How does hyaluronic acid work?

Often heroed as the dry skin saviour for the chillier months, understand how hyaluronic acid works and why it should be a beauty bag staple all-year-round.


Key takeaways: 

  • Hyaluronic acid is a moisturising agent with potential anti-aging benefits
  • There are many studies demonstrating its hydrating benefits on human skin
  • There are different types of hyaluronic acid, each with a different purpose and impact on skin types
  • To be integrated into your skin routine with care

Into the cold

Winter brings cold weather and indoor heating, both of which can do a number on your face. Dry air draws water out of your skin, and before you know it, you’re left with rough and scaly patches. What can we turn to in the battle against dry skin?

Today, we celebrate our favourite hero in drying times: Hyaluronic acid (pronounced hi – uh – lu - rah – nik).

What is hyaluronic acid?

Hyaluronic acid is a multitasker that our body naturally produces; it can be found anywhere from bone cartilage to our eyes, but it is most abundant in our skin where it plays a major role in healing. HA helps our skin renew and repair itself in three main ways:

  1. As a humectant, it attracts and holds water to maintain moisture (HA can bind 1000x its weight in water).
  2. As an antioxidant, it keeps free radicals in check to limit cellular damage.
  3. It helps skin cells (specifically, keratinocytes) reproduce and migrate.

For example, HA helps repair the damage from sunburn (side note: UV rays are THE WORST – hello wrinkles and uneven skin tone!). So we know how it works IN our body, but does this hero work when we slap it on our face? It depends.

How hyaluronic acid works

Beauty products formulated with HA are touted to increase hydration, reduce wrinkles, and stimulate collagen synthesis. However, the truth behind these claims lies in the type and amount of HA used.

HA in its natural form is too large to penetrate the top layer of skin, so when applied topically, it doesn’t have the same impact as it does in our body. However, it still provides some hydrating benefits to the surface of our skin and also helps other (water-soluble) active ingredients penetrate the skin.

Since HA products hit the market, there have been advances around getting its size down. Nano versions have been created by chemically splitting the natural HA molecule. Due to its lower molecular weight, nano hyaluronic acid is better at penetrating the deeper layers of skin, thereby delivering more anti-aging and reparative results. However, it’s important not to go too small – ultra-low-molecular-weight HA has been shown to promote inflammation and allergic reactions.

You might find HA under the following aliases on ingredient labels:

Name What is it? Best for
Hyaluronic acid The naturally occurring version of HA with a high molecular weight (>500 kDa).
  • Light surface hydration and protection
  • Boosting penetration of vitamin B3 (niacinamide) and B5, AHAs e.g. glycolic and lactic acid
Sodium hyaluronate A salt derived from HA; it is more easily absorbed by the skin, but still sits on the surface.
Sodium acetylated hyaluronate A modified version of HA with better moisture retention ability and skin affinity. Because it stays on the skin longer than normal HA, it provides longer-lasting hydration. Still, it is too large to penetrate the past the skin surface.

Nano hyaluronic acid

or

Hydrolysed hyaluronic acid

A chemically downsized version of natural HA. Due its small size, this molecule penetrates deeper into the skin to hydrate and may boost the skin’s self-repair mechanism. There are several versions of this molecule, each with a different effect.

AVOID the smallest version (below 50 kDa) due to risk of inflammation as a side effect

  • Deeper skin hydration
  • Soothing acne, rosacea, and other sensitive skin types
  • Anti-aging (50 kDa size)
  • Super boosting vitamin B3 (niacinamide) and B5
  • Use with CAUTION alongside AHA products (sensitive skin types should avoid using these two together)

 

Is hyaluronic acid good for dry skin or oily skin?

Because it is a naturally-occurring substance in skin, HA rarely causes allergic reactions – for that reason, it is a fantastic hero for all skin types. We would especially recommend it for oily skin as it is a lightweight moisturiser. For dry skin types, it’s best to use HA alongside or in creams / lotions (which contain oils) as there are some concerns HA draws moisture out of the skin in dry environments.

One cautionary flag – because HA boosts the penetration of other active ingredients, it’s important to be careful when using it with strong actives like vitamin A (retinoids, retinol) and benzoyl peroxide. When used alone, these actives already have strong side effects on skin (e.g. peeling); therefore, boosting their penetration can irritate the skin more. At least one study has shown that vitamin A increases the amount of naturally occurring HA in the skin, so if you’re using a retinol /retinoid, maybe skip the HA for a different type of hydrator.

Do hyaluronic acid supplements work?

Unclear - this is where the marketing smoke screen comes in. There are no independent, large scale or statistically reliable studies on the effect of ingesting HA for your skin. Your stomach likely breaks down any HA you eat, so it’s pretty much useless to your skin. You may be better off eating niacinamide + glucosamine supplements as this helps your body produce more HA on its own. When it comes to buying HA, stick with the topical products.

So tell me about some products!

You can find HA in all kinds of products, but it works best when left on the skin in large amounts so skoosh recommends reaping the benefits via serums and moisturisers.

To find out whether hyaluronic acid fits into your skin routine, sign up to the skoosh skin quiz!

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