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There are certain hard truths within the beauty industry. Vitamin C can brighten dark spots, for example, and hyaluronic acid moisturizes—or does it? 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 actually a salt rock). Or how that “99% hyaluronic acid” serum you’ve been slathering on really isn’t 99% hyaluronic acid at all, but rather a mixture of hyaluronic acid and water. We know—what?!
To help us decipher the skin wonders that are hyaluronic acid and sodium hyaluronate, we enlisted cosmetic chemist Ginger King, owner of product development firm Grace Kingdom Beauty, and esthetician and Stacked Skincare founder Kerry Benjamin, who created her own hyaluronic acid serum, to help us debunk some hyaluronic acid myths. We also chatted with dermatologists Dr. Ava Shamban, board-certified dermatologist and founder of SKIN FIVE by AVA MD and the AVA MD full-service dermatology centers, and Dr. Raymond Douglas, board-certified oculoplastic and reconstructive surgeon in Beverly Hills and founder of the International Orbital Institute.
Ahead, you’ll find out the surprising truth about this highly touted ingredient.
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, at 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 with 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,” Benjamin explains. “It acts as a cushioning and lubrication agent for our joints, nerves, hair, skin, and eyes.”
According to Shamban, hyaluronic acid's main uses and benefits are keeping skin moist and lubricated. "It is a super star 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.'"
King concurs, adding that the ingredient is strikingly powerful and therefore works as an incredibly powerful moisturizer. "Hyaluronic acid can draw moisture from air and keep your skin moist, holding almost 1000 times its own weight in water," says King. "So, it is 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.
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, making it a key factor in retaining skin moisture. Lack of moisture is one of the main culprits of aging skin, which is why this ingredient—which attracts moisture to your skin—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 skincare 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% or even 99% 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% to 2% of the solution, which is primarily composed of water.”
It gets better—Benjamin claims that if the solution has more than 4% sodium hyaluronate, it can actually 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% 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 not really a 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% HA, it would be a salt rock,” she says. “It’s not truly 90% HA—it’s 90% of the total solution, which is primarily water.” She says the industry standard for hyaluronic acid is 1% and sometimes 2% 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 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 actually 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 are able to 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, 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 obviously 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," Douglas says.
The Best Products With HA
This serum has amassed a cult following for its high-tech, fast-penetrating formula loaded with hyaluronic acid. You can apply Advanced Night Repair morning and night under your favorite moisturizer, but if you choose just one time of day to apply, go with a nighttime application—this smart formula works with your skin's natural repair process to plump and repair while you sleep.
Made with hyaluronic acid as well as hydrating treholose, brightening lactic acid, and niaminicide, this serum promises to leave you with glowing, hydrated skin.
Thanks to the highly concentrated long- and short-chain hyaluronic molecules (that provide intensive hydration), this hyaluronic acid serum is perfect for post-sun exposure, travel, and exposure to air conditioning. It promises to minimize wrinkles, fight dehydration, and add an immediate refreshed-skin glow.
We’ve never met a product that smoothed and plumped as effectively as this one—it’s a miracle. Use it in lieu of a makeup primer because it keeps everything hydrated, blurred, and bouncy for hours.
This hydrating, paraben-free face mask combines the brand’s proprietary red algae blend with powerful actives, like silk extract and green tea extract.
One spritz is all it takes. This genius spray infuses your skin with hyaluronic acid and botanical extracts, drawing oxygen to the skin surface for an instant plumping effect. We love!
This cult favorite is made with maple tree sap, aloe, and baobab tree extracts to penetrate into the skin and hydrate. The result? A bright, smooth, moisturized complexion.
This powerful hydrogel mask is made with hyaluronic acid and a high concentration of skin-loving essences. Leave it on for 10 to 15 minutes, peel it off, and revel in your plump, glowing reflection.
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