At this point, hyaluronic acid (HA) has become one of the most boring skincare ingredients. It’s everywhere! From cleansers to face mists, hyaluronic acid has turned into, well, glycerin. We loved it at first. And then we got bored with it. And then we started blaming it for stuff like dehydration or even acne. Yes, an increasing number of people are complaining about hyaluronic acid, one of the most hydrating ingredients, for drying the skin out. If you belong in the group, you might want to sit in for this one. Find below the low-down on what hyaluronic acid can do for your skin and how to properly use it for the actual benefits.
What is hyaluronic acid?
Hyaluronic acid, otherwise known as hyaluronan, is one of the sugar molecules, collectively called glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), found in the human body (1). It’s your body’s own lubricant. About 50%, some say 30%, of the total amount of hyaluronic acid present in your body, is found in the skin (2).
Hyaluronic acid is a component of the skin’s extracellular matrix (ECM), which is what makes the skin elastic and bouncy. ECM functions like scaffolding to provide the skin cells the physical support they need, acting as a cushion.
This is as far as I go concerning hyaluronan’s function in your body as it’s neither the focus of this article nor am I the right person to talk about it. As always, I keep my focus on ingredients in the context of topical formulations used in cosmetic products.
What is hyaluronic acid in skin care?
Topical hyaluronic acid used in skincare products is a humectant (3). It attracts and binds water to the outermost layer of the skin. It hydrates the skin and keeps the skin surface plump.
It can be found in almost any skincare product such as cleansers, moisturizers, and more commonly, face serums. Hyaluronic acid can be derived from animals as well as bacteria, the latter being the most common source of hyaluronic acid used today (4).
Other than topical use, hyaluronic acid also comes in the form of supplements. And it’s the most common filling agent used in dermal fillers to replace volume loss in the skin.
What are the benefits of hyaluronic acid for the skin?
Hyaluronic acid hydrates the skin and temporarily swells the skin surface. This helps your skin in two ways. First, it provides water to the skin and eliminates dryness and dehydration. Second, because it has a plumping effect on the skin, it temporarily reduces the visibility of wrinkles and lines.
The benefits of topical hyaluronic acid products end here. This is it. Anything you read or hear about hyaluronic acid being a great wound healer or anti-inflammatory only applies to the one your own body makes. Topical hyaluronic acid does nothing but hydrate.
Hyaluronic acid is something we produce less and less as we age. But just because you apply it topically doesn’t mean that you get your body to start reproducing it. That’s not how it works. Hyaluronic acid creams or serums reduce the visibility of wrinkles. They can’t undo sun damage, prevent wrinkles, or stop intrinsic aging.
Can hyaluronic acid penetrate the skin?
Yes and no. The hyaluronic acid present in your skin is a macromolecule, which means that it is too big to penetrate the skin (5). This shouldn’t be a surprise. Just because a molecule works in a certain way in your body doesn’t mean that it’s going to behave in the exact same way when you apply it topically.
But synthetic hyaluronic acid, the ones in your products, is usually fragmented into tiny particles to make the HA molecules small enough to penetrate the skin. You might be familiar with this type of hyaluronic acid from the terms hydrolyzed hyaluronic acid or low molecular weight hyaluronic acid.
But the penetration ability of them all depends on the specific formulation of the products and the source, as usual. But that’s not important.
Hyaluronic acid does not need to penetrate your skin. Even if stays on the skin, it works as a humectant and enhances the skin’s moisture. What else would you want from the ingredient?
The constant glorification and then demonizing of the penetration skills of ingredients makes you wonder: what do we expect from the ingredients? How much skin penetration are we talking about? But I digress.
How does hyaluronic acid actually work?
When the humidity of your environment is ideal, around 70%, some say 80%, hyaluronic acid attracts water from the air and binds it to the skin. Then it swells up, which is what gives you plump skin instantly.
So what happens when the humidity is low? Keep in mind that low humidity means that there is less water vapor in the air; it’s dry.
Without enough water molecules to attract from the air, hyaluronic acid then absorbs water from the deeper layers of the skin to the surface right where it is to rehydrate the skin. This is where the demonization of the ingredient begins.
Does hyaluronic acid dehydrate the skin?
