If all the shimmery highlighters in existence are any indication (we have dozens upon dozens on our site alone), people are obsessed with glowing skin. But highlighters only go so far, adding luminosity to strategic areas and ignoring others. To get truly radiant skin, you have to flood it with moisture. One of the best ways to do that just might be hyaluronic acid.
What is hyaluronic acid? Even if you’re not a skincare junkie, you’ve likely heard of this buzzworthy ingredient. In fact, more and more companies have been advertising that their products have it, despite the fact that it's not new. Yet these companies rarely explain why someone might want hyaluronic acid for their skin.
So we decided to ask a dermatologist, Dr. Sejal Shah of SmarterSkin Dermatology in New York City, about the hype surrounding hyaluronic acid. (Dr. Shah also helped us with our complete guide to retinoids, helped us with our hormonal acne, and taught us how to take a shower.) Here's what she had to say about it:
Hyaluronic acid occurs naturally in the body. It is a chain of sugar molecules that binds to water to create a gel-like lubricating substance. It can be found in almost every cell, and it provides skin with all of its moisture. Though hyaluronic acid is found naturally in the body, the hyaluronic acid used in beauty products is generally either extracted from rooster combs or produced by bacteria in a lab.
Like glycerin, another popular moisturizing agent, hyaluronic acid is a humectant. This means that it is attracted to water, drawing moisture from the air and into the skin. It can even carry up to 1,000 times its weight in water, making it a powerful hydrator. Dr. Shah says that because of this ability to moisturize, hyaluronic acid can be a "valuable addition to a skincare routine."
It's true that some of the most popular injectable fillers (Juvéderm and Restylane, for instance) rely on hyaluronic acid to plump up skin and smooth wrinkles. But injecting something into the body is very different than applying it topically, and simply smearing hyaluronic acid serum or cream onto your face won't result in instantly smooth, plump skin. (Though wrinkles may appear slightly softer because the skin is hydrated, according to Dr. Shah).
Maybe not. There is some evidence that the newest formulations of hyaluronic acid might help fight wrinkles by stimulating collagen growth.
Previously, the hyaluronic acid molecules in skincare products were too big to penetrate the skin's surface, rendering the ingredient barely effective. Recent innovations, however, have managed to cut down the size of the molecules. These smaller molecules can make their way deeper into the skin, where they may promote collagen production. More research is needed to confirm this, but topical hyaluronic acid might have the ability to soften wrinkles permanently over time.
“Hyaluronic acid can be a "valuable addition to a skincare routine.” – Dr. Sejal Shah
"I typically recommend a serum because they tend to be more potent and penetrate the skin better, making them more effective," says Dr. Shah. She likes Revision Skincare hydrating serum, Neocutis Hyalis, and Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench hyaluronic acid serum.
Whatever you choose, look at the ingredients. Do they list sodium hyaluronate? According to Dr. Shah, that is how hyaluronic acid is most commonly listed, but other names to look for include hyaluronan or hyaluronate. One of these words should appear at least in the first five ingredients—ideally in the top three.
“I typically recommend a serum because they tend to be more potent and penetrate the skin better, making them more effective.” – Dr. Shah
It can be hard to know how to incorporate a new product into an existing skincare routine, especially one that's already complex. Dr. Shah advises gently patting the serum onto bare skin before you apply your moisturizer and sunscreen. It can be used both morning and night.
When you're done applying your serum, Dr. Shah says to store it in a cool, dry area. To ensure the hyaluronic acid stays effective, replace the product after about 6–8 months, maybe a little longer if the serum comes in a dark bottle with a tight seal to keep out light and air.
Hyaluronic acid benefits all types of skin. With that said, if you live in a dry climate, "hyaluronic acid may actually do the reverse and pull moisture out of the skin," cautions Dr. Shah. She adds that "it's best to do a small test area on the skin to make sure you don't have an adverse reaction."
And it's probably a good idea to pick a product that has other moisturizing agents, rather than pure hyaluronic acid.
Our personalized skincare guide can help you find other products to use alongside your hyaluronic serum.