Search for skincare advice and you’ll quickly stumble onto hyaluronic acid, a naturally-occurring substance that’s used by your body for everything from wound and skin healing to inflammation. It’s abundant in your body as it repairs inflamed tissue and regrows skin. An average 154-pound person has around 15 grams of hyaluronic acid in them at any one time for healthy skin growth and development. It's one of the most important components of healthy skin, and hyaluronic acid for skin care is a hot topic right now.
Over the last decade, hyaluronic acid has made its way from cosmetic clinics into the world of mainstream skincare, becoming one of the most popular ingredients in everything from facial creams and masks, to serums and even hyaluronic acid moisturizer.
As strange as it might seem to apply an acid to your face, there’s some scientific evidence that hyaluronic acid for skin care is legit. Most of this evidence is for hyaluronic acid as an injectable filler. There’s also some evidence that topical hyaluronic acid has benefits for your skin.
Unfortunately, like many other popular skincare ingredients, separating the reality of hyaluronic acid from the hype can be tough. Many skincare brands make misleading claims about how and why hyaluronic acid works, as well as the type of results you can expect from it.
As a consumer, knowing what’s legitimate and what isn’t can help you get the best results from hyaluronic acid, all while avoiding costly but ineffective treatments.
Below, we’ve covered everything you need to know about using hyaluronic acid for skin care; everything from the benefits and results you should expect, to side effects, dubious marketing claims and more.
What is Hyaluronic Acid?
Technically speaking, hyaluronic acid is an anionic, non-sulfated glycosaminoglycan. Woof, that's a mouthful. In simpler terms, hyaluronic acid is a substance your body uses to keep your skin and connective tissue lubricated, strong and healthy.
Hyaluronic acid is naturally present inside your body, typically in quantities of approximately 10 to 20 grams, about half of which is stored inside your skin.
You can think of hyaluronic acid as an essential tool for your skin. Biologically, hyaluronic acid plays a major role in helping your skin retain moisture, making it essential for keeping your skin moisturized, strong and capable of shielding your body’s organs from the outside world. This is why many people opt for a hyaluronic acid moisturizer.
From a skincare perspective, hyaluronic acid plays several important role. By keeping your skin hydrated, it contributes to a smooth, firm and plump look. Skin that’s dehydrated and lacking in hyaluronic acid can often look washed out and less elastic.
Cosmetically, hyaluronic acid is used in two different ways. It’s an extremely popular and highly effective dermal filler, making it a mainstay of modern anti-aging treatment. But it's also widely used as an ingredient in topical skincare products such as creams, masks and serums.
What Does Hyaluronic Acid Do?
Before we answer this question, it’s important to separate injectable hyaluronic acid (something that’s only available from a cosmetic surgeon) from topical hyaluronic acid (something you can buy at your local pharmacy or department store).
It’s also important to separate artificial hyaluronic acid (the type you’ll find in dermal fillers and topical creams) from the natural hyaluronic acid that’s produced and used by your body.
Natural hyaluronic acid is always present within your body. Within your skin, it binds to water, helping your skin to stay moist, elastic and healthy. It also plays a major role in the health of your joints, stomach and eyes.
There’s also some scientific proof that your body’s natural hyaluronic acid helps to keep your bones strong and healthy. Studies show that hyaluronic acid could potentially play a key role in helping the body produce new bone tissue.
Around half of your body’s hyaluronic acid is found in the skin. Over time, factors such as sun exposure and normal aging can reduce the amount of hyaluronic acid found within your skin, often by a significant amount.
In short, the natural hyaluronic acid produced by your body plays an important role in a wide range of different processes, from maintaining your skin to keeping your entire body working efficiently.
Hyaluronic Acid Dermal Fillers
Used as an injectable filler, hyaluronic acid plays a major role in reducing the visibility of facial wrinkles. It’s available under a variety of brand names, from Restylane to Juvederm, Captique and Hylaform.
Countless studies have confirmed that hyaluronic acid fillers work very well for slowing down and covering up the signs of aging, mostly by helping to make folds and wrinkles in facial skin less visible.
Like most dermal fillers, the results from hyaluronic acid aren’t permanent. On average, you’ll need to repeat the treatment every three to nine months for continual results, as the injected filler gradually breaks down once in your body.
As you’d expect, injectable hyaluronic acid isn’t something you can purchase over the counter from your local pharmacy. It’s an elective, often costly cosmetic treatment you’ll need to speak to your doctor about.
Beyond its cosmetic benefits, injectable hyaluronic acid is also used in eye surgery (typically as part of cataract surgery) and as a treatment for osteoarthritis.
Topical Hyaluronic Acid Products
Used topically, hyaluronic acid’s effects on the skin are quite different. Thanks to its powerful water-binding potential, topical use of hyaluronic acid can help to make your facial skin more hydrated and elastic.
In a 2011 study, researchers found that use of a 0.1% hyaluronic acid topical cream produced significant improvements in skin hydration and elasticity in 30- to 60-year-old women.
Other studies of topical hyaluronic acid show similar results. In a 2014 study, a group of women with an average age of 45.2 experienced a significant improvement in skin hydration and wrinkle depth reduction after using topical nano-hyaluronic acid for eight weeks.
The topical nano-hyaluronic acid cream also improved skin firmness and elasticity by as much as 55% over the course of the study.
Interestingly, there’s even some evidence that hyaluronic acid works as an anti-aging treatment when taken orally. In a 2017 study, researchers found that oral hyaluronic acid works to inhibit skin wrinkles, with users showing a reduction in wrinkle volume ratio after eight weeks.
What Does Hyaluronic Acid Not Do?
Over the last decade, hyaluronic acid has grown from a powerful and effective substance used in cosmetic treatments to the latest, greatest ingredient in skincare.
Like many other ingredients that go from somewhat popular to essential, some marketing claims about hyaluronic acid aren’t completely accurate. Others are downright misleading, or disproven by real scientific evidence.
Because of this, it’s important to cover what hyaluronic acid doesn’t do in addition to its potential benefits for your skin. Based on current scientific data, it’s safe to say that hyaluronic acid does not:
- Treat acne. Because of its popularity and reputation as a miracle skincare ingredient, hyaluronic acid is often used in acne creams. However, there’s no scientific evidence showing that hyaluronic acid plays any role in treating or preventing acne.
While adding hyaluronic acid to an acne treatment cream might have some benefits for your skin’s hydration and overall health, there’s no proof that it will make the cream any more effective at treating acne.
- Heal scars. Used as a dermal filler, hyaluronic acid can be a powerful tool for filling in acne scars and restoring your skin. However, there’s no proven scientific evidence that topical hyaluronic acid works effectively on its own as a scar treatment.
With this said, there is some scientific evidence to show that topical hyaluronic acid can be used alongside cosmetic treatments such as laser skin rejuvenation to reduce the visibility of acne scars.
- Protect you from the sun. As you’d expect, skincare companies touting the use of hyaluronic acid for skin care have rushed to add it to their sunscreens. While topical hyaluronic acid can help your skin to stay moisturized, there’s no scientific proof that it offers any sun protection benefits.
- Provide filler-like results. The hyaluronic acid molecule is too large to penetrate into the epidermis, meaning topical hyaluronic acid is only really effective on the surface of the skin.
This doesn’t mean that topical hyaluronic acid isn’t effective. Based on studies, it is, but that you shouldn’t expect filler-like results if you opt for a topical form of hyaluronic acid.
- Prevent aging. Regular use of hyaluronic acid creams is linked to an improvement in wrinkles. However, hyaluronic acid doesn’t prevent aging; like other skincare products, it’s more effective at reducing the signs of aging than preventing them entirely.
In general, while hyaluronic acid works, it’s far from a miracle treatment. Using hyaluronic acid creams and other topical products is scientifically linked to better skin, but there’s no guarantee that it will solve all of your skincare issues as some products claim.
Hyaluronic Acid Side Effects
Overall, hyaluronic acid is extremely safe to use. However, like with most skincare substances, hyaluronic acid side effects exist, and you should know them.
Used as an oral supplement, hyaluronic acid has a good safety record. Studies show that long term use is safe, with none of the participants in a one-year study reporting any negative side effects from their hyaluronic acid supplementation.
Used as a topical skincare ingredient, hyaluronic acid also has a good record. The only widely reported hyaluronic acid side effects experienced from its use in generic skincare products is dryness, which is often just a result of other ingredients used in over-the-counter skincare creams.
Used as a dermal filler, hyaluronic acid has a slightly longer list of potential side effects. After getting injections, some people notice pain, bruising, itching and swelling. It’s also possible to experience a rash on and around the injection site.
Like with other dermal fillers, it’s also possible for hyaluronic acid to give the skin an uneven, bumpy appearance.
These side effects are common for all dermal fillers and aren’t unique to products containing hyaluronic acid. Since hyaluronic acid is a substance your body produces naturally, it’s very uncommon to experience any common allergic reaction symptoms.
Is Hyaluronic Acid Worth Using?
There’s no question that hyaluronic acid is one of the latest skincare ingredient trends. It’s a popular ingredient in almost everything, from anti-aging creams, masks and serums to acne prevention washes, sunscreen and more.
Like with other scientifically-proven skincare ingredients, hyaluronic acid is worth using when it’s used right. If your goal is to reduce the visibility of facial wrinkles and moisturize your skin, using a skincare cream that contains hyaluronic acid can be a great idea.
Likewise, if you have specific lines or wrinkles that you’d like to make less obvious, hyaluronic acid-based fillers can also be a good option.
However, if your goal is to prevent acne, even out patches of skin hyperpigmentation or solve other skincare problems, there are more effective options out there. Our guide to using tretinoin for anti-aging treatment is probably a good place to start. While hyaluronic acid works well as an anti-aging treatment, it isn’t designed to solve every skincare problem.