Hyaluronic acid is the wunderkind of skincare. Even though it's only recently received the praise and attention it deserves (somewhere circa 2016), it remains one of the most popular skincare ingredients of our age—sitting right up there with retinol and charcoal. It's all thanks to its immense hydrating potential. "Hyaluronic acid is a powerful and safe humectant," says Carrington Snyder, Founder of PWDR and Clean Beauty Expert. "It can hold up to 500x its weight is water. Any time you bring hydration to the skin it’s a very good thing. Most visible signs of aging are attributed—in part–to skin being dehydrated, so when you have hydrated plump skin, these signs of aging are less visible and skin looks healthier. Hyaluronic acid plays a great role in this."
Hyaluronic acid is found in a great number of skincare products, but the most notable is serum because the formula is lightweight and fast-absorbing. As such, they've proliferated across retailer's shelves, each boasting a unique concentration. They're purchased without a second thought, but a second thought is definitely in order, because not all hyaluronic acid serums are created equal; in fact, some don't list the ingredient until the very end—sometimes it's even placed after the preservatives (keep in mind that ingredients are listed in order of concentration). In order to avoid shelling out money on expensive (yet potentially ineffective) serums, we asked the experts to identify the ideal concentration (and products) to turn to. Scroll to find out whether or not your pricey hyaluronic acid serum is worth it.
Before delving into the ideal concentration of hyaluronic acid, be aware that there are various forms of it (and a serum won't necessarily list it by the same name). "There are a few forms of hyaluronic acid you will see in ingredient lists, most commonly there is sodium hyaluronate, which is the sodium salt of hyaluronic acid and generally a smaller molecular weight than pure hyaluronic acid," Snyder explains. "Then there is the full form hyaluronic acid. When formulating a product, these are treated slightly different." Despite the differences in form and name, Snyder says at least 1% hyaluronic acid is "ideal." Yup, that's it, only a mere 1% concentration.
Celebrity esthetician Joshua Ross of SkinLab, a Med Spa in Beverly Hills, agrees that 1% is the most effective concentration. "When looking for an HA serum you should avoid products that claim high percentages of HA, the reason for this is that to be effective you only need 1-2%, whereas anything more can actually be drying to the skin." That explains why most products on the market contain only 1-2% HA, even though it seems low to a regular consumer. These products and brands aren't necessarily trying to swindle us through marketing—1 to 2% is truly the most effective concentration of HA.
While both experts say there are no regulations when it comes to HA and its concentration in skincare, there are a few rules when it comes to a product's ingredient list. It's only through analyzing this that you'll be clued into an HA serum's true efficacy. "What is required is that all ingredients be listed in descending order, except ingredients that are in concentrations of 1% or less—those ingredients can be mixed around with each other," Snyder explains. "Standard hyaluronic acid serums will generally list water as the first ingredient and somewhere near the bottom of the list there will be hyaluronic acid. If the hyaluronic acid is in a higher concentration than 1% it will appear higher in the ingredient list."
Again, contrary to popular belief, just because hyaluronic acid (or sodium hyaluronate) is placed near the bottom of the ingredient list doesn't mean there isn't enough of it inside the serum to effectively hydrate and plump the skin. In the case of hyaluronic acid, less is more.
Snyder is the founder of PWDR, a unique line of hyaluronic acid products that come to the consumer in powder form. "With my line, PWDR, we took out the water and have the consumer provide that part—this eliminates a need for many filler and binder ingredients. Because of this, our active ingredients are at a higher concentration, and hyaluronic acid is actually the second ingredient in our ingredient list after Vitamin B5. In essence, it’s a more transparent way for the consumer to see how much of an effective ingredient (like hyaluronic acid) they are getting."
Whether you opt for a powder or liquid form of hyaluronic acid, Ross cautions against focusing only on the concentration of a single ingredient. Instead, look at the formulation as a whole, taking into account every ingredient that's listed on the product. "It’s most important to make sure the overall ingredient list has beneficial ingredients for the skin and are not combined with harsh ingredients such as synthetic fragrance and fillers that give the product volume and the slippery serum-like texture. In general, I would always choose a serum that’s lightweight and easily absorbs into the skin, otherwise there could be more filler ingredients than there are penetrating ingredients."
As for which hyaluronic acid product you should choose, Ross says the best bet is to stick to brands you already know and love. "As long as you are purchasing a HA serum from a reputable brand and source, the majority of HA serums can be very effective in boosting the skin’s hydration. Just make sure to check all the ingredients listed to make sure there are no harsh or harmful additives."
We like SkinCeutical's Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier Serum, which is formulated with 1.3% hyaluronic acid, along with other hydrating and nourishing ingredients like licorice root and purple rice extract. We smooth it over our skin after using cleanser and before using moisturizer for an extra kick of hydration (and firmness and plumpness, too).
As for a budget-friendly pick, we recommend trying this HA serum from The Ordinary, which is a brand we've been using pretty much ever since it was initially launched (in other words, we trust it). The serum is only $7 (seriously), yet it has a 2% concentration of hyaluronic acid along with vitamin B5 to enhance its hydrating effects. The fully vegan formula is simple, pure, and effective. What more can you ask for from an HA serum?
Next, check out the 6 best-selling moisturizers on Amazon (hint: they all happen to belong to drugstore brands).