Everything You Need to Know about Hyaluronic Acid



Skincare junkies know that certain acids can help whisk away dead skin cells from the face, such as alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids. But what about hyaluronic acid? Although it has “acid” in its name and sounds like it could destroy dead skin cells, this skincare hero ingredient doesn’t belong in the same category as skin exfoliators. Hyaluronic acid occurs naturally in the body and is a super hydrator. Here’s a closer look at what exactly is hyaluronic acid, where to find it, and should it be incorporated into your skincare routine?

Related: Best Hyaluronic Acid Serums

What is Hyaluronic Acid?

Hyaluronic acid is technically known as glycosaminoglycan, and is a molecule composed partly of sugars. It is a clear, gooey substance that is produced in the body. HA gives eyeballs their round shape and also helps to lubricate joints. It is found in connective tissue, heart valves, umbilical cords and lungs. According to the National Institutes of Health, hyaluronic acid is most abundant in the skin, accounting for 50% of the total body’s amount of HA. It is also critical for maintaining skin moisture. In a 2012 paper by Eleni Papakonstantinou,  Michael Roth,  and George Karakiulakis, published in NCBI, the authors note “The key molecule involved in skin moisture is hyaluronan or hyaluronic acid (HA), a glycosaminoglycan (GAG) with a unique capacity to bind and retain water molecules.”

Why Is Hyaluronic Acid Important For the Skin?

Our bodies naturally produce HA, and it’s what keeps skin soft and supple. But due to aging and environmental aggressors, our bodies produce less HA as time goes by. Prolonged sun exposure, diet, smoking and pollution can also contribute to a decline in HA levels. When hyaluronic acid levels dip, the skin can look and feel drier and older. Fine lines are more noticeable and skin can also look dull. Skin’s texture may also look uneven when hyaluronic acid levels are low. When hyaluronic acid levels are high (or added to the skin thanks to a product), the skin can look dewy, plumped up and glowing.

What Are the Benefits of Hyaluronic Acid?

What makes hyaluronic acid an all-around beauty all-star is that it can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. Put another way, one gram of HA can hold up to six liters of water, which is an astonishing feat.

 But there’s more to hyaluronic acid. It is also a humectant, which means that it attracts moisture to the skin – so think of it as a sponge or a moisture magnet. HA helps skin cells retain water and regulate the levels of moisture. This means that when you apply a skincare product with HA, it can help keep skin continuously hydrated, all day long.  Applying products with HA to the skin help it look temporarily plumped up and feel smooth.

 As the dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse told Allure magazine, “Hyaluronic acid is a sugar molecule that occurs naturally in the skin, [and] it helps to bind water to collagen, trapping it in the skin, so that skin can appear plumper, dewier, and more hydrated. Basically, hyaluronic acid increases hydration in the skin, which can keep your skin looking fresh, full, and bouncy.

But that’s not all that HA can do. Hyaluronic acid may help with inflammation and wound healing.  It also has antibacterial properties and is an antioxidant, which means it may help protect against free radical damage.  Doctors are also studying HA to see if it can help with acid reflux and to prevent bone loss.

 Another benefit to HA is that it is lightweight and easily absorbed, so it tends to feel good on the skin and is ideal for layering under other products.

A 2019 article in Medical News Today cites two studies looking at the effects of hyaluronic acid. One study, “Efficacy of a New Topical Nano-hyaluronic Acid in Humans,” found that hyaluronic acid may improve skin elasticity and reduce skin roughness in 2–8 weeks. Medical News Today also cites a 2016 German study (“Anti-wrinkle creams with hyaluronic acid: how effective are they?”) where researchers compared the anti-aging effects of four different face creams containing hyaluronic acid. The researchers observed increased skin tightness and a 10–20% reduction in wrinkle depth in all 20 participants, according to Medical News Today.

Are All Hyaluronic Acids the Same?

Although plenty of skincare products contain hyaluronic acid, they are not all created equally. The key difference comes down to the molecular weight, which can vary. Some products are described as having “multiple molecular weights” of HA. Molecular weight matters because larger HA molecules sit on the skin’s surface, while the smaller ones can penetrate a little deeper. Is one better than the other? It depends. Larger molecules deliver a quick hydration boost and feel soothing, while smaller ones provide the longer lasting moisture. Many skincare products contain a combination of the two.

 Sometimes “hyaluronic acid” is listed as “sodium hyaluronate” on a product label. Sodium hyaluronate is a salt derived from HA that is more easily absorbed by the skin than HA. Some products will also list HA as being fragmented or encapsulated, or as “sodium hyaluronic cross polymer” which has a 3D molecular structure. As SkinCity explains, “The molecular structure consists of multiple molecular groups which are held tightly together, known as polymer. When the polymer enters the dermis, the skins’ enzymes break down the bond between the molecular structure, which makes it possible for the polymer to move freely and the skin is continuously filled with hyaluronic acid over a long period of time, which in turn gives a longer lasting moisturizing effect.”

Should I Add Hyaluronic Acid To My Skincare Routine?

If you want to hang on to your youthful glow (or try to reclaim it), it’s a good idea to add HA to your skincare routine. It is especially helpful for anyone concerned about dry skin and the combating signs of aging. A dose of HA spiked serum or moisturizer will help temporarily plump up the look of fine lines and wrinkles, leaving the face looking dewy. If your face is particularly dry, tight or itchy, it can provide instant relief and feel soothing.

 But even those with normal or oily skin can still benefit from a dose of HA. Oily skin needs to be properly hydrated and balanced, to help keep oil production in check. Hyaluronic acid is gentle enough to be used on acne prone skin and it won’t clog pores.

 HA does more than just make your face feel good.  As an antioxidant, hyaluronic acids helps defend the skin against UV damage, and may help support the skin’s healing and repair process. Another reason to love HA? It partners well with other ingredients, especially retinols which can be potentially irritating to the skin. Serums containing HA will often have other humectants such as glycerin, and are mostly water based.

Does Hyaluronic Acid Have Any Side Effects?

In general, hyaluronic acid suits all skin types and has no known side effects. Of course any product has the potential to cause irritation or a break out so it’s always a good idea to do a patch test first. Products containing HA are suited for all skin types, whether the skin is young, older, dry, oily, sensitive, combination or normal.

 It also works in all seasons. HA has a lightweight feel so it’s ideal for those with oily skin or anyone who wants to switch to lighter products in the summer. It won’t clog pores and can help soothe irritated skin which can also make it ideal for anyone with eczema or rosacea.

Sources: National Institutes of Health, NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), WebMD, Medical News Today.



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