If you're not sure what's going on with cosmetics naming and chemistry, you might see "acid" and wonder why you'd even try to use it on your skin. Or, maybe you've heard of salicylic acid and its use in cleansing acne, and you wonder if this other acid is also an acne treatment. Well, we're here to enlighten you.
What is Hyaluronic Acid?
If you head over to that bastion of fact, Wikipedia, you'll learn this:
"Hyaluronic acid, also called hyaluronan, is an anionic, nonsulfated glycosaminoglycan distributed widely throughout connective, epithelial, and neural tissues. It is unique among glycosaminoglycans as it is non-sulfated, forms in the plasma membrane instead of the Golgi apparatus, and can be very large."
Okay, so that was mean of us. We're not biochemists, and neither are you, probably. So, let's dial it back a bit.
Hyaluronic acid is a molecule frequently found in biology. It's used in wound healing, cell migration, and more. It's also present in bacteria. It's all over the place. In fact, in the average human body, if you rendered it all down, you'd find around 15 grams of hyaluronic acid.
In the body, hyaluronic acid is used for a wide range of purposes. It's found in the synovial fluid in joints, helping it to remain viscous and lubricate those joints. It's a core component of cartilage. It, along with collagen, helps repair skin when it's damaged.
As a cosmetic ingredient, it's a humectant. It saturates your skin and carries moisture with it, helping to keep your skin moisturized and healthy. That's why it's a key ingredient in many moisturizers and skincare products that include them.
It's worth mentioning that hyaluronic acid molecules are quite large and do not penetrate the skin themselves. If your skin was open to molecules that large, all sorts of environmental contamination would just pass through it, and then it wouldn't be a very effective barrier, would it?
Instead, hyaluronic acid sits on the surface of the skin and draws moisture from the environment around you into your skin. Water is a much smaller molecule and can be absorbed, so it is.
So, in addition to keeping your skin moisturized, hyaluronic acid helps keep it plumped up, reducing the appearance of small wrinkles and fine lines. It's sort of like a dermal filler, except the filler is moisture, so it's a lot healthier.
What's the Deal with Hyaluronic Acid and Sunscreen?
Both hyaluronic acid and sunscreen come up in conversation together all the time. There are two reasons for that.
The first is simply that a good skincare routine should always cap out with sunscreen. It doesn't make sense to put a ton of time and effort into building a skincare routine, only to leave it exposed to the elements, right? You just let the sun and the environment damage it and undo all of your hard work.
The second reason is that sunlight and hyaluronic acid are linked.
"When skin is exposed to excessive UVB rays, it becomes inflamed (sunburn), and the cells in the dermis stop producing as much hyaluronan and increase the rate of its degradation. Hyaluronan degradation products then accumulate in the skin after UV exposure."
Sunlight damages the skin, and one of the ways it does so is damaging the natural hyaluronic acid generation present in the skin, making the hyaluronic acid already present degrade faster. That's part of why sunburns get all red and painful and why they take longer to heal than you might otherwise expect.
So, you can help keep your skin safe in two ways: you can add more hyaluronic acid to keep it moisturized and plump, and you can coat it with sunscreen to prevent UV rays from damaging the hyaluronic acid already there.
What's the Best Way to Use Hyaluronic Acid?
Everyone has different skin, and everyone has a different environment. However, skincare is mostly the same from person to person; you just might have to make small differences to account for variance. For example, if you have naturally oily skin, you might want to spend more time with a cleanser to help remove oils and grime before the rest of your routine. Likewise, if you live in an area with relatively little sunlight, you might not need as high an SPF as others living nearer to the equator, for example.
The biggest factor to consider is your climate. Is your air usually dry or moist? Someone living in the swamps of Florida will have a very different experience with hyaluronic acid and skincare than someone living in the deserts of Nevada.
Hyaluronic acid is very good at pulling moisture from its surroundings and trapping it with the molecule itself. If you live in an area where the air is moist, the moisture tends to come from the air and is held against the skin where it can be absorbed.
If you live in an arid desert, though, where is that moisture going to come from? Unfortunately, the answer is "your skin," which makes hyaluronic acid a bit of a risky product to use on its own.
That said, when used as part of an overall skincare routine, hyaluronic acid has a lot more benefits and can be protected against damaging your skin. Here's how.
First, start with a cleanser. A cleanser will remove oils, dirt, grime, bacteria, and other detritus from living on your skin. This gives you a fresh, blank slate to work with. It also helps cut down on the risk of acne forming or other skin issues that might crop up.
The kind of cleanser you use will depend on your skin type and any skin issues you want to address. If you have clear skin, you don't need a strong cleanser. If you have acne, you may want a cleanser with a higher concentration of salicylic acid. If you have sensitive skin, you'll want something very gentle. If you have redness or blotchy patches, you may want a cleanser with an ingredient to help even out your complexion.
