Find out what hyaluronic acid is, how to apply it and how it can benefit your complexion.
By Annie Hayes
Hyaluronic acid might sound like something out of a science lab, but experts maintain that it’s the secret to dewy, flawless skin. If you’re trying to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, achieve a glowing complexion, or are a huge fan of The Ordinary‘s products, chances are you might already be using it.
While hyaluronic acid sounds intimidating, it’s naturally produced by the cells in your skin to help retain moisture. Since environmental factors and the ageing process can tank your levels, hyaluronic acid has become an increasingly popular skincare ingredient, and it’s now found in everything from serums to face masks.
We spoke to Dr Mahsa Saleki, aesthetic doctor and founder of SAS Aesthetics, and Melody Carl, licensed aesthetician and skin expert at Renude, to find out what hyaluronic acid is, how it works, and what benefits it can bring to your skincare regime:
What is hyaluronic acid?
Hyaluronic acid, also known as hyaluronan, is a polysaccharide produced naturally by your body. Found in your skin and connective tissue, ‘its purpose is to help your body retain moisture by binding to water,’ says Carl. And we’re talking a lot of water. Hyaluronic acid can hold almost 1,000 times its weight in h2O.
This is what gives the clear, gel-like substance its impressive lubricating capabilities. ‘Hyaluronic acid is a hydrophilic molecule, which literally means ‘water-loving’,’ says Dr Saleki. ‘It’s this quality that serves its main function to absorb water and retain moisture in the skin, eyes and joints.’
What does hyaluronic acid do to your skin?
Hyaluronic acid hydrates your skin ‘by drawing in moisture from deep within the skin and from the environment,’ says Carl. Not only does it absorb and retain water, says Dr Saleki, but ‘it also stops the loss of water through evaporation. This will make the skin appear more supple, hydrated and glowing.’
Hyaluronic acid can be applied topically – in a serum, moisturiser or face mask, for example – or injected into the skin in the form of filler. It also comes in various ‘weights’, which refers to the size of the hyaluronic acid molecules, Carl explains. High molecular weight hyaluronic acid is larger, and so it sits on the surface of the skin.
Hyaluronic acid absorbs and retains water, making the skin appear more supple, hydrated and glowing.
‘The larger size is great for instant hydration, plumping, assisting in skin barrier repair and has anti-inflammatory properties,’ she says. ‘These large molecules weave together to protect the skin’s surface. This effect is temporary and the benefits get washed away when you cleanse your skin.’
By contrast, low molecular weight hyaluronic acid ‘is smaller and can be absorbed deeper into the skin,’ Carl continues. ‘It’s great for plumping and firming the skin and holding onto hydration internally. Lower molecular weight hyaluronic acid has lasting effects, due to the skin’s ability to hold on to hydration deep within the skin.’
How do I know if I need hyaluronic acid?
Hyaluronic acid is beneficial to all skin types, even oily skin. ‘When applied topically, it helps the skin hold onto hydration and supports the skin’s barrier function,’ says Carl. ‘Barrier function is important for every skin type – your barrier is what keeps your skin protected from the environment.’
Exposure to environmental stressors – pollution, for one – can decrease the amount of naturally-occurring hyaluronic acid in your skin, causing it to appear dull and feel tight, rough and sensitive. And as you age, the fibroblast cells in your body produce less and less, causing a drop in skin moisture that exacerbates the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
8 hyaluronic acid skincare benefits
When it comes to your skin health, hyaluronic acid brings a face-full of benefits:
- Hyaluronic acid attracts moisture
Hyaluronic acid helps replenish and hold water in your cells, resulting in fresh-looking, dewy and plump skin.
- Hyaluronic acid is fast-absorbing
When applied topically, hyaluronic acid quickly absorbs into the skin. As well as feeling an instant boost, you’ll waste less product and will find it easier to layer other skincare over the top.
- Hyaluronic acid improves elasticity
This keeps your skin looking and feeling firm, smooth and radiant. ‘Hyaluronic acid, along with other molecules released by fibroblast cells, are responsible for the skin’s elasticity and maintaining a strong scaffold,’ says Dr Saleki.
