Read the Label: All Your Hyaluronic Acid Questions Answered
Feel like you need a dictionary every time you look at the ingredient list of a beauty product? Still unsure of the difference between retinol and retinoids? What about the unique benefits of vitamins B, C, and E? Are alpha and beta hydroxy acids the same thing? The skincare aisle can be overwhelming, but you don’t need a PhD in cosmetic chemistry to navigate it. With expert help, The AEDITION is demystifying and simplifying the beauty industry — one label at a time.
All of your friends might be talking about it, and it’s popping up on beauty labels everywhere: it is hyaluronic acid (HA). Also known as hyaluronan, this ingredient can help solve many of your hydrating, plumping, and moisturizing woes. And while it might feel counterintuitive to put acid on your face, don’t let the name elicit any frightening thoughts. This acid belongs in your skincare regimen. The AEDITION spoke to a few skincare insiders to get the skinny on HA – how it works, when to use it, and what truly makes it oh, so magical.
What is Hyaluronic Acid?
“HA is a molecule called a humectant, whose main job is to lure water to wherever it resides, essentially beckoning hydration via an osmotic effect,” explains board certified Nikhil Dhingra, MD, of Spring Street Dermatology in NYC. Technically a molecule that your body already naturally produces in the eyes, skin, and joints to help with lubrication, it’s something that the body slows producing over time. As the production decreases, a supplemental man-made alternative can be useful. “Man-made HA used in medicine, supplements, and cosmetics is sourced from rooster combs or is made in the laboratory through the use of bacteria,” explains Kan Cao, Ph.D., scientist, and founder of Bluelene.
What Does Hyaluronic Acid Do?
“Hyaluronic acid holds in water (many times its weight) and by pulling water into the skin, the skin becomes plump and hydrated,” says New York-based board certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD. It holds 1,000-times its weight in water, which helps replenish the skin and make HA a moisturizing heavyweight.
Because it replenishes moisture in the skin, HA is good for just about anyone, anywhere, at any time. “Because it is a natural part of the body, it is a component when looking for joint pain or dry eye relief,” explains Sejal Shah, MD, a New York City-based board certified dermatologist
But the benefits of hyaluronic acid go beyond hydration. As the skin’s collagen production slows, HA can have an age-defying effect. “Half of the body's HA is present in the skin, where it binds to water to help retain moisture,” Dr. Cao says. “It plays a role in skin cellular interaction and supports the synthesis of collagen.”
The Differences Between Injectable, Topical, and Supplemental Hyaluronic Acid
Hyaluronic acid comes in a variety forms, but, just because it's so versatile, doesn't mean that each iteration of HA is created equal. Here’s what the experts have to say about what sets topical, injectable, and supplemental hyaluronic acid apart.
Topical Hyaluronic Acid: Dr. Rabach explains that a topical HA must be micronized (i.e. made into a small-size molecule), so that it can penetrate the skin and pull in and retain moisture. “Topical HAs work by pulling moisture into the skin and plumping it,” she shares. Hyaluronic acid has become such a popular topical ingredient that you can find it in many drugstore products. This hydrator works particularly well in a serum or sheet mask due to its low molecular weight.
Injectable Hyaluronic Acid: “Injectable HA can vary greatly in heartiness, thickness, and hydrophilicity,” Dr. Dhingra says. “Some products, like Restylane® Silk, are incredibly lightweight and lure copious amounts of water in the 48 hours after injection, while others tend to be thicker with low capacity for hydration.” Dermal fillers such as Juvederm®, Puragen®, and Hylaform® contain HA are just a few that contain HA, making them a favorite with dermatologists when doing ‘tweakments.’ “Injectable HA is a gel-form that is injected directly into the dermis,” Dr. Rabach shares. “The gel acts alone to plump up fine lines and restore volume. It also, secondarily, pulls in some water to the area.” HA-based fillers are a good option for those with more visible fine lines or loss of volume in the face and want an immediate youthful boost.
