Does Your Skin Need Hyaluronic Acid?

Hyaluronic acid is the hottest ingredient in skincare right now—but how well does it actually work as a moisturizer and wrinkle-plumper?
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Michelle Villett
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Hyaluronic acid is the hottest ingredient in skincare right now—but how well does it actually work as a moisturizer and wrinkle-plumper?
Serum bottle and dropper

Beauty editors, skincare companies and anti-aging aficionados are having a serious love affair with hyaluronic acid lately. The stuff is everywhere: not just as the main ingredient in injectable fillers but also in topical serums, lotions, creams and masques; it's making its way into foundation, primer, blush and lipstick, too. Something that popular has gotta do amazing things for your skin—right?

Well, kind of. I've been dabbling with hyaluronic acid (or "HA" as the real skincare junkies call it) for a few years now with mixed results, and finally I figured out why. If you've been on the fence about it too, or are just curious about this so-called wonder ingredient, read on to find out what it does, how to use it—and if you even should.

What is hyaluronic acid?

Hyaluronic acid molecule structure

Time to get all sciencey up in here. First of all, hyaluronic acid (which also goes by the names hyaluronan or hyaluronate) is not an acid in the same sense as popular ones like salicylic or glycolic, which exfoliate away dead skin cells.

Hyaluronic acid doesn't do that at all. As a naturally-occurring polysaccharide found in the human body, it acts as a cushioning and lubrication agent for our joints, nerves, hair, skin and eyes.

It's particularly important to skin appearance because about 50 percent of the body's supply is located in the skin tissues, where the viscous, jelly-like substance helps keep it plump, soft and supple... for a while, at least. Our ability to produce hyaluronic acid declines with age (sob!), which can lead to increased dryness, fine lines, wrinkles and sagging. Ouchie.

So that's one reason why skincare and cosmetic enhancement companies are encouraging us to use their synthetically-derived hyaluronic acid products—they claim to help replenish our lost stores of it.

The other reason is hyaluronic acid molecules' unique ability to attract and retain more than 1,000 times their weight in water. One thousand! That's more than any other biological substance. What's not to love?

Why hyaluronic acid makes a great injectable filler

Hyaluronic acid injectable filler

I won't go into too much detail on hyaluronic acid as a dermal filler, but if that kind of thing is up your alley, there IS a lot to love about it. (And chances are, that's how you first heard about it, even if you haven't had it injected yourself.)

The popularity of HA in topical skincare definitely stems from its use in cosmetic procedures, where it has replaced collagen as the ingredient of choice for restoring lost volume. Popular fillers like Restylane and Juvéderm work like sponges once they're injected, swelling up with water to create a plumper look.

Over time—anywhere from three to 12 months—the hyaluronic acid gets absorbed by the body and disappears. This is longer than collagen lasts; HA is also less likely to produce a reaction, since the body does not recognize it as a foreign substance. If you're not happy with how it looks, an enzyme called hyaluronidase can disperse the HA even before it naturally dissolves.

There is also some evidence that hyaluronic acid stimulates collagen production.

Why hyaluronic acid makes a not-so-great anti-aging product

Woman applying skincare

It's a big misconception that hyaluronic acid is an anti-aging ingredient. It may be when it bypasses the epidermis with a needle, but when you apply it topically? It's not. It may hydrate fine lines to make them slightly less noticeable, but if we're talking about plumping the skin by stimulating collagen or replacing the HA you've lost, then unfortunately, nope—you're outta luck.

According to Dr. Leslie Baumann, author of The Skin Type Solution, hyaluronic acid molecules are simply TOO BIG to pass through the epidermis.

My own dermatologist, Dr. Nowell Solish, agrees—and went into even more detail in a Los Angeles Times article I recently stumbled across.

"When you apply it topically, the molecule is too big to get hyaluronic acid through the skin. So when we inject it to fill a wrinkle or line it works well. [But] when you put it on topically it's a misconception that it's all going into the skin. It forms a barrier on the skin and gives a soft moisturizing effect that makes skin smoother … but it doesn't eliminate wrinkles.

"My personal opinion is that [beauty companies] are using [hyaluronic acid] because the name is so popular with things like Restylane and Juvéderm. You can't get [collagen] through the skin either, but people knew collagen and they knew that it helped wrinkles and lines so companies used that to their advantage."

