It seems that almost every skincare ingredient, at one point or another, has its "moment"—when it’s the latest or hottest thing available. That’s certainly the case right now with hyaluronic acid, with its benefits touted in numerous beauty magazines and skincare ads. As you might suspect, and as we’ve told you in many reviews and articles, some of these trendy ingredients are more hype than actual results, but hyaluronic acid’s fame is well-earned. It is packed with benefits, and can benefit all skin types, especially skin showing signs of aging.
How Does Hyaluronic Acid Work?
Scientifically speaking, hyaluronic acid (also known as hyaluronan) is a glycosaminoglycan, a type of molecule composed partly of sugars. Hyaluronic acid is actually a natural structural component of skin, and, in fact, is present in connective tissue throughout the human body.
So why is hyaluronic acid such a big deal? The magic of this ingredient lies in its ability to retain moisture; it’s considered to have a greater capacity to hold moisture than any other natural or synthetic polymer. In fact, one gram of hyaluronic acid is able to hold up to six liters of water!
This is important with regard to aging because one of the hallmarks of youthful skin is its moisture content. As we age, our skin loses moisture, resulting in a loss of firmness and pliability.
Note: This does not mean that everyone’s skin becomes dry with age; it simply means that skin lacks the amount of moisture it had in its youth due to sun damage and/or other factors. Without question, you can still have oily skin in your 60s (perhaps just not as oily as it was in your 20s)!
Hyaluronic acid can improve your skin’s moisture content and at the same time strengthen skin’s barrier; that is, the outer layers of your skin. A healthy barrier looks and feels softer, smoother, and plumper—all hallmarks of younger-looking skin! But, with hyaluronic acid, that’s not all you get—there are many additional benefits beyond just a more youthful appearance.
We know that just about everything, from sun damage and acne to sensitive skin and rosacea, can lead to a damaged barrier, so repairing skin’s barrier with skin-identical ingredients, like hyaluronic acid (as detailed in this article), can go a long way toward fixing, or at least minimizing, those issues, which means it’s helpful for all skin types. Its lightweight texture isn’t an issue for oily skin, and it’s gentle enough that it isn’t a problem for sensitive skin. Hyaluronic acid is also safe to use while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Even better: Hyaluronic acid also provides antioxidant defense against free-radical damage, and reduces inflammation (Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 2012 & Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 2012). Now that’s what we call a multitasking anti-aging ingredient!
Hyaluronic Acid and Sodium Hyaluronate
In addition to seeing hyaluronic acid listed as an ingredient in skincare products, you’ve probably also seen the similarly named sodium hyaluronate. There indeed is a connection; chemically, sodium hyaluronate is a salt derived from hyaluronic acid—and it has unique advantages for skin in comparison to “regular” hyaluronic acid, although both are great.
Sodium hyaluronate’s main strength lies in its molecular size. During the process of creating sodium hyaluronate, its molecular weight decreases due to the removal of lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids (International Journal of Toxicology, July/August 2009). Removing these compounds makes the sodium hyaluronate molecule much smaller than that of hyaluronic acid. That means that the sodium hyaluronate, when applied topically, can penetrate the skin more easily than the hyaluronic acid, which makes the sodium hyaluronate an asset in skincare products.
For hyaluronic acid to penetrate beneath skin’s surface, it must be bioengineered to have a much lower molecular weight. Some brands (like Aurora Cure) do this; others don’t; and still others won’t tell you if they do or not, leaving you to guess.
Adding Hyaluronic Acid to Your Routine
Now that you know how hyaluronic acid and sodium hyaluronate are related and that they both benefit skin, you might be wondering how to add these ingredients to your skincare routine. The great part is that doing so is very simple! As you’ve probably seen, both in drugstores and in department stores, more and more brands are using hyaluronic acid and its derivatives in their products. It’s as simple as checking out the ingredients on the label to see what’s included—and making sure they’re not listed near the very end of the list, in which case it means the product doesn’t contain much, and so you may not see much benefit.
Most products containing hyaluronic acid fall into the moisturizer or serum category. The important thing to keep in mind is that even if a product does contain hyaluronic acid, sodium hyaluronate, or both, you must pay attention to the other ingredients as well. So, as we say many, many times, steer clear of irritating fragrance ingredients, drying alcohols, and fragrant plant oils that could undo the great work hyaluronic acid can do for your skin!
If you’ve already found your perfect moisturizer, and it doesn’t contain hyaluronic acid, you can always use a product like Paula’s Choice Resist Hyaluronic Acid Booster, which you can add to your moisturizer or serum for an extra boost of wrinkle-smoothing hydration and plumping of fine lines!
Hyaluronic Acid Results
Because both hyaluronic acid and sodium hyaluronate add moisture to the skin, and help it retain that moisture, from skin’s uppermost layers down to its dermis layer, they can have the effect of temporarily plumping wrinkles and fine lines (adding moisture to the skin always does that, but these ingredients supercharge the process).
Topically applied, neither hyaluronic acid nor sodium hyaluronate can have the same impact on your appearance as dermal fillers, despite the advertising from some cosmetics brands, which imply that they can serve as a substitute for fillers. This doesn’t mean they aren’t helpful for wrinkles; it’s simply that injecting dermal fillers goes beyond what topical application of anything can do in terms of filling deep wrinkles. You can read more about dermal fillers and how they work in our article on the topic here.
When it comes to skincare, both hyaluronic acid and sodium hyaluronate, when applied topically, can improve the appearance of fine lines, promote younger-looking skin, and help create a healthy skin barrier that can address a number of skin concerns. When these ingredients are combined with an anti-aging, skin-smoothing routine that includes gentle products and daily broad-spectrum sun protection, you’ll be ahead of the game when it comes to using skincare products to look younger, longer (and help repair past damage)!