Supplemental Hyaluronic Acid: Though it is available for consumption, hyaluronic acid in supplement form might not be as beneficial as topical and injectable counterparts. “Oral supplements that purport to hydrate by ingested hyaluronic acid don’t have much valid science behind them,” Dr. Dhingra warns. “They are not something I recommend.”
When To Use Hyaluronic Acid
According to dermatologists, the best time to start implementing HA into your regimen is when your skin needs more moisture – i.e. yesterday. With aging, busy schedules, and at times low intakes of water, there’s no better time to start than now, no matter your age. “In our twenties we start to lose HA in the dermis,” Dr. Rabach explains. And Dr. Dhingra agrees, citing that his clientele ranges in age. “I have young teenagers using it all the way up to my most mature patients,” he says. Long story short, you do not have to have dry or aging skin to use it.
It should, however, be combined with a moisturizer for best results. Why a moisturizer, you might ask? “Moisturizers need two properties to work well: humectant abilities (like HA) and a tendency to occlude moisture into the skin (think petroleum, glycerin, and dimethicone among other things),” Dr. Dhingra shares. “If you’re implementing an HA into your routine, layer it underneath a lotion or cream.”
It should come as no surprise that HA makes an ideal travel companion. Dr. Dhingra recommends taking an HA-based product with you on the go. “One of my favorite skincare secrets is that everyone should pack a serum into their carry-on bag before boarding a flight,” he explains. His reasoning? “The minute that cabin humidity drops, hyaluronic acid on the skin will draw water from inside your body, leaving you feeling hydrated and looking your dewy best,” he says.
Who is Hyaluronic Acid Best For?
Whether your skin's surface is oily, dry, sensitive, combination, or somewhere-in-between, HA is for you. It’s helpful for those in their teens with acne-prone skin, those in their 20s dealing with changes in their skin's moisture, and is also very beneficial for those 30 and above for plumping skin while smoothing fine lines. File HA under: ingredients that don’t discriminate.
Dr. Dhingra does point out that certain people might need hyaluronic acid products a little more than others. “My favorite type of patient to recommend HA-based products to are those for whom lightweight lotions are insufficient for moisturizing but thicker creams can break them out. HA is such a great addition to a lotion-based routine, it can be a game-changer in terms of minimizing tightness and dryness,” he informs. So even those with sensitive skin can feel good about treating their skin to some moisture-locking products. Who else does Dr. Dhingra recommend it for? “Skin that feels tight, looks red and puffy, and tends to peel can truly benefit from HA-based products.”
How To Use Hyaluronic Acid
Looking for a boost of HA but not ready for filler? Finding HA is as easy as going to the drugstore because brands are adding it to everything from serums and masks to body wash. Olay recently launched a vitamin B3 and hyaluronic acid-infused body wash to give the whole body a hit of hydration. Because the skin is the body’s largest organ, it’s no wonder that HA is often utilized in other skincare products and falls high on the beauty product hierarchy.
“The critical thing is that, in the absence of occlusive ingredients, HA-attracted water is going to evaporate in a snap if the environment is right,” Dr. Dhingra explains. As a result, locking in the ingredient with a moisturizer is key. “This can be as simple as using a vitamin C or a retinol-based cream on top of an HA,” he says.
Keep in mind, however, that your location might factor into your hyaluronic acid usage. “If you are in a dry environment, try applying to slightly damp skin and then sealing it with a moisturizer,” Dr. Shah shares. “I recommend starting once a day and using it up to twice a day.”
And, at the end of the day, a good skincare regimen requires a well-balanced diet to complement it. “At Bluelene, we believe in supporting the body's natural rhythm with a good diet that includes leafy vegetables, fruits, and lean meats and a skincare routine that builds cellular health,” Dr. Cao says. Ultimately, pairing a nutritious diet with quality skincare products and sunscreen is the best formula for great skin.
If you want your skin to look younger, more hydrated, and replenished (who doesn't?), hyaluronic acid is a no-brainer. From boosting hydration to reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, HA can just about do it all.