Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/11/2021
Hyaluronic acid is a naturally-occurring substance that plays a key role in keeping your skin and connective tissue healthy.
If you’ve spent time researching skin care ingredients, you’ve doubtlessly come across at least a few mentions of hyaluronic acid. From injectable fillers to creams, lotions and other products, hyaluronic acid can be found seemingly everywhere in the skin care industry.
Arguably, the biggest benefit of hyaluronic acid is its ability to hydrate your skin — a topic we’ve talked about in more detail further down the page.
Below, we’ve explained what hyaluronic acid is and the benefits it can offer as part of your skin care routine. We’ve also talked about how you can use hyaluronic acid, from over-the-counter products to FDA-approved hyaluronic acid treatments.
Finally, we’ve explained what you should look for in hyaluronic acid skin care products to make sure you get the best possible results.
As we’ve covered in our guide to hyaluronic acid for skin care, hyaluronic acid is a non-sulfated glycosaminoglycan.
In simple English, hyaluronic acid, or hyaluron, is the key substance that’s involved in binding to and retaining moisture in your body.
Hyaluronic acid is responsible for enabling your skin, joints and other tissue to attract and retain moisture for hydration and lubrication. It also provides the framework for your body to create and maintain fibroblasts, blood vessels and other essentials for your health and survival.
On average, the average (155lbs) human body contains around 15 grams of hyaluronic acid, about half of which is found in the skin.
Research shows that the total amount of hyaluronic acid in your skin decreases as you get older.
Although experts aren’t yet sure of why this happens, they’re very much aware of its effects. As you get older, your skin tends to become drier, less elastic and less capable of absorbing water — all effects that are likely related to lower hyaluronic acid levels.
Because of hyaluronic acid’s beneficial effects on the skin, it’s become one of the most popular, well-known ingredients in the world of skin care.
Hyaluronic acid offers several benefits for skin, from improving hydration to — in certain forms — making fine lines, wrinkles and scarring less visible.
When discussing the benefits of hyaluronic acid, it’s important to differentiate between injectable hyaluronic acid, topical hyaluronic acid and oral hyaluronic acid.
Hyaluronic acid is a common ingredient in injectable dermal fillers — gel-like substances that are injected into the skin to hide blemishes and restore volume. Fillers that contain hyaluronic acid include Juvederm®, Restylane® and several others.
In its injectable form, hyaluronic acid offers several benefits, including the ability to improve the appearance of:
Fine lines, crow’s feet and wrinkles
Smile lines (nasolabial furrows)
Scars from wounds and burns
Smoker’s lines (vertical lines at the mouth)
Other common skin blemishes
These benefits aren’t permanent. On average, most hyaluronic acid fillers need to be reapplied every three to six months in order to remain effective.
Injectable hyaluronic acid is also used as a treatment for certain joint injuries and diseases. For example, people with arthritis are often treated with hyaluronic acid to relieve pain and increase joint cushioning.
Hyaluronic acid can be found in moisturizers, cleansers, anti-aging creams and countless other topical skin care products.
In general, the benefits of topical hyaluronic acid products are much less significant than those of injectable hyaluronic acid fillers.
Part of this is because many hyaluronic acid products aren’t fully absorbed by the skin due to some of their chemical and molecular properties.
Despite this, topical hyaluronic acid offers several major benefits, including the ability to improve skin elasticity, increase hydration and make certain signs of aging less visible.
In a 2011 study from the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, researchers compared a hyaluronic acid treatment to a non-therapeutic vehicle cream in women aged from 30 to 60. A variety of hyaluronic acid formulations using different molecular weights were used during the study.
After 60 days, the hyaluronic acid treatment produced significant improvements in skin elasticity and hydration. Application of the low molecular weight hyaluronic acid formulation also caused a noticeable reduction in the depth of the participants’ facial wrinkles.
Another study from 2014 produced similar results, with a topical, low molecular nano-hyaluronic acid preparation producing noticeable improvements in wrinkle depth, as well as skin hydration, firmness and elasticity in a small group (n=33) of middle-aged women.