If you're seeking a great anti-aging ingredient, then you're better off trying the gold standard, Retin-A—see my series on WHY to use it, and then HOW to use it, to get started. Over-the-counter, retinol (I like SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0), retinaldehyde (like Avène TriAcnéal; reviewed here) or peptide products (try Indeed Labs Snoxin) are good choices, too.

What to know if you use hyaluronic acid as a moisturizer

Woman applying a serum

Topically, what hyaluronic acid does do is moisturize. Sorta. It's a humectant, which means it draws water to the skin and helps prevent moisture loss. But it's not, like, the most amazing moisturizing ingredient out there. According to the scientists over at The Beauty Brains:

"There is no evidence that topical use of Sodium Hyaluronate or Hyaluronic Acid will have any amazing moisturizing effect on your skin. No doubt it’s a good moisturizing ingredient. But there are much better products you could be using (and less expensive)!"

It's so true. For years, I'd heard hyaluronic acid was the bee's knees, so I was applying my SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel in hopes of getting more hydrated and dewier (if not more collagen-rich) skin.

So why the heck was it not really moisturizing—and in fact making my skin feel tighter and drier?

I just found out. Dr. Baumann warns:

"If you're using a moisturizer with hyaluronic acid, be careful. In very dry climates, this water-binding ingredient can't draw moisture from the environment, so it may actually start to pull moisture out of the deeper layers of your skin."

Whoa. So THAT explains why it wasn't working for me, especially in the dry air indoors during winter (when I, thinking I was being skin-smart, was layering it on religiously). Turns out, I was only making the situation worse.

It may also work better on some skin types (i.e. oily) than others (i.e. dry). This author lives in hot, humid Texas, but her skin still feels dry when she applies a hyaluronic acid serum without any moisturizer on top. I should also note that there are a few people in the comments there who had a reaction to HA. I've experienced that too (from this product, which was initially fine but now stings and gives me a rash/redness). So, just a warning: do a patch test or choose something more bland if you're especially reactive.

The right way to use hyaluronic acid

So don't get me wrong—hyaluronic acid is not a bad thing to use, IF it works for you and IF you've got the cash for it. There are certainly loads of people out there who love it. One great thing about HA is that it's super-light and watery, which is a great benefit for anyone with acne-prone skin who is averse to creamy/oily moisturizers.

The most potent topical form is in a serum—to be applied on clean, bare and ideally damp (or even wet) skin as the first step in your skincare regimen. (The wetness will help it trap and lock in the most water.) Two of the highest-concentration ones—which are too much for me—are the aforementioned SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel:

SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel

And Peter Thomas Roth VIZ-1000 75 percent Hyaluronic Acid Complex:

Peter Thomas Roth VIZ-1000 75 percent Hyaluronic Acid Complex

If they don't dry you out, you can wear these alone or underneath a moisturizer/SPF makeup.

If you want to be on the safe side and not risk a reaction and/or dryness, look for hyaluronic acid in a blend with other ingredients. Kiehl's new Super Multi-Corrective Cream is one such "all in one" product:

Kiehl's Super Multi-Corrective Cream

And so is Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair (which also contains retinol).

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Moisturizer Night

As for masques (masks?), I often use the incredible-smelling Rodial Dragon's Blood Hyaluronic Mask and it never dries out my skin:

Rodial Dragon's Blood Hyaluronic Mask

Hyaluronic acid in your makeup, I think can only be a bonus. It's non-greasy, so having it in there isn't going to affect the texture, but it's going to give you some extra hydration—excellent if you need it in your foundation or primer. In things like lipstick, I think it's more of a marketing tactic for longer-lasting moisture, as opposed to something that's actually going to plump up your lips.

A Few Hyaluronic Acid Alternatives

Looking for a decent moisturizer that isn't as expensive as HA? I've recommended Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer SPF 15 to friends for years as a great basic. For normal to oily or combination skin, also check out H2O Plus Face Oasis, which has a gel texture but is still quite moisturizing. Specifically in the serum category, this is not a budget product, but I can't get enough of my Consonant HydrExtreme... it feels as light as a hyaluronic acid serum, but never makes my skin feel tight or dry.

Let me know what you think?

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