Hyaluronic Acid: How It Can Naturally Hydrate Your Skin

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Hyaluronic acid is a common ingredient in skincare products. It's used chiefly in moisturizing creams, lotions, and serums because of its ability to hydrate and plump the skin. Hyaluronic acid is also used in injectable dermal fillers to help eliminate wrinkles and add volume to the face and lips.

Hyaluronic acid is a glycosaminoglycan (GAG) that occurs naturally in the skin, connective tissue, eyes, and joints. It is also called hyaluronan or HA. Learn more about the benefits of adding this ingredient to your skincare routine.

Benefits of hyaluronic acid
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell.

Definition

Hyaluronic acid is an incredibly popular and common ingredient in skincare and cosmeceutical products. Because it has "acid" in its name, it's often mistaken for an exfoliating ingredient, much like salicylic acid or glycolic acid. However, hyaluronic acid has little in common with alpha hydroxy or beta hydroxy acids such as these.

Hyaluronic acid is naturally found in the skin, connective tissues, eyes, and joints. It helps give structure to the skin, repairs tissue, and lubricates the joints.

The highest amount of hyaluronic acid in the body is found in the skin. It's a major component of the extracellular matrix, which is the gel-like material that surrounds your skin cells. The more well-known proteins collagen and elastin also are part of this material, as well as other glycosaminoglycans (a family of polysaccharides, or carbohydrates, of which hyaluronic acid is a part).

Hyaluronic acid isn't just a substance to encircle your skin cells. It's vital in keeping the skin hydrated. Hyaluronic acid attracts water from within the dermis and moves it along to the skin surface, the epidermis. Hyaluronic acid and other glycosaminoglycans also play a role in skin elasticity and tone, cell metabolism, regeneration, and healing.

As you age, hyaluronic acid levels in the skin naturally taper off. Your skin doesn't manufacture it as effectively as it used to. That is partly why the skin becomes thinner and drier as you get older. Hyaluronic acid levels in the skin begin a steep decline after age 40.

Benefits

Hyaluronic acid is often credited as anti-aging, but this isn't entirely accurate. It's more accurately described as a skin-hydrating.

Hyaluronic acid is a macromolecule, meaning HA molecules are large in terms of molecular size. Its molecules are too large to effectively be absorbed into the skin. Topically applied hyaluronic acid isn't going to increase your skin's natural stores of HA.

In fact, hyaluronic acid isn't going to penetrate the skin much at all—it's not going to have a huge impact on aging. That's not to say that it doesn't have an effect on your skin. It does have plenty of benefits, as do over-the-counter (OTC) topical hyaluronic acid products.

Ultimate Hydration

Hyaluronic acid's claim to fame is its ability to improve the skin's hydration levels. Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning it draws water to it and helps the skin to hold onto water.

Amazingly, hyaluronic acid can hold up to 1,000 times its own weight in water.

Apply a topical hyaluronic acid product and it will help pull moisture from the deeper layers of the skin to infuse the top layers of the skin with moisture. If you live in a humid area, it can also help pull water from the air into your skin.

Hyaluronic acid products also help reduce trans-epidermal water loss. This is another way of saying that it helps keep the water in your skin, rather than letting it evaporate out into the air.

Smooth and Radiant Skin

Although HA won't erase fine lines and wrinkles, the extra moisture does help plump the skin which makes those lines look smoother. Also, those crinkly-looking fine lines common around your eyes and lips are often signs of dry or dehydrated skin. Highly moisturized skin looks less crinkly and dewier.

Works on All Skin Types

Hyaluronic acid increases moisture levels in the skin without adding oil. On its own, HA is not an oily-feeling ingredient whatsoever. It's quite light, so it can be incorporated into non-greasy products that feel lovely on oily-prone skin.

Skin Protectant

Some research shows that hyaluronic acid may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, even when applied topically. Hyaluronic acid can promote regeneration of the skin and help it to heal. Moisturizers that contain HA are often recommended after a chemical peel or laser treatment because of this.

