Hyaluronic acid has been a big beauty buzzword for a minute now. It's listed as an ingredient in countless skincare products—serums, face masks, moisturizers, and even cleansers. Most people know that it's a hydrating molecule, one that has the power to transform dry, chapped skin into something suppler and smoother. What most people don't know, however, is the how and why. We have questions, like what about it makes hyaluronic acid such a superstar ingredient? Does it benefit the skin in any other ways, or is it purely there for moisturizing purposes? And maybe the biggest question of all: What exactly is hyaluronic acid anyway?
According to dermatologist Ted Lain, MD, hyaluronic acid is naturally produced in our bodies. It's responsible for several natural processes, meaning its reach extends far beyond your favorite skincare product. "Hyaluronic acid (HA) is an extremely versatile compound found in nearly all tissues of the body," he says. "It is located between the cells as part of the matrix that gives structure and support to tissue. In skin, the HA plays an important role in providing turgor and thickness to the dermis, the second layer where collagen is also found." In other words, without hyaluronic acid, our bodies and skin wouldn't function (or look) the same.
It Hydrates the Skin
Like we said before, this is how most people are familiar with hyaluronic acid. It's also the reason that it's included in so many dry skin–targeting skincare products. So even though you might think this benefit is obvious, it's worth repeating. According to dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, "It is an effective moisturizer because it can hold 1000x its weight in water, meaning it does wonders in hydration. When applied, it creates a barrier for the skin, locking in moisture and improving texture. Skin loses water and moisture as we age. This ingredient will help store hydration."
The way it hydrates so efficiently, without the use of heavy creams and oils, means it's perfect for people who are prone to breakouts or oiliness. That's also why it's a perfect summer skincare ingredient. It's able to attract moisture to the skin without other ingredients that may clog pores or create an excessive surface sheen. Engelman recommends using Revision Skincare Hydrating Serum since it has hyaluronic acid along with watermelon, apple, and lentil fruit extracts to keep the skin uniformly hydrated. Pomegranate extract provides antioxidants, and sea kelp soothes and nourishes the skin.
Engelman's other favorite topical hyaluronic acid product is SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator ($120) because it's "a product with a gel-like consistency that has five different types of hyaluronic acids. The Time Release HA, a SkinMedica proprietary ingredient for sustained release of HA, works perfectly for me because I know I'll have hydration throughout the day." We like that it has antioxidants and vitamin E which help protect against free radicals.
It Plumps Fine Lines and Wrinkles
Its incredible moisturizing capability is also why it's used as the main ingredient in fillers. When a professional injects it into the skin, it draws water to the area of concern, plumping up the skin and giving it a more youthful appearance. But don't think it needs to be injected to make a difference in fine lines and wrinkles. As Lain puts it, "approximately one-third of our body's HA is replenished daily, therefore it has a very short staying power and relies on skin cells to continually produce more. The aging process and chronic sun and environmental exposure degrade natural HA production, leading to a thinner dermis, dryness, easier bruising, and contributes to the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles." This is where topical supplementation makes a difference. "As a humectant, HA is able to absorb and hold water in the skin, contributing to hydration and therefore plumpness of the skin. When HA is applied as part of a skincare regimen, it helps to immediately improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles because of this humectant capability."
Lain recommends the Proactiv+ Complexion Perfecting Hydrator, which is a part of the brand's 3-Step System, above. "This silky rich hydrator acts like a cream but glides on like a gel as it moisturizes the skin to combat dryness and helps to improve texture and skin tone," he explains. "It includes 2 percent hyaluronic acid as part of its Moisturizing Complex." He also recommends Proactiv's Skin Clearing Water Gel. "The Skin Clearing Water Gel is a hydrating formula that contains acne-fighting salicylic acid. The product works to help boost moisture and maintain the skin's hydration levels."
It Repairs Tissue
Hyaluronic acid even affects the speed of the skin's wound-healing process. "Wound healing relies on HA for cells to proliferate and move into the wound to start the formation of new skin," Lain says. In light of this new information, we'll be sure to apply a gentle hyaluronic acid serum, along with aloe, to any rogue sunburns we may accidentally incur this summer. A top pick of ours is Earth Science Hyaluronic Acid Serum ($25), which includes both of the good-for-skin ingredients. (It's also vegan, gluten-free, and has no added fragrance.)
It Protects Joints and Helps Carries Nutrients Through Our Bodies
Joint protection is one of hyaluronic acid's main functions, which might surprise a lot of people (like it did us). "It helps to lubricate movable parts of the body," Engelman tells us. "Hyaluronic acid is found in all bones, connective tissue, cartilage, and hair follicles. It cushions joints (absorbing shock), keeping friction low and joints healthy. It is a part of synovial fluid, which helps to carry nutrients and eliminate waste between joints." This is why Engelman recommends taking it orally. "Oral supplementation allows you to achieve systemic benefits (skin, joints, eyes, lips, etc.) versus injections or topicals which only target a specific area." She recommends taking Reserveage Nutrition Collagen Replenish With Hyaluronic Acid & Vitamin C ($16). "Oral supplements can help to support the body's natural production through being absorbed through the bloodstream, supporting underlying layers first. The idea is that the hyaluronic acid is absorbed into the bloodstream, which reaches the foundational layers of the skin providing moisture and supporting skin and joint health. I like pills and powders because they are easy to incorporate no matter your lifestyle."
As for Lain, he suggests sticking solely to a topical hyaluronic acid. "HA is a very large molecule, therefore there is little chance that when taken orally it actually gets absorbed into the bloodstream," he says. "To that end, I know of no studies showing definitive improvements in skin health with an HA supplement. While it is enticing to think that HA supplements could increase HA in the skin and body, it just hasn't been found to be true in the research literature. It is more important to maintain the skin's ability to produce HA naturally; this is achieved by daily sun protection, a healthy diet, avoiding smoking, and using excellent skincare."
It Nourishes the Scalp and Hair
Like aloe vera, we're guessing you don't associate hyaluronic acid with haircare, but according to Engelman, you should. "It helps to hydrate and nourish the scalp, keeping it moisturized which results in healthy, vibrant hair." You can find hyaluronic acid as an ingredient in various shampoos and conditioners. One of our favorites is Kiehl's Damage Repairing & Rehydrating Shampoo ($20), which also has moringa oil and ceramides to nourish and soften.
It Plays a Role in a Healthy Immune System
We'll end the list with the benefit of hyaluronic acid that surprised us the most. Engelman says that it's even involved in immune responses. "HA plays an integral role in the immune response to infectious agents," she says, which may be another motivation to take an oral supplement. Because, hey, if there's any way we can avoid getting sick, we'll do it.
Now that we know all of the benefits of hyaluronic acid, take a look at another skincare ingredient called beta-glucan to learn how they compare to one another.