- Hyaluronic acid is gentle on skin
For the most part, hyaluronic acid is safe for use with all skin types and won’t irritate your skin – making it a useful skincare tool for even the most sensitive of faces.
- Hyaluronic acid promotes a youthful glow
When your skin is dehydrated, fine lines and wrinkles appear more severe. ‘By using topical or injectable hyaluronic acid, the skin will benefit from an anti-ageing and moisture-boosting effect, with minimised signs of fine lines and wrinkles,’ says Dr Saleki.
- Hyaluronic acid has antioxidant properties
As well as being a humectant – which means it preserves moisture – hyaluronic acid has antioxidant properties. This means it can protect your skin against free radicals, which can be found in the sun’s UV rays, pollution, cigarette smoke and other toxins.
- Hyaluronic acid is versatile
There are plenty of different options for applying hyaluronic acid at every stage of your skincare regimen, from hydrating cleansers to brightening toners and potent moisturisers. Plus, it won’t interfere with any other skincare products you’re using.
- Hyaluronic acid can speed up wound-healing
Applying hyaluronic acid to skin wounds helps them heal faster – it regulates inflammation and instructs your body to build blood vessels in the damaged area. It also has antibacterial properties.
Is hyaluronic acid safe?
Hyaluronic acid is considered to be safe to use every day. ‘In fact, it’s encouraged for its anti-ageing benefits and ability to hydrate the skin,’ says Carl. Unlike other skincare supplements that contain the word ‘acid’, hyaluronic acid doesn’t exfoliate the skin, but deeply hydrates.
For the most part, incorporating hyaluronic acid into your daily skincare regimen is a no-brainer. However, there is a caveat. ‘Because it pulls in moisture from the deeper layer of the skin and the environment, if your skin is very dry and your environment is dry – think winter time or arid climates – it can actually make your skin drier,’ warns Carl.
If this describes your skin condition or local climate, ‘be mindful of how your skin feels while using hyaluronic acid every day,’ she suggests. ‘You may only be able to use it as a weekly treatment in your skin care routine. If this is the case for you, look for a weekly mask treatment that will hydrate and revitalise the skin’s surface.’
When should I use hyaluronic acid?
The most important thing to remember about applying hyaluronic acid – which might appear on the label of your skincare product as ‘HA’ – is that it needs to be followed by moisturiser to maximise its benefits. ‘The humectant properties of hyaluronic acid pull in moisture – if the moisture is not sealed in, it will evaporate and you will not reap the benefits of hydration and plumping,’ Carl explains.
The most important thing to remember is that hyaluronic acid needs to be followed by moisturiser to maximise its benefits.
However, when your hyaluronic acid is part of a moisturiser, you don’t need to add another moisturiser on top. ‘The emollient and humectant properties of moisturiser mixed in with the hyaluronic acid will deeply hydrate the skin and keep the hyaluronic acid in the skin where it’s needed,’ Carl says. But when using hyaluronic acid in a serum or toner, ‘apply moisturiser afterwards,’ she continues.
You can boost the hydrating effects of hyaluronic acid by either applying it to damp skin, or adding a few drops of water to hyaluronic acid-based serums, adds Dr Saleki. And unlike other serums and skincare ingredients, which can be too harsh to use frequently, you can apply hyaluronic acid both in the morning and at night if you wish.
Which hyaluronic acid product should I use?
Deciding to add hyaluronic acid to your skincare routine is one thing, picking a product is quite another. With mists, serums, moisturising creams and cleansers to name just a few, there are a huge array of hyaluronic acid-packed options to choose from.
To reap the most benefits, opt for a serum or cream (moisturiser) with a mix of high and low molecular weight hyaluronic acid. That way you’ll deliver a hydrating hit to the top layer of your skin for visible results, while plumping up the lower layer of your epidermis over time for long-term hydration.
Hyaluronic acid side effects
While hyaluronic acid is generally touted as a skin saviour, it ‘can cause irritation to very dry skin types when not used with a moisturiser straight afterwards,’says Carl. ‘The irritation can present itself as redness, inflammation and small breakouts.
‘Side effects like this can be remedied by a break from hyaluronic acid until the skin’s barrier is healed,’ she continues. ‘Hyaluronic acid can then be reintroduced into your skincare routine and always followed with an emollient moisturiser.’