Next, use a hyaluronic acid serum. You want your hyaluronic acid to be right up against your skin to give the most potential benefits.
- Important: Before applying hyaluronic acid, moisten your skin.
You want water already present on your skin for the hyaluronic acid to bind to so that it doesn't start trying to pull moisture from your skin. You don't need very much hyaluronic acid serum, but make sure to read and follow the instructions present on the product you buy.
Third, layer on a moisturizing skin cream. There are hundreds of moisturizing products on the market, so feel free to play around with different products until you find one you like. Our general recommendation is to avoid the "three in one" style products that are moisturizers, skin cleansers, and protective barriers all at once. You want proper layering of your products, which means you want individual products; if it's all mixed together, it won't do any of its specific effects as well as the product made to do it would.
Finally, protect your skin with sunscreen. Sunscreen should always go on top, so it can protect everything underneath it.
The main reason for this is that sunscreen is a barrier. It prevents sunlight's harmful ultraviolet rays from reaching your skin, but it also prevents many other things from reaching your skin, including moisture. That's why you want a moisturizer inside; to give the hyaluronic acid more moisture to work with instead of relying on a moist environment to pull it from the air.
Now, if you typically go through your skincare routine in the evening before bed, you don't need the sunscreen. You might want a different kind of protective barrier for the evening, but if you're not going to be exposed to UV rays, you don't need sunscreen.
Of course, you'll want to apply sunscreen in the morning before you go about your day, either way. Any time you're going to spend time outside where the sun can reach you, apply sunscreen ahead of time. And, of course, make sure to reapply it as often as necessary according to the instructions and the level of SPF protection you want.
How Often Can You Use Hyaluronic Acid Serums?
Hyaluronic acid is a natural part of the skin, but that doesn't mean it's something you can slather on constantly.
Our general recommendation is to apply hyaluronic acid once a day as a proper part of a skincare routine. If you have particularly dry skin, you can consider using it twice a day, again, as long as it's part of a routine. We wouldn't say to do it more often, though.
The biggest problem you can run into is not using hyaluronic acid with a moisturizer. If you don't give it a steady source of moisture to pull in, it will pull moisture from your skin itself, which will have the opposite effect as what you want.
The biggest issue with using hyaluronic acid is that there are a lot of different products that include a little bit of it, often under other names, like sodium hyaluronate, so it's easier to overlook and subsequently overdose. Try to avoid overdoing it if you can.
Is Hyaluronic Acid Safe?
Hyaluronic acid is a natural part of the skin, and it can be very beneficial as a moisturizer.
HOWEVER, it can also be a desiccant if used improperly. So, to avoid that, you want to always make sure you're using it along with a moisturizer. You don't want it to dry out your skin, after all! If you use products that contain hyaluronic acid and you notice that you're getting redness and dryness, go ahead and stop using them. Remember, everyone's skin is different, and some people will react more strongly than others. Harper's Bazaar even did a deep report on the stuff and found that a lot of people benefit from cutting it out.
For the same reason, you generally want to avoid any product that has a higher than 2% concentration of hyaluronic acid in its formula. Too much hyaluronic acid will cause problems too.
We also always recommend testing any new product on a small, out-of-the-way area of skin before using it on your face. The inside of your wrist is generally a good place; it's sensitive enough to show any issues you might have, but not so sensitive or so in-the-way of using your hands that it becomes disruptive if you get a rash. Once you've proven that it's safe for your skin, you can use it on your face.
There's also a very small risk that extended use of hyaluronic acid can lead to a fungal infection. This is very rare, though, and you'll notice if it's happening and can address it. Generally, though, it's not going to be a problem.
Should You Use Hyaluronic Acid on Your Whole Body?
That's up to you. Hyaluronic acid can be effective at moisturizing dry patches of skin, but it can also be more difficult to ensure proper coverage of a moisturizer across those areas. We would generally recommend using it more like a spot treatment than as a full-body treatment unless recommended by a dermatologist.
For the most part, you're going to want to stick to small amounts of hyaluronic acid with a high molecular weight and use them sparingly. You don't necessarily want to make it a part of your daily routine, though you can if it works. We recommend trying it out weekly at first and scaling up if you like the effects you're seeing. If using it more often has a negative impact, then scale back down.
And, of course, never forget the sunscreen! You don't want to let the UV rays damage your skin and undo all of your hard work, after all.
Have you used hyaluronic acid? Do you use it on just your face, or across your body? Have you seen beneficial results, or do you end up with redness and irritation? Tell us your story in the comments below; we'd love to hear it.