Hyaluronic acid is renowned for its ability to hydrate skin. But if you don’t use it right, you could end up with even drier skin than before. Here’s everything you need to know about adding hyaluronic acid to your everyday skin care routine. Whether it’s a tried-and-true skin care regimen, how often you wash your hair, or the cosmetics you’re curious about, beauty is personal.
What is it?
Hyaluronic acid is a large molecule produced naturally by your body. “Almost half of the body’s hyaluronic acid is found in skin,” says board certified dermatologist Fayne Frey, MD. But it can also be found in bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and lips. It can “hold 1,000 times its weight in water,” explains cosmetic chemist Vanessa Thomas, adding that it binds to water molecules to retain moisture in the skin and joints. As humans age, their natural levels of hyaluronic acid begin to deplete. So people turn to skin care products containing the acid for an extra boost.
What does it do?
“Hyaluronic acid acts as a cushion for our joints, nerves, and skin,” says Thomas. But it’s mainly known for its skin-related benefits. “In skin care products, hyaluronic acid is used as a humectant — a substance that helps the skin hold onto water,” says Frey. Frey adds that it “helps hydrate the outer layers of skin, thereby improving the skin’s appearance.” Skin that’s hydrated is touted as being more radiant and youthful-looking. But hyaluronic acid can’t permanently turn back the clock. Frey says the claims that it’s “the key to the fountain of youth” are “marketing hype.” “Science has yet to find a single ingredient, molecule, or product that can reverse or slow the aging process,” explains Frey. As well as improving the look and feel of skin, hyaluronic acid has a number of other uses. It assists with the wound healing and skin repair process and can act as an antioxidant to protect skin from damaging molecules called free radicals.
Can it cause any side effects?
The word “acid” may frighten some people, but there’s little need to be worried about this skin care ingredient. As hyaluronic acid is a normal part of skin, Frey says it’s very rare to have an allergic reaction to it. If you do experience side effects, these may be the result of other ingredients in the products you’re using or how often you’re applying them. Or it could be the result of using a too-high concentration of hyaluronic acid. It’s recommended to steer clear of anything above 2% to avoid irritation or dryness. And you should patch test any new product before slathering it all over your face. If you experience any kind of adverse effect, reach out to a dermatologist or other healthcare provider for advice.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t use it?
Hyaluronic acid is suitable for all skin types — even those who have sensitive skin or are prone to breakouts. It’s also safe to apply the acid to your skin if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Dermatologists can provide personalized advice and product recommendations for your skin type or concern.
Are all hyaluronic products created equal?
Look around the current skin care scene, and you’ll find hyaluronic acid in everything from serums and moisturizers to oral supplements and injectables. But not all products contain the same amount of hyaluronic acid, or produce the same effects. Some feature the acid — or its sodium salt, sodium hyaluronate — as the star ingredient. They include a higher acid concentration because their main aim is to provide hydrating or anti-aging benefits. Others include a smaller amount that acts as a humectant to help a different purpose — whether it’s battling acne breakouts or evening skin tone. You may also notice various molecular weights on serum and cream labels. “Hyaluronic acid comes in different sizes,” explains board certified dermatologist Rina Allawh, MD, who practices in Philadelphia. “Each molecule is assigned a molecular weight, which inversely relates to how deep the molecule can penetrate the skin,” says Allawh. The lower the molecular weight, the deeper the molecules can go. “A high molecular weight hyaluronic acid is more likely to create a film on the skin surface rather than penetrate deeper into the skin,” adds Allawh. It’s therefore less likely to have a lasting effect compared to a lower molecular weight acid. And, as Thomas points out, “substances with larger molecules often have trouble showing results.” After testing numerous hyaluronic acid weights, researchers found low molecular weight formulations were “associated with significant reduction of wrinkle depth, which may be due to better penetration abilities.” But Frey notes that methods to prove the deep penetration of hyaluronic acid doesn’t exist to support the claims of skin care manufacturers who say their formula contains low molecular weight acid. Instead, hyaluronic acid is often injected into the skin to improve deeper signs of aging. These fillers produce more effective anti-aging results than topical products, but they do come with possible side effects, like bruising and swelling.