Hyaluronic acid is also available as an oral supplement in capsule, tablet and liquid form. Most oral hyaluronic acid supplements are promoted for their joint support benefits. However, some research shows that they may also have beneficial effects for your skin.
In a 2017 study from Japan, researchers found that men and women aged 22 to 59 who used an oral hyaluronic acid supplement experienced a reduction in wrinkles and improvements in skin luster and suppleness over the course of 12 weeks of treatment.
However, it’s worth noting that in the same study, skin luster and suppleness also improved for people given a non-therapeutic placebo.
Using hyaluronic acid is a relatively simple process, although the specific steps can vary based on the type of hyaluronic acid product you opt to use.
Hyaluronic acid is a common ingredient in moisturizers. If you use a hyaluronic acid moisturizer, simply apply it as you normally would. The best time to apply moisturizer is when your skin feels overly dry, as well as just after you’ve finished washing your skin.
Hyaluronic acid lotions, cleansers and serums are also easy to use. For these products, it’s best to follow the instructions provided on the label or packaging. Make sure not to overuse products containing hyaluronic acid, as they may contain other ingredients that could affect your skin.
Most oral hyaluronic acid supplements are sold in liquid and capsule form. These products are typically designed for use one or two times per day with food. As always, it’s important to follow the instructions provided on the product label or packaging.
Injectable hyaluronic acid products such as dermal fillers are available from dermatologists and plastic surgeons. These treatments usually cost $600 to $700, although pricing can vary based on your location and the amount of filler that needs to be injected.
Hyaluronic acid products are widely available. Check the aisles of just about any drugstore and you’ll find countless hyaluronic acid moisturizers, serums and other products at a wide range of price points.
When you’re comparing hyaluronic acid products, it’s important to understand the key role that molecular weight can play in a product’s effectiveness.
Molecular weight refers to the mass, or size, of a molecule. It’s generally expressed in daltons (Da, or kDa for thousands of daltons) and plays an important role in the effectiveness of many ingredients used in topical skin care products, including hyaluronic acid products.
Human skin is designed to function as a protective physicochemical barrier that keeps harmful pathogens and substances out of your body. This barrier is highly effective at preventing large molecules from traveling into your body through your skin.
Research typically shows that large, heavy molecules aren’t able to pass through the skin very effectively. According to the "500 dalton” rule, a molecule needs to have a weight of less than 500 daltons in order to allow for highly effective skin absorption.
The unfortunate reality is that all hyaluronic acid molecules used in skin care products exceed the 500 dalton limit. However, research tends to show that hyaluronic acid formulations with a low molecular weight still tend to be quite effective.
For example, the 2011 study of hyaluronic acid we covered earlier found that lower molecular weight formulations of hyaluronic acid (for example, 50 or 130 kDa) were the most effective at reducing the depth of wrinkles, possibly due to better absorption through the skin.
The 2014 study referenced above also concluded that hyaluronic acid with a low molecular weight is generally more effective at hydrating the skin and treating common signs of aging.
Put simply, it’s important to look for hyaluronic acid products with a low molecular weight if you want optimal effectiveness. Try to stick to topical products with a molecular weight in the 50 to 500 kDa range, or under 1,000 kDa if products with smaller substances aren’t available.
While these are far from ideal, they’re more likely to penetrate deep into your skin than topical hyaluronic acid products with larger molecules.
Hyaluronic acid has numerous proven benefits, including the ability to improve skin hydration and make many signs of aging less visible.
Using hyaluronic acid is easy. For topical hyaluronic acid products, check for a low molecular weight product, then apply the product as directed in the product’s instructions. For oral supplements that contain hyaluronic acid, all you need to do is follow the instructions provided.
There’s no evidence that using hyaluronic acid products more frequently or in greater doses than recommended produces an improvement in results. Doing so is not advisable and may increase your risk of experiencing side effects.
If you’d like to use hyaluronic acid fillers to improve fine lines, wrinkles or other signs of aging, you’ll need to contact a dermatologist or plastic surgeon.