Niacinamide- the “magic” behind fairness cream?

As the hunt for white skin continues especially in a country like India, where “pale, fair skin equates to beauty and better social status”, did you ever wonder what exactly does “fair and lovely” or “ponds white beauty” actually contain?

These fairness products contain a water soluble vitamin B3 called ”Niacinamide”. Like all vitamins, Vitamin B3 is required in small quantities for our body’s normal physiological process. Vitamin B3 is of two forms: nicotinic acid (used for lowering blood cholesterol) and niacinamide (biological form in skin care products).

This vitamin was first isolated by an Austrian chemist from nicotine following a complex process of oxidation with nitric acid. When this vitamin was fortified with flour (similar to fortification of salt with iodine- called iodised salt) in the US, they ran an ad saying “TOBACCO IN YOUR BREAD”. This was a misconception. We cannot get nicotine from consuming vitamin B3 rich food nor does tobacco contains vitamin.

I’ve mentioned in my previous blog post “The juicy story of vitamin C”, that the only indication for oral vitamin supplementation is for conditions or situations that causes a deficiency of the respective vitamin. We’ve learnt that vitamin C deficiency causes scurvy, deficiency of vitamin B3 causes a condition call “Pellagra” which is a multi system disease, and med students remember the symptoms of this disease as 4 D’s -diarrhoea, dermatitis, dementia and death. Since its deficiency causes dermatitis (inflammation of the skin), it means vitamin B3 plays an important role in our skin. Vitamin B3 is derived from food items such as salmon,tuna,pork,liver,chicken,whole wheat and peanuts. Pellagra was seen to be endemic in areas where the stable food is corn (maize), as viatmin B3 in corn is found in a bound form which is not available for absorption therefore these individuals were deficient in this vitamin. Individuals whose stable diet was rice (wheat contains niacinamide) were protected from this disease.Thus Vitamin B3 is also call Vitamin PP or PP factor which means Pellagra preventing factor.

Effect of niacinamide on the skin

On acne

Multiple well controlled studies of the benefits of niacinamide in treating acne are available . The percentage of niacinamide used in these studies are 2-4%. It has been shown to reduce the number of acne and also has a role in reducing sebum (oil) production. However, combination treatment is more efficacious for the treatment of acne.

On pigmentation

Niacinamide prevents the transfer of melanosomes (cellular structures containing the pigment melanin-responsible for our ski colour) from the melanocytes to the neighbouring keratinicytes. For this action, niacinamide is required at a higher concentration. A study comparing the effect of 4% hydroquinone (skin bleaching agent) to 4% niacinamide shows that hydroquinone is superior to niacinamide as a skin lightening ingredient. Niacinamide also takes a longer time (3-4 weeks later than hydroquinone) in reduction of skin pigmentation. Creams such as “fair and lovely”, “ponds white beauty” and more use niacinamide in their products as a skin whitening agent.

It is important to note that, the a certain percentage of niacinamide is required for the “whitening” effect. Most companies fail to mention the percentage of concentration of niacinamide in their products. Also as these are cosmetics, the companies manufacturing them do not need to prove the efficacy of the product (which means they do not have to prove the product does what it claims).

Anti ageing

It has been shown in laboratory studies that niacinamide can increase production of collagen (structural framework of our skin). This together with its photo-protective action (protection from damages induced by UV rays), can slow down the process of photoageing. With ageing and chronic unprotected sun exposure, a process call glycation of proteins occurs in the skin, which causes the production of stiff and rigid collagen and elastin. This is reflected in the skin as a change in the natural complexion and loss of elasticity of the skin. The skin appears yellow and less supple. Niacinamide has been shown to prevent this process from occurring thereby slowing the process of ageing.

Barrier repair

This is by far the most useful property of niacinamide. It increases the production of proteins, fatty acids in the skin which is responsible for providing a natural moisturising effect as well as restore the damages skin barrier. Therefore its moisturising and anti inflammatory effect is particularly useful for patients with atopic eczema, rosacea, dry skin.

