By Cynthia Bailey MD.
What does hyaluronic acid do for skin? This is one of the most popular questions in skin care. This popular ingredient has numerous benefits in your skin care routine. It is also non-irritating, does not cause acne and tolerated by people with sensitive skin. Not all hyaluronic acid products are created equal and you need to understand what to look for in a good hyaluronic acid product.
What is hyaluronic acid?
Hyaluronic acid is widely distributed throughout the human body. In the skin it is part of the extracellular matrix, which means the structural part of skin that is not cells. Said another way, it is part of the ‘stuff’ between cells.
Most of the hyaluronic acid in the skin is in the dermis, which is the second living layer of your skin that sits under the epidermis. The dermis is filled with collagen and elastin bundles and the hyaluronic acid lies between and around them. Your skin also has hyaluronic acid in the top living epidermal layer.
The average 70kg (154 lb) person has about 15gm of hyaluronic acid in their body, 50% of it is in the skin. Another important place you have hyaluronic acid is in your joint spaces and cartledge. Approximately 1/3 of total body hyaluronic acid is degraded and remade daily meaning your body is constantly producing hyaluronic acid.
Conceptually, I like to describe hyaluronic acid as an important component of the ‘squishy goo’ that your cellular structures proliferate and migrate in. Tissues slip and slide because of hyaluronic acid. Cell surface functions also need hyaluronic acid for important cellular activities. Hyaluronic acid plays a key role in wound healing including tissue repair, inflammation response, and new blood vessel formation, all of which are necessary for wound repair.
Technically, hyaluronic acid is a glycosaminoglycan, or mucopolysaccharide. These long molecules are composed of repeating amino and uronic sugar molecules. Structurally, hyaluronic acid is made from pairs of sugar molecules that are linked together into polymers of varying sizes (molecular weights). Don’t confuse the word ‘sugar’ with what you know about sugar, this is a chemistry term for a class of compounds, table sugar being one type.
What does hyaluronic acid do for your skin?
Hyaluronic acid avidly attracts water because of its chemical structure. We call this type of compound a humectant, meaning it is hygroscopic and draws in water. Hyaluronic acid can draw up to 1000 its weight in water meaning it's a super-sponge! Hyaluronic acid is critical for skin hydration in the dermis and epidermis, which are the top two living layers of your skin. It also maintains hydrated spaces in the skin for the passage of nutrients. In the epidermal skin layer, hyaluronic acid has many crucial roles for epidermal health, including cellular functioning and skin healing.
Does hyaluronic acid in skin care products have any side effects or risks?
Not really. You will notice that the name implies that there is an “acid” in hyaluronic acid, but it’s not really a skin care acid in the commonly used interpretation of “acid”. Hyaluronic acid is not an exfoliator or irritating skin care ingredient. Other ingredients termed an “acid” include glycolic acid and salicylic acid. Those are exfoliators and can irritate sensitive skin. Hyaluronic acid does not.
Hyaluronic acid is technically an acid in chemistry terminology in that it can donate a proton in a chemical reaction. It does not have a strongly acidic pH, however. Hyaluronic acid has not been found to irritate skin.
Interestingly, hyaluronic acid can increase the penetration of other ingredients in skin care so I recommend taking care when using hyaluronic acid to layer it with only high-quality products. For example, hyaluronic acid can increase penetration of artificial yellow dye. Conversely, it also enhances penetration of vitamin C.
Why does your skin loose hyaluronic acid?
UV exposure causes a degradation of hyaluronic acid. UV exposure also slows skin production of new hyaluronic acid.
Epidermal hyaluronic acid is dramatically lost with aging. Dermal hyaluronic acid is not lost to the same extent but it too changes in ways that are not fully understood. We don’t know why epidermal hyaluronic acid is lost with age, but the good news is that we can add it back with skin care products that are rich in hyaluronic acid. These can help to re-plump skin into a more youthful appearance and texture. My Instantly Luminous Multi-Action Serum works so well because of the varying molecular weight sized hyaluronic acid molecules that stratify in the epidermal layer of skin to instantly plump and restore the dewy, hydrated youthful texture to skin.