What ingredients should you look for in a product?
When searching for a good hyaluronic acid product, there are a few things to remember. First, says Thomas, that hyaluronic acid is best used in any product that aims to moisturize. Don’t forget it may be listed as sodium hyaluronate — a version that tends to be cheaper but is of a smaller molecule size. Second, you should avoid anything with harsh ingredients like alcohol and fragrance or anything with a high acid concentration. “The majority of over-the-counter (OTC) cosmetic creams, lotions, and serums are water-based and contain less than 2% hyaluronic acid,” explains Frey. “Moisturizers with too-high humectant levels can actually result in an increase in water loss from the skin,” says Frey. “Here is a perfect example where ‘more isn’t always better.'” And third, any decent moisturizer must be able to stop water leaving the skin and evaporating into the air. As Frey says, “the most effective moisturizers also contain ingredients called occlusives” that do just that. Butters like shea and cocoa, oils like avocado, and beeswax are all examples of occlusive ingredients. Look for complementary ingredients in your hyaluronic acid products, too. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can help combat dryness and protect skin against environmental damage. Vitamin B5, meanwhile, is used to further soften and smooth skin.
What products should you consider?
While most hyaluronic acid products are suitable for all skin types, some are formulated with specific concerns in mind. Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost Hydrating Serum is a good option for those with oily or acne-prone skin. Allawh recommends it, saying it “boosts skin hydration, improving the elasticity and cohesion of the skin barrier.” Crucially, it doesn’t leave behind “an unwanted greasy or oily residue.” If your skin is particularly dry, look to The Ordinary’s Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5. According to the brand, it contains hyaluronic acid in low, medium, and high molecular weights together with vitamin B5 for intense hydration. And people with combination skin should try Cetaphil’s Daily Hydration Lotion with Hyaluronic Acid. A lightweight formula, this moisturizer will work to relieve dry areas without adding extra oil to the skin. SkinCeuticals’ Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier is a highly-rated serum that aims to improve skin’s texture, while The Ordinary’s Lactic Acid 5% + HA will gently exfoliate skin to help reduce hyperpigmentation. There are plenty of products that work to reduce the appearance of fine lines, too. Try L’Oreal Paris’ Revitalift Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum or Paula’s Choice’s Hyaluronic Acid Booster for firmer and plumper skin.
How do you add it to your routine?
Well, it depends on the kind of product you’re using. Moisturizers and serums are two of the most common forms of hyaluronic acid. Use a moisturizer infused with hyaluronic acid at the time when you’d usually moisturize. Ideally, this would be twice a day and always after cleansing, exfoliating, or applying serums. But if you’re using a hyaluronic acid serum, your routine will be a little different. After cleansing, and while your skin is still damp, press a couple of drops into your face with the palms of your hands. Don’t forget to apply a moisturizer immediately afterwards to seal in all that hydration. Thankfully, hyaluronic acid works well with pretty much any skin care product, including retinol, vitamin C, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). So, you don’t need to worry about reworking the rest of your routine.
How often can you use it?
It’s always best to follow specific product instructions and to start off slowly. Generally, though, hyaluronic acid is safe to use both morning and night.
When can you expect results?
All products are formulated differently, so result times can vary. As topical hyaluronic acid products tend to produce temporary effects, you should be able to notice plumper, more hydrated skin within a few minutes. But if you’re looking to reduce the appearance of fine lines and other signs of aging, you may have to wait a couple of months to see a difference.
The bottom line
To keep your skin looking and feeling its best, you need to hydrate it. And hyaluronic acid is one of the simplest ways to do just that. Easy to use, a low chance of side effects, and available in a range of product formats: This really is a skin care ingredient that works for everyone.