When to incorporate niacinamide to your skin care?

Niacinamide is the perfect skin care ingredient for dry, dehydrated skin, or for patients with eczemas, or highly sensitive skin not tolerating other ingredients.

As for acne, niacinamide alone may not be very ideal. This in combination with other active ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide, adapalene will prove to be more beneficial.

As a skin lightening, niacinamide can potentiate the effects of other active components that also work to reduce skin pigmentation. Topical application of a combination of niacinamide with N-acetylglucosamine (NAG) has been shown be to significantly effective in reducing pigmentation. However niacinamide monotherapy for this indication is unlikely to be effective.

As an anti ageing ingredient, niacinamide (4-5%) have also been shown in clinical studies to reduce the appearance of fine lines, sunspots, red blotchiness and sallowness (yellowish discolouration) of the skin. As niacinamide does not irritate the skin, it is suitable for vulnerable areas such as peri-orbital region (around the eyes) where other active agents such as retinoid may prove to be to harsh.

Cosmetic companies opt for niacinamide as the active agent for their “skin lightening” products as niacinamide unlike other vitamins like Vitamin C, is easier to formulate. It is a stable compound, not pH dependent, penetrates the layers of the skin easily and rarely causes any side effects.

Products that actually mention the % of niacinamide

LaRoche Posay lipikar gel fluid

LRP a reputed skin care line made in France have multiple products containing niacinamide. They use a combination of 4% niacinamide along with glycerine, ceramides (fatty acid present in skin for moistursing and barrier effect).

The ordinary niacinamide serum

The ordinary 10% niacinamide + 1% zinc serum. Zinc and niacinamide works together to reduce sebum (oil) production and reduces inflammation which is responsible for the development of red acne bumps- papules, pustules in acne patients.

Cereve facial moisturisng cream

Cereve facial moisturisng cream also contains 4% niacinamide + hyaluronic acid (molecule responsible for retaining moisture in the skin) + ceramides

Skin ceuticals metacell renewal B3

Skin ceuticals founded in 1994 by dermatologist and scientist Dr Sheldon Pinnel in U.S.A. Ever since the company has been producing high end evidenced based skin care products. Their metacell renewal B3 serum conatains 5% niacinamide + tripeptides +15% pure glycerine tackles early signs of ageing, dry skin and discoloration.

Common products that contain niacinamide but fail to mention the concentration.

Fair and Lovely

Fair and lovely is the number 1 fairness cream in the world. Sold under Uniliver, a company that first used niacinamide as a skin lightening agent in creams in 1971. The brand launched in India in 1975 and ever since has grown to a net worth of $200 million dollars. The brand is known for its controversial advertisement strategies, portraying darker skin individuals struggling in society until fair and lovely rescues them with a “whiter” skin tone. Like I mentioned earlier, being a cosmetic brand, the company does not need to prove the efficacy of the product. The instant gratification with this cream is due to the presence of titanium dioxide (a physical sunscreen) which gives a whitish coat on application to the skin. As to weather this cream really does what it claims, my research on this is based solely on user’s review and failed to find a definite YES or NO to this question.

Ponds white beauty

Another common fairness cream available in India. Also contains niacinamide without a mention of the percentage it contains.

Is niacinamide a magic ingredient for skin lightening?

Niacinamide can reduce pigmentation and even out skin tone. It is not as effective as hydroquinone ( holy grail ingredient for skin ligthtening), but since its has various other benefits to the skin, is relatively free of side effects and is well tolerated , niacinamide is a great ingredient if formulated at the correct concentration and in a correct vehicle.

If the aim is to reduce pigmentation and achieve a more even skin tone gradually, niacinamide plus a sunscreen along with ingredients such as glycolic acid, or retinioids can act as a “magic” ingredient that potentiate the effect of the other active components and also minimise the side effects of using glycolic acid & retinoids.

If you’re expecting blemish free and whiter skin overnight with just niacinamide as an active ingredient, that I can assure will not be a magical experience.