Rejuvenates the Face

Topical hyaluronic acid may not reverse superficial signs of aging, but the injectable forms of hyaluronic acid can. Hyaluronic acid can be injected directly into the skin to help fill deep lines and wrinkles. It also is used to recontour the face, adding a youthful fullness back to the cheeks or to fill out the lips.

Another benefit of injecting hyaluronic acid is that it stimulates the skin to produce more collagen on its own, so it can have lasting anti-aging benefits.

Choosing a Product

Hyaluronic acid is incredibly popular and can be found in a plethora of skin care products from cleansers and facial masks to makeup.

If you're looking to get the hydrating benefits of hyaluronic acid, it's best to choose a moisturizing cream, lotion, or serum. These moisturizing products are a great way to deliver hyaluronic acid to the skin, hydrate, help your skin feel better, and (at least temporarily) look more plump and youthful.

Look for hyaluronic acid or sodium hyaluronate on your skin care product's ingredient label.

Sodium hyaluronate is closely related to hyaluronic acid. It's a salt that is derived from HA. The biggest difference between the two is that sodium hyaluronate absorbs into the skin much more readily than hyaluronic acid does.

Ideally, you'll want 1 percent or higher of hyaluronic acid in your skin care product. Any less, and it's not likely to have much benefit for your skin. If your product doesn't show the percentage of HA, at least make sure it's fairly high on the ingredients list rather than the last one listed.

Most hyaluronic acid moisturizing products will be used twice daily, morning and night. Be sure to check the directions on your particular product and follow those instructions carefully.

Now that you've got your HA product, how do you incorporate it into your skincare routine? Apply hyaluronic serums after cleansing (and toning, if you use a toner). Moisturizers go over the top. During the day, your SPF will be your last skincare step.

Most people notice a difference in how their skin feels immediately after applying a hyaluronic acid product. However, just like with any skin care product, it takes several weeks of use before you see the full benefits of the product.

Dermal Fillers

If you're looking for even bigger results, injectable dermal fillers are the way to go. Dermal fillers—sometimes called liquid facelifts—give instantaneous results. Hyaluronic acid is one of the most popular dermal fillers because it is tolerated incredibly well. After all, it is a natural component of the skin, so the risk of a bad reaction is very low.

Juvederm and Restalyne are common dermal fillers that use hyaluronic acid derivatives. A fine needle is used to inject hyaluronic acid into areas you'd like treated. The whole process takes less than an hour, generally. While not entirely comfortable, it's not a painful procedure. A numbing agent can be used to ease discomfort.

The drawback, as with all dermal fillers, is that the results aren't permanent. The skin will eventually absorb the hyaluronic acid. In order to keep the skin or lips plumped, or keep those wrinkles at bay, you will need to have the treatment repeated.

Typically HA fillers last between 6 to 18 months. Hyaluronic acid fillers can be done at the dermatologist or plastic surgeon's office.

Possible Side Effects

Hyaluronic acid is a very safe ingredient, either when used topically or as a dermal filler. It's very gentle on the skin. The ingredient itself isn't likely to cause any type of issue. Still, it's important to take care as you would using any new skin care product.

If you have any type of irritation, or if the product burns or stings when you apply it, rinse it off immediately and stop using the product.

Give your doctor a call if the irritation doesn't go away after a few days.

For some people, topical products containing hyaluronic acid do the exact opposite of what the intended use is, making their skin feel drier. If this happens, make sure you're using a separate moisturizing cream (if you're using a hyaluronic acid serum only) to seal in moisture with emollient ingredients.

In any case, you may also try a different product brand. Sometimes it's not the hyaluronic acid that's giving your skin fits, but rather, it may be another ingredient in that particular product.

Dermal fillers using hyaluronic acid are also very safe but can cause redness, bruising, pain, and, in rare cases, infection. The physician performing your treatment will fill you in on all possible side effects and how to best avoid them.

A Word From Verywell

Hyaluronic acid is a commonly used humectant ingredient in skin care products. Your current "plumping" or "smoothing" moisturizer product may already even contain hyaluronic acid. You can safely incorporate hyaluronic acid with nearly any skincare product you're currently using. Just be sure to check with your dermatologist if you're under any specific treatments.

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