Niacinamide sounds like a beauty brand’s chemistry-lab invention (just us?), but the increasingly popular skin-care ingredient is actually just a form of vitamin B3. Niacinamide benefits on the other hand? Not so ordinary: They include potentially improving all kinds of skin concerns, from acne to hyperpigmentation to signs of aging.
You might see niacinamide pop up in a topical product and in supplement form (we’ll explain the differences between the two and any potential side effects below) and wonder which one to choose. Or maybe you already grabbed a product with niacinamide off the Sephora shelf without 100% certainty of its potential perks. If you aren’t quite sure what niacinamide is or what it’s doing in your moisturizer, you’re not alone. Here’s what you should know about niacinamide benefits—and how to use niacinamide—before adding it to your skin-care routine.
What is niacinamide?
Niacinamide, which is also called nicotinamide, is a form of vitamin B3 (niacin) found in supplements, skin-care products, and food. “Vitamin B3 is an antioxidant which is important for cell repair,” Snehal Amin, MD, board-certified dermatologist of MDCS Dermatology and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Weill-Cornell Medical College, tells SELF. Vitamin B3 in general is found in a variety of dietary sources, including poultry, legumes, and eggs. As such, deficiencies aren’t common in the U.S., according to Dr. Amin.
And then there’s niacinamide, the vitamin B3 compound. It’s often touted to help manage acne, rosacea, pigmentation issues, and wrinkles. But is there any science behind those claims?
Scientists theorize that niacinamide may be effective in skin-care products because it’s a precursor to two super-important co-enzymes within your cells: nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+/NADH) and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP+). Both of these molecules are central to the chemical reactions that your cells—including skin cells—need to repair damage, reproduce, and function normally. Many of these essential reactions can’t occur at all without NAD+, which your cells can’t make without niacinamide.1
By giving your body niacinamide, the theory is that it allows you to make more NAD+, John G. Zampella, MD, assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. NAD+ then fuels your cells to proliferate and also allows your body to absorb and neutralize more free radicals (unstable molecules that can damage cells).
In other (less confusing) words, the ability to potentially help your body create more NAD+ and, therefore, repair damage is thought to be the root of niacinamide’s potential skin-care benefits in both topical and even potentially supplement form. There’s also evidence that topical niacinamide can increase the production of ceramides (lipids that help maintain the skin’s protective barrier), which may contribute to its topical effects on wrinkles, fine lines, and the skin’s moisture barrier.2 All of this is probably why you’re seeing niacinamide listed in a bunch of skin-care products.
What does niacinamide do for your skin?
If niacinamide is involved in most important cell functions, then there’s nothing it can’t cure, right? Well, no—if every cellular process in our bodies could be perfected with vitamin supplements, we wouldn’t need antibiotics or radiation therapy. That said, oral and topical niacinamide may have some actual benefits for skin health:
Skin cancer prevention:
Ask a dermatologist what niacinamide does best, and the very first niacinamide benefit they’ll list is probably “skin cancer prevention.” In a 2015 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers gave 386 patients 500 mg of oral niacinamide or a placebo twice daily for a whole year. All of the participants had at least two non-melanoma skin cancers within the previous five years and, therefore, were at a high risk for developing another skin cancer. Results showed that during the study, there were 23% fewer new cases of skin cancer in the group that received niacinamide (336 cancers) compared to those who got the placebo (463 cancers).3
Both Dr. Zampella and Laura Ferris, MD, PhD, associate professor in the department of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh, told SELF they frequently suggest oral niacinamide to their patients with a high risk for non-melanoma skin cancers, and cited this study as the reason why.
This doesn’t mean that two niacinamide capsules a day (which is what participants took in the study) will stave off skin cancer forever, though. The study focused on people who had experienced skin cancer before—not the general public. And it doesn’t tell us anything about using niacinamide to help prevent melanoma skin cancers (and the research we do have suggests it’s more helpful for preventing squamous cell carcinoma).4 But if you’ve had multiple non-melanoma skin cancers in your life, you should ask your dermatologist about oral niacinamide.