Poor diet and smoking destroy hyaluronic acid in the skin too.
How is hyaluronic acid used in skin care?
Skin care products designed to hydrate skin often contain hyaluronic acid. This will be listed as hyaluronic acid or sodium hyaluronate.
Hyaluronic acid can also help other actives penetrate skin, such as vitamin C. This is why many top vitamin C serums contain sodium hyaluronate such as my Vitamin C Anti-Wrinkle Professional Treatment Serum.
Just adding hyaluronic acid to a skin care product is not enough to capture the potential benefits of hyaluronic acid, however. A product must be formulated carefully because the presence of hyaluronic acid in a formulation can have the opposite effect a skin care product if it is not made correctly.
I recommend that people apply hyaluronic acid products to your skin twice a day for the best results. This is because hyaluronic acid breaks down in the skin within 12 hours after application.
What are the benefits of hyaluronic acid in skin care products?
Hyaluronic acid can bind up to 1000 times its weight in water. This extraordinary water binding capacity helps to plump and hydrate skin. It is important to note that hyaluronic acid does not add water to skin, it binds water, which is why you want to apply hyaluronic acid products to damp skin within the magic 3 minutes after cleansing skin with water and toweling-off. High humidity will also help hyaluronic acid skin care products to plump limp, crepey or wrinkled skin.
The best hyaluronic acid products are made with varying sized hyaluronic acid polymer molecules. These stratify in different layers of the skin for more skin plumping. Small molecular weight hyaluronic acid penetrate skin readily. Larger molecular weight sizes stratify in the skin layers above. Large molecular weight hyaluronic acid layers on top of the skin to provide a nice barrier against dehydration. Skin care products made with this type of multiple molecular weight hyaluronic acid have good clinical evidence for improving skin skin hydration, elasticity, roughness, ﬁrmness and fine lines and wrinkles.
State of the art hyaluronic acid serums and creams benefit anyone who is starting to see limp, crepey, dry or wrinkled skin – no matter how early of late the changes are. It is an ingredient that fits all skin types – oily, normal or dry. It is also hypoallergenic and well tolerated by even the most sensitive skin. You can use a product with hyaluronic acid and other ingredients to multi-task or you can use a product like Instantly Luminous Multi-Action Serum which combines fractionated (small, medium and large molecular weight hyaluronic acid molecules) hyaluronic acid with other deep skin hydrators such as sodium PCA (part of the skin’s Natural Moisturizing Factor) and glycerin for instant skin plumping.
Since I started using this product my face is much more hydrated and plump so my fine lines are less evident. My skin loves it.
This serum is amazing! I love that it hydrates and brightens my skin without clogging my pores! I have turned friends to this serum and they can’t thank me enough!
Hyaluronic acid is a dramatic skin care ingredient that almost everyone will benefit from.
Essendoubi M, et. al., Human skin penetration of hyaluronic acid of different molecular weights as probed by Ramag spectroscopy, Skin Res Technol, 2016 Feb;22(1):55-62 doi: 10.1111/srt.12228. Epub 2015 Apr 16.
Lillian C. Becker, MS, Wilma F. Bergfeld, MD, Final Report of the Safety Assessment of Hyaluronic Acid, Potassium Hyaluronate, and Sodium Hyaluronate, International
Journal of Toxicology, Volume 28 Number 4S, July/August 2009 5-67
Pavicic T, Efficacy of cream-based novel formulations of hyaluronic acid of different molecular weights in anti-wrinkle treatment J Drugs Dermatol 2011 Sep; 10(9):990-1000
Papakonstantinou Eleni, Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging, Dermatoendocrinol. 2012 Jul 1; 4(3): 253-258. doi: 10.4161/derm.21923
OLEJNIK A, GOŚCIAŃSKA J, NOWAK I, Significance of hyaluronic acid in cosmetic industry and aesthetic medicine, CHEMIK 2012, 66, 2, 129-135