2004).

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May regulate oil and may help prevent acne

Sebum, or oil, is produced by the sebaceous glands concentrated on your face, neck, upper chest, and back. Topical 2% niacinamide was found in one study to lower sebum excretion rate in Japanese individuals and casual sebum levels (day-to-day baseline levels not under specific conditions that may temporarily increase production) in Caucasians (Draelos, 2006). Excess oil can cause acne, so niacinamide’s ability to regulate oil production may help prevent breakouts, especially in people with oily skin.

May protect from environmental damage

Sources of environmental damage such as ultraviolet (UV) radiation and pollution damages your skin by causing the production of compounds called reactive oxygen species (ROS). Your skin has some antioxidant functions that protect against this damage, but topical niacinamide can offer additional protection and help counter the formation of ROS (Pullar, 2017; Zhen, 2019).

May help treat sun damage

But even if you already have sun-damaged skin, niacinamide may be able to help. This form of vitamin B3 may be able to help prevent UV-induced immunosuppression. Researchers believe this vitamin may also be able to help prevent skin cancer through its protective action on skin cells. This belief is based on past studies that have looked at the effect of topical niacinamide on actinic keratosis (also called solar keratosis), the most common skin precancer that looks like rough, scaly patches on the skin and that result from years of sun exposure (Berson, 2014; Actinic Keratosis, 2019). But note that this is not a replacement for regular sunscreen use.

May help minimize pore appearance

To be clear from the start, a lot of factors affect the size of your pores. Skin elasticity around pores, hair follicle volume, recurrent acne, skincare regimen, and sex hormones all factor into the appearance of your pores. But so does how much sebum your skin makes (Lee, 2016). Since topical niacinamide may reduce the amount of sebum your skin produces, it’s possible that it may also have a beneficial effect on the look of your pores, but to date, no studies have specifically looked at the effects of niacinamide directly on the appearance of pores.

May minimize redness

Topical niacinamide also has anti-inflammatory effects on the skin. This may help lessen the redness caused by inflammatory acne, eczema, and skin irritants (Gehring, 2004).

May treat hyperpigmentation

Melasma is a common pigmentation disorder that causes dark spots that may be brown or gray to appear on the skin, although they’re most commonly seen on the face. In one small study, topical 4% niacinamide successfully reduced hyperpigmentation in participants with melasma after eight weeks. The improvement in pigment was considered “good to excellent” in 44% of the participants (Navarrete-Solís, 2011).

May treat acne

Although the effects of a diet high in niacinamide on acne and breakouts have yet to be explored, there is evidence that topical 4% niacinamide may help treat acne⁠—though it appears to be more effective on some forms of acne than others. Types of blemishes most affected by topical niacinamide include papular and pustular acne (Carraway, 2004).

May minimize fine lines and wrinkles

This form of vitamin B3 also has anti-aging activities when applied topically. Fine lines and wrinkles were diminished in one study that aimed to confirm some of the benefits of niacinamide found by previous clinical trials. The participants applied topical 5% niacinamide to half of their faces, to compare the changes in the appearance of skin, for 12 weeks (Bissett, 2004).

How to use niacinamide

You can, of course, seek out dietary sources of this form of vitamin B3, but niacinamide products applied topically may also be effective additions to your anti-aging skincare routine. Studies have observed benefits for the appearance of skin from topical products with concentrations between 2 and 5%, so look for products in this range. The right concentration for you may depend on your skin type.

There is a wide range of niacinamide products to choose from, including cleansers, moisturizers, eye creams, toners, and even niacinamide serums. Some products go as high as 10% concentration in this B vitamin. Side effects of topical niacinamide at 4% concentration were observed in one study in 18% of participants, but your sensitivity may vary (Navarrete-Solís, 2011).

Since niacinamide may initially cause some irritation, more on this in a second, it’s important that you use products with this ingredient as directed. If you have especially sensitive skin, it may be worth talking about how to best work these products into your routine with a dermatologist.

When will you see results?

Just because the people in studies have seen results doesn’t mean you’ll see the same on your skin, and it’s important to remember that heading into any new skincare routine. In some cases, skin type can affect results, and yours may differ from that of the participants in the study. But studies do give us clues as to how long it may take results to show up if they’re going to. Many clinical studies on niacinamide note changes after six to 12 weeks. But consistent use, as directed by these products, is also required.

Potential risks/side effects of niacinamide

High levels of niacinamide can increase serum histamine levels, which may cause an allergic reaction for people prone to skin allergies (Tian, 2013). If you’ve had skin allergies in the past, talk to your healthcare provider before beginning a regimen of this B vitamin topically or orally.

But even if you don’t suffer from skin allergies, you may experience some redness and irritation when you start using niacinamide products. Some of this may be normal and lessen over time, but lasting irritation may be a sign you’re using too much or a product with too high of a concentration of niacinamide for your skin type. Talk to your dermatologist if you notice irritation as they may be able to clarify what’s a normal transition period with your product and when you may need to consider a different product.