Find out why the benefits of hyaluronic acid make it one dermatologist's "favorite" skin active.

By Jolene Edgar, Melanie Rud Chadwick, and Susan Brickell
Updated June 05, 2020
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Beauty Portrait of Young Confident Woman with Freckles using hyaluronic acid skin care products
Credit: Rochelle Brock / Refinery29 for Getty Images

The brightest star in the skin-care cosmos—the one sparking excitement in beauty aisles and doctor's offices—is unlike any other It ingredient. For starters, it's not new. It was probably in the first lotion you ever applied. It wasn't dreamed up by a Nobel Prize-winning white coat. It can't even qualify as rare since it's abundant throughout the body in skin cells, joints, and connective tissue.

Yet hyaluronic acid—a sugar that can hold 1,000 times its weight in water and is able to heal wounds, fight free radicals, and hydrate skin so that it looks smoother—is suddenly elevating creams to cult status. What gives? Having recently undergone a molecular makeover, hyaluronic acid is more effective than ever. Here, experts explain its function and how to make it a part of your regular routine.

What Is Hyaluronic Acid?

First, a quick science lesson. Hyaluronic acid is a polysaccharide (read: sugar) found naturally in the body. Believe it or not, it's been in your skin since, literally, day one.

"Hyaluronic acid is my favorite active ingredient. Why? Because you're born with it. It's biologically part of your skin," says Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine.

Its main function in the skin is to retain hydration, explains Jordan Carqueville, M.D., a dermatologist practicing in Chicago. "Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning it draws water to the skin," says Emily Arch, M.D., a dermatologist at Dermatology + Aesthetics in Chicago. It then holds onto that moisture instantly like a sponge (yes, the effects are immediate), making skin look and feel more hydrated and plump. Surprisingly, hyaluronic acid is still lightweight, unlike other moisturizing ingredients (looking at you, butters and oils) that can often feel heavy or greasy. (FYI there's a difference between skin-care products that are moisturizing vs. hydrating.)

Hyaluronic Acid Benefits

"Hyaluronic acid is sometimes referred to as a goo molecule," says Lara Devgan, M.D., an attending plastic surgeon at Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Infirmary. It's an undignified nickname for the humectant, given that the benefits of hyaluronic acid give skin with bounce, dewiness, and radiance. The sticky stuff is made by our fibroblasts—the same cells that crank out collagen and elastin.

"Together, hyaluronic acid, collagen, and elastin minimize wrinkles, folds, and sagging," says Michelle Yagoda, M.D., a clinical instructor of plastic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Throughout life, however, they're subjected to free radicals unleashed by the sun and pollutants. And by your late 20s, as your cellular machine downshifts, you start producing less of all three. Womp. So by your 30s, the amount of hyaluronic acid in your skin begins to decline, and that's when you start to notice subtle sagging and dryness, adds Dr. Gohara. (Related: Meet Bakuchiol, the New "It" Anti-Aging Skin-Care Ingredient)

How to Boost Your Body's Own Hyaluronic Acid

You can easily replenish your natural reserves and fortify what you've got. "It's all about a basic skin-care regimen, since robust hyaluronic acid production is a reflection of healthy skin," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC. That means using sunscreen and antioxidants. (Note: Sunscreen alone may not be enough to protect your skin.)

Another thing you can apply: a retinoid. A prescription vitamin A cream "not only reverses sun damage, clears pores, and speeds collagen growth but also stimulates hyaluronic acid synthesis," says David E. Bank, M.D., director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, New York.

And here's a sweet surprise: "Many studies have shown that heavy exercise increases hyaluronic acid production," says Dr. Yagoda. (Here are more benefits of exercise for your skin.)

Serums can also help, albeit temporarily. Unlike hyaluronic acids of old, today's potent versions contain molecules of various sizes and weights that penetrate skin better and stick around longer. "They can significantly improve the way skin looks by hydrating it," says Amy Forman Taub, M.D., an assistant clinical professor at Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. Plus, "they're great to pair with anti-aging retinoids and exfoliants since they curb the drying side effects."

How to Choose Products with Hyaluronic Acid

You'll find HA in multiple different types of products, meaning there's something out there for anyone and everyone, and you really can't go wrong. Many derms especially like serums with the ingredient: "They're light enough that you could layer one underneath a moisturizer if you wanted more hydration, or could use one throughout the day over makeup if you're starting to feel dry," says Dr. Carqueville. Either way, it's best to apply any HA product on slightly damp skin so that the molecule can pull in and soak up the extra water on the surface of the skin, adds Dr. Carqueville. (More here: The Best Moisturizers for Dry Skin)

Since hyaluronic acid is a totally natural substance found in your skin, you're not limited in what you can pair it with (translation: it'll work well with any of the products already in your beauty arsenal, including your vitamin C, retinoids, and more), says Rachel Nazarian, M.D., a New York-based dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. Because it draws in water, it makes sense to pair it with an emollient, such as Aquaphor or Vaseline, which help to lock in moisture, adds Dr. Nazarian. Use that killer combo for super dry spots on hands, elbows, feet, or chapped skin. "The combination makes a great pairing for keeping the best hydration level by attracting water and also keeping water in the skin."

And don't worry about any bad hyaluronic acid side effects: It can be used across all skin types, from dry and sensitive to oily, says Dr. Zeichner. Because HA occurs naturally in the body, applying it topically shouldn't cause skin irritation or make the skin sensitive.

What to Know About Hyaluronic Acid Injections

Nearly 2.5 million Americans got hyaluronic acid injections (such as Juvéderm or Restylane) in 2016, so you may already know their magic. Here's the appeal: Gels ($600 to $3,000 per syringe) do everything from restoring the light-catching curve of a cheek to perking up a deflated lip line, erasing shadowy under-eye hollows, and plumping fine lines. In the pipeline are thinner gels to "boost radiance in a way we've never been able to do," says Dr. Bank.

Beyond substituting what has been lost with age, these shots "trigger the formation of new collagen and hyaluronic acid in the skin," says Dr. Bank. The needle poke also causes a tiny amount of trauma, kicking the skin into repair mode and further activating those cells. Similarly, "lasers, microneedling, and chemical peels can also stimulate hyaluronic acid and collagen production," says Dr. Devgan. (Yep, microneedling is the new skin-care treatment you should know about.) Some doctors will spread an injectable hyaluronic acid gel over the top of freshly needled or lasered skin to get you glowing even faster.

The Best Products with Hyaluronic Acid

Unfortunately, your natural hyaluronic acid reserves decline as you get older; fortunately, there's hyaluronic acid in tons of topical products that can help boost and maintain hydration, plump skin, and minimize fine lines and wrinkles (and don't cost a fortune). Ahead, the best hyaluronic acid-packed skin-care products loved by dermatologists.

The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA

hyaluronic acid the ordinary moisturizer

This non-greasy moisturizer combines amino acids, glycerin, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid in a formula that immediately helps hydrate skin upon application. Dr. Gohara names this as her favorite HA-packed product because it strikes a perfect balance: "It's heavy enough to combat retinoid dryness, yet light enough that I don’t feel like I can fry an egg on my face before bed."

CeraVe Hyaluronic Acid Face Serum

hyaluronic acid cerave
Credit: CERAVE

A go-to for Dr. Nazarian, this gel-cream serum contains three essential ceramides, vitamin B5, and hyaluronic acid to replenish skin hydration and improve the appearance of dry lines for smoother skin. "I love that it's so lightweight, comes in an easy-to-use pump, and it’s also formulated with ceramides that help improve the hydration barrier of skin," says Dr. Nazarian.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Serum

hyaluronic acid neutrogena
Credit: AMAZON

Dr. Zeichner likes this serum because it "delivers reliable plumping and hydrating to improve skin radiance and even the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles." Plus, the formula is oil-free and non-comedogenic (read: it won't clog your pores), so it's gentle and safe to use on a variety of skin types, including those who are prone to acne.

SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator

hyaluronic acid skinmedica

While it might be a splurge, this serum is another pick from Dr. Gohara, and contains a mix of five HA forms that not only boost skin's hydration but also help plump and smooth the skin. "I love it because you can wear it over makeup and because it gives an immediate effect of “filling” in fine lines," notes Dr. Gohara.

La Roche-Posay UV Moisturizer with SPF 20

hyaluronic acid la roche posay
Credit: AMAZON

This moisturizer gets Dr. Nazarian's stamp of approval because it contains both hydrating hyaluronic acid and SPF to protect you from UV rays. It's even great for those with sensitivities: "This is a wonderful cream for sensitive skin because it’s paraben-free and non-comedogenic, but contains hyaluronic acid in thermal spring water."

L'Oreal Paris Skincare Revitalift Derm Intensives 1.5% Pure Hyaluronic Acid Face Serum

hyaluronic acid loreal
Credit: AMAZON

Dr. Zeichner is also a fan of this drugstore serum since it contains among the highest concentration of hyaluronic acid available over the counter. Not to mention, it's been clinically studied and shown to be effective, he points out. Also nice: The gel-like formula absorbs quickly into skin, leaving no sticky residue, and is safe for every skin type.

Eau Thermale Avène PhysioLift Serum

hyaluronic acid avene
Credit: AVENE

According to Dr. Gohara, this serum is "highly concentrated, light, and super easy to layer." It helps to visibly plump, smooth, and soften skin, while also reducing the appearance of wrinkles for a firmer and more youthful complexion.

Comments (3)

January 13, 2019
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