Hyaluronic acid is doubtlessly one of the most well-known skincare ingredients—perhaps you've even tested an HA serum or two. But as we all know, just because something is popular doesn't mean it's effective.
As it turns out, there’s a lot about hyaluronic acid we weren’t aware of—like the difference between it and sodium hyaluronate (which is a salt rock). Or how that “99 percent hyaluronic acid” serum you’ve been slathering on isn’t 99 percent hyaluronic acid at all, but rather a mixture of hyaluronic acid and water. We know—what?! So is hyaluronic acid worth the hype?
To help us decipher the skin benefits of hyaluronic acid (often compared with sodium hyaluronate), we enlisted the experts to help us debunk some hyaluronic acid myths. Read on to discover if this hydrator is worth adding to your skincare lineup.
Type of ingredient: Hydrator
Main benefits: Moisturizes skin, reduces appearance of wrinkles, replenishes cell moisture, speeds wound healing.
Who should use it: In general, hyaluronic acid is safe for all skin types, but it is especially helpful for those with dry skin. However, those with rosacea or eczema may want to test patch HA to make sure it doesn't irritate skin.
When you can use it: Hyaluronic acid can be applied twice a day topically, in the morning and at night during your skincare routine, but injected hyaluronic acid and ingestible hyaluronic acid should be administered by a doctor.
Works well with: Vitamin C, vitamin B5, and glycolic acid.
Don’t use with: There are no known negative reactions to hyaluronic acid.
What Is Hyaluronic Acid?
First things first—what exactly is hyaluronic acid? For starters, it’s a molecule that is naturally found in your skin as well as the connective tissue in your body. “Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in the human body,” explains Kerry Benjamin, esthetician and the founder of best-selling hyaluronic acid serum creator, Stacked Skincare. “It acts as a cushioning and lubrication agent for our joints, nerves, hair, skin, and eyes.”
According to board-certified dermatologist and founder of SKIN FIVE by AVA MD and the AVA MD full-service dermatology centers Ava Shamban, MD, hyaluronic acid's main uses and benefits are keeping skin moist and lubricated. "It is a superstar at alleviating dry skin," she says. "Hyaluronic acid is a moisture binder, which means that it will attach itself to the water in the cells making them 'plump.'"
Cosmetic chemist and the owner of product development firm Grace Kingdom Beauty Ginger King concurs, adding that the ingredient is strikingly powerful and therefore, works as an incredibly powerful moisturizer. "Hyaluronic acid can draw moisture from the air and keep your skin moist, holding almost 1000 times its weight in water," she says. "So, it's not only a moisturizer, it has the ability to hold extra moisture."
You can even take hyaluronic acid as a supplement, but we recommend consulting a doctor before you do so. Normally, it's most popularly used as a topical treatment like a serum or gel lotion, but it's also used for filler injections.
Click Play to Learn Everything You Need to Know About Using Hyaluronic Acid
Benefits of Hyaluronic Acid
The reason the beauty industry loves it so much lies in its seemingly magical ability to retain moisture. Studies have proven that hyaluronic acid is amazingly good at bonding with water molecules. Lack of moisture is one of the main culprits of aging skin, which is why this ingredient is a must-have when it comes to repairing your skin’s moisture barrier.
- Retains moisture: Hyaluronic acid helps replenish and hold cell moisture, leading to hydrated, plump skin.
- Reduces the appearance of wrinkles: Since dehydrated skin is one of the main causes of wrinkles, hyaluronic acid replenishes lost moisture and helps reduce the appearance of any fine lines.
- Safe option for filler: Since hyaluronic acid's composition is so closely related to substances in our bodies, it works well as a filler that doesn't cause major irritation. It can also add volume to areas like the lips and cheeks, which naturally lose volume over time.
- Fast absorbing: Unlike some skincare products, hyaluronic acid quickly absorbs into the skin, meaning you lose less product.
- Non-irritating: For the most part, hyaluronic acid is non-irritating and safe for use with all skin types.
- Short-term Injectable: When used as a filler, hyaluronic acid lasts for around a year. It dissolves naturally, meaning you don't have to go in to have the filler removed by a doctor.
- Multiple forms of use: Since you can use hyaluronic acid topically, have it injected, or take it as a supplement, there are plenty of options for how and when you use it.
- Available over-the-counter: Unlike some super skin care ingredients, hyaluronic acid products are available in most beauty and drugstores.
Hyaluronic Acid vs. Sodium Hyaluronate
Here’s the interesting part, though: Hyaluronic acid has a counterpart named sodium hyaluronate. “Sodium hyaluronate is the salt form of HA and is a water-soluble salt that holds 1000 times its weight in water,” Benjamin says. “Ingredients are in salt form because they are more stable and less likely to oxidize.”
Both hyaluronic acid and sodium hyaluronate are used in beauty products, and marketers refer to both as “hyaluronic acid”—but there are some key differences. Namely, sodium hyaluronate has a much smaller molecular size, which allows it to penetrate the skin better: “In skincare, there is a formula determining how well products penetrate the skin using the molecular weight,” Benjamin says. “The lower the weight, the more it can penetrate.”
You know serums that claim they’re made with 75 percent or even 99 percent hyaluronic acid? Simply put, they’re not. “Sodium hyaluronate doesn’t come in pure form—it comes in solution form,” Benjamin explains. “It comes to be 1 percent to 2 percent of the solution, which is primarily composed of water.”
It gets better—Benjamin claims that if the solution has more than 4 percent sodium hyaluronate, it can dry your skin out. She illustrates this with an analogy: If you put too much salt on a sponge, the salt will pull water out of the sponge and dry it out. In the same way, since sodium hyaluronate is a salt rock, too much of it can draw moisture away from the skin, Benjamin claims. She says that 2 percent is the highest concentration of hyaluronic acid you can put in a solution without any drying effects.
As for those misleading percentages, Benjamin says there’s no way for anyone to know exactly how much hyaluronic acid or sodium hyaluronate they’re really getting in a product without taking it to a lab. “If a product were actually made with 90 percent HA, it would be a salt rock,” she says. “It’s not truly 90 percent HA—it’s 90 percent of the total solution, which is primarily water.” She says the industry standard for hyaluronic acid is 1 percent and sometimes 2 percent for over-the-counter products. To have a HA concentration higher than that, you usually have to go to a dermatologist's office.
Side Effects of Hyaluronic Acid
Generally, there aren't any known side effects of hyaluronic acid—at least, the topical versions. But as King points out, hyaluronic acid is often used as a filler, and therefore can cause side effects. "There may be swelling," she notes. But, since HA's so closely related to natural substances already in the body, most reactions are from the injection itself, not HA.
If you choose to ingest hyaluronic acid, it is proven to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and improve the overall plumpness of the skin. Plus, most people find that the supplement doesn't have side effects.
How to Use and Apply Hyaluronic Acid
For hyaluronic acid to really penetrate the skin’s surface when applied topically, it has to be bioengineered to have a much lower molecular weight. Benjamin, who recently launched her own HA Hyaluronic Acid Serum ($130), claims that chemists can do so while still maintaining the original hydrating benefits.
Shamban adds that in-office treatments can help hyaluronic acid penetrate more deeply into the skin. "When combined with a Hydra Facial or SaltFacial, for example, a serum is infused into the skin for a better or more effective penetration of the smaller molecules than application to the top of the epidermis alone," she says.
For those looking to use hyaluronic acid as a filler, it's best to seek out a doctor's opinion first. Much like topical HA, injectable HA also mimics materials already present in our bodies. "Injecting an HA filler in a gel form through a syringe into the various areas of our face, eyes, or other areas is accepted and remains with the body and is used like our other cells as a 'partner' filling, volumizing that area," says Raymond Douglas, board-certified oculoplastic and reconstructive Beverly Hills surgeon and founder of the International Orbital Institute.
A tried-and-true skincare brand, Kiehl's vitamin C serum lives up to the hype. Created with 12.5 percent vitamin C and hyaluronic acid, it's proven to simultaneously firm skin and increase radiance.
A rare marriage of high quality and a low price, The Ordinary's hyaluronic acid serum is a vegan formula with a hint of B5 for even more moisture retention and anti-inflammatory benefits.
What is the difference between hyaluronic acid and retinol?
Both ingredients are considered a solid addition to an anti-aging skincare routine, but they serve different functions. Hyaluronic acid is excellent at hydrating dry skin while retinol encourages collagen production.
Can you use hyaluronic acid with vitamin C?
Hyaluronic acid and vitamin C layer well together, without negating each other's benefits.
Papakonstantinou E, Roth M, Karakiulakis G. Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging. Dermatoendocrinol. 2012 Jul 1;4(3):253-8. doi: 10.4161/derm.21923
Papakonstantinou E, Roth M, Karakiulakis G. Hyaluronic acid: a key molecule in skin aging. Dermatoendocrinol. 2012;4(3):253-258. doi:10.4161/derm.21923
Göllner I, Voss W, von Hehn U, Kammerer S. Ingestion of an oral hyaluronan solution improves skin hydration, wrinkle reduction, elasticity, and skin roughness: results of a clinical study. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2017;22(4):816-823. doi:10.1177/2156587217743640
Jegasothy SM, Zabolotniaia V, Bielfeldt S. Efficacy of a new topical nano-hyaluronic acid in humans. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014;7(3):27-29.
Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019 Aug;36(4):392-397. doi: 10.5114/ada.2019.87443.
Pullar JM, Carr AC, Vissers MCM. The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients. 2017 Aug 12;9(8):866. doi: 10.3390/nu9080866.