Yes and no. And the problem stems from not understanding how humectants work. Humectants, like hyaluronic acid or glycerin, attract water either from the environment or from the deeper layers of the skin to the surface. This isn’t exclusive to hyaluronic acid.
“In low-humidity conditions, however, humectants applied to the skin can absorb water from the deeper epidermis and dermis, thus contributing to TEWL [transepidermal water loss] and exacerbating xerosis [dry skin]. Combining humectants with occlusive products can help prevent such results” (6).
It means that any humectant, including HA, has the potential to dehydrate your skin if you don’t properly use them. That’s where occlusives like oil-based, silicone-based creams, or even face oils come in. They lock hydration in. They put a lid on the skin and keep the water in.
Remember that there is a reason why we use moisturizers after serums, which is the form HA is commonly used in. Moisturizers prevent this “side effect”.
How to properly use hyaluronic acid in skincare?
Apply your hyaluronic acid serum on clean, and preferably damp skin. Apply a moisturizer that contains emollients or occlusives on top of your serum.
This will prevent hyaluronic acid from drying out your skin. We’ve decoded the three different types of moisturizers before and explained how to choose one according to your skin type.
So don’t worry about having to use an “occlusive”, which sounds scary for people with oily skin. An ideal moisturizer, whatever your skin type is, does contain a good amount of humectants, emollients, and occlusives. So just apply tour regular face cream.
On a side note, humectant or water-based moisturizers, which are usually gel-like, are the best ones to use in the summer when the humidity is usually higher. Hyaluronic acid thrives in high humidity.
Does hyaluronic acid cause pilling?
Hyaluronic acid, because of its high molecular weight, stays on the skin. So when you combine a hyaluronic acid serum with another heavily humectant-based moisturizer, you might experience pilling.
It’s because there’s only so much you can put on the skin until the products start to pile up. To avoid that, use only a little amount. And avoid layering too many similar formulations on top of each other.
Does hyaluronic acid cause acne?
Hyaluronic acid does not cause acne. It’s one of the gentlest ingredients all skin types can comfortably use. However, other ingredients in your product may cause acne.
A typical hyaluronic acid serum is usually water-based, which is unlikely to clog pores or cause breakouts. However, if you’re not using HA the correct way and causing water loss, the resulting dehydration can easily cause acne.
After all, dehydrated skin is a common cause of breakouts. Another reason may be that HA serums sometimes contain vitamin C, which can be irritating for certain skin types.
So this is how hyaluronic works in skincare and the best way to use it. So don’t worry, hyaluronic acid is still a star. And as long as you know how humectants work, you can safely use HA on dry skin, oily skin, and even sensitive skin.
- Papakonstantinou, E., Roth, M., & Karakiulakis, G. (2012). Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging. Dermato-endocrinology, 4(3), 253–258. https://doi.org/10.4161/derm.21923
- Gupta, R. C., Lall, R., Srivastava, A., & Sinha, A. (2019). Hyaluronic Acid: Molecular Mechanisms and Therapeutic Trajectory. Frontiers in veterinary science, 6, 192. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2019.00192
- Purnamawati, S., Indrastuti, N., Danarti, R., & Saefudin, T. (2017). The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clinical medicine & research, 15(3-4), 75–87. https://doi.org/10.3121/cmr.2017.1363
- Liu, L., Liu, Y., Li, J., Du, G., & Chen, J. (2011). Microbial production of hyaluronic acid: current state, challenges, and perspectives. Microbial cell factories, 10, 99. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2859-10-99
- Sivamani, R. K., Jagdeo, J. R., Elsner, P., & Maibach, H., I. (2015). 19 Moisturizers: Treatment of dry skin syndrome and barrier defects: Humectants and water [E-book]. In Cosmeceuticals and Active Cosmetics (Cosmetic Science and Technology Series) (3rd ed., pp. 235–238). CRC Press. https://doi.org/10.1201/b18895
- Farage, M. A., Miller, K. W., & Maibach, H., I. (2016). 88 The Baumann skin typing system: Humectants [E-book]. In Textbook of Aging Skin (2nd ed. 2017 ed., pp. 933–934). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-662-47398-6