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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.
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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:
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.
“Hyaluronic acid acts as a cushion for our joints, nerves, and skin,” Thomas says.
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 on to water,” Frey says.
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,” Frey explains.
As well as improving the look and feel of your skin (at any age), hyaluronic acid has a number of other uses. For example, it can:
- assist with wound healing
- help repair damaged skin
- act as an antioxidant to protect skin from damaging molecules called free radicals
The word “acid” may frighten some people, but you don’t need to worry about this skin care ingredient.
As hyaluronic acid is a natural part of skin, Frey says allergic reactions to it are rare.
If you do experience side effects, these may happen because of:
- other ingredients in the products you use
- how often you apply them
- a too-high concentration of hyaluronic acid
Steer clear of anything above 2 percent to avoid irritation or dryness.
Of course, it never hurts to 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 professional for advice.
Hyaluronic acid can work for people with any skin type — 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 nursing.
Dermatologists can provide personalized advice and product recommendations for your skin type or concern.
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.
Different acid concentrations
Some products feature the acid — or its salt form, sodium hyaluronate — as the star ingredient. They include a higher acid concentration because their main aim is to provide hydration and pro-aging support.
Others include a smaller amount that acts as a humectant to help with a different purpose, from treating acne breakouts to evening skin tone.
Different molecular weights
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,” Allawh says. 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,” Allawh adds.
In other words, its effect may not last as long as that of a lower molecular weight acid. And, as Thomas points out, “substances with larger molecules often have trouble showing results.”
Some dermatologists may also inject hyaluronic acid directly into your skin to smooth wrinkles and generally hydrate and rejuvenate your skin.
These fillers produce more effective aging support than topical products, but they do come with possible side effects, like bruising and swelling.
When searching for a good hyaluronic acid product, it can help to keep a few things in mind.
First, Thomas says, know that hyaluronic acid is best used in products that aim to moisturize.
Don’t forget that it may be listed as sodium hyaluronate — a version that tends to be cheaper but is of a smaller molecule size.
Second, 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 percent hyaluronic acid,” Frey explains.
“Moisturizers with too-high humectant levels can actually result in an increase in water loss from the skin. 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.
Occlusive ingredients include:
- butters like shea and cocoa
- oils like avocado
- beeswax and carnauba wax
- lanolin and stearic acids
Look for complementary ingredients in your hyaluronic acid products, too:
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can help fix dryness and protect skin against environmental damage.
- Vitamin B5, meanwhile, is used to further soften and smooth skin.
While most hyaluronic acid products are suitable for all skin types, some are formulated with specific concerns in mind.
- For oily or acne-prone skin: Allawh recommends Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hydrating Serum, saying it boosts skin hydration, improving the elasticity and cohesion of the skin barrier without a greasy or oily residue.
- For drier skin: Consider The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5, which contains hyaluronic acid in low, medium, and high molecular weights together with vitamin B5 for intense hydration.
- For combination skin: Consider Cetaphil Daily Hydrating Lotion with Hyaluronic Acid, a lightweight formula that can help relieve dry areas without adding extra oil to your skin.
- To reduce the appearance of fine lines: Try L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum or Paula’s Choice Hyaluronic Acid Booster for firmer and plumper skin.
- To help reduce hyperpigmentation: Consider The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2% for gentle exfoliation.
- To help improve skin texture: Try SkinCeuticals Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier to smooth and hydrate skin.
Well, it depends on the kind of product you’re using.
Moisturizers and serums are two of the most common forms of hyaluronic acid.
- Moisturizers. Use a moisturizer infused with hyaluronic acid at the time when you’d usually moisturize. Ideally, this would be 2 times a day and always after cleansing, exfoliating, or applying serums.
- Serums. A hyaluronic acid serum involves a slightly different routine. 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 afterward to seal in all that hydration.
Hyaluronic acid works well with most common skin care ingredients, including:
- vitamin C
- alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
- beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)
So, you don’t need to worry about reworking the rest of your routine.
It’s always best to follow specific product instructions and to start off slowly.
Generally, though, you can safely use hyaluronic acid both morning and night.
All products are formulated differently, so result times can vary.
As topical hyaluronic acid products tend to produce temporary effects, you may start 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.
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 can work for anyone.
Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.