Does Hyaluronic Acid Work As Well As Everyone Thinks It Does?

Why it might be time to pump the breaks on HA mania.

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If you walk down any skin care aisle at your local beauty supply store these days, you’ll inevitably spot two words emblazoned on the packaging of various serums and creams: hyaluronic acid. The little hydrating ingredient that could, HA is a sugar molecule that not only occurs naturally within the human body but also attracts water, binding it to collagen so that it remains within the skin. By slathering it all over your face, you’re left with a dewier, bouncier, more hydrated complexion that will have strangers demanding to know what products you’ve been using — or so we’ve been told.

Victoria Fu, a cosmetic chemist and co-founder of the skin care science blog and brand Chemist Confessions, considers hyaluronic acid to be a “very vanilla” ingredient in the beauty sphere. But it is really easy to formulate with, she notes — which might explain why there is a distressing amount of products that boast that they contain HA, often as a hero ingredient. Case in point: Sephora’s online offerings for hyaluronic acid-spiked products top out at 935 — a number that even a Kardashian sister’s bathroom would struggle to contain.

But for how ubiquitous the ingredient has become in the beauty landscape (it’s even popping up in some color cosmetics for a dose of skin care-meets-makeup appeal) how much of its weighty promises are warranted — and how much is the result of an overzealous brand marketing director? Below, experts weigh in on whether hyaluronic acid is actually worthy of being skin care’s holy grail or if we’re all been potentially flushing our beauty dollars down the drain.

The Benefits Of Hyaluronic Acid

It’s fair to acknowledge that HA (which can also be labeled as hydrolyzed hyaluronic acid or sodium hyaluronate) has nearly 100 years of research and clinical studies behind it since it was first isolated in 1934. While not all beauty products that include it are created equal, it’s rare to find a dermatologist or esthetician who would write off the ingredient as entirely ineffective. “I personally use products with hyaluronic acid daily, so I vouch for its effectiveness and ease of use,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman, M.D., founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL. “It really is a powerhouse ingredient in that it can be used in a variety of skin care products, from eye creams to moisturizers, sunscreens, and more.”

Hyaluronic acid might be a powerful humectant (meaning it grabs and retains water in the skin), but it’s crucial to note that a humectant isn’t a moisturizer — it simply plays one role in the quest for properly moisturized skin. “It takes a team to get all of your moisturizing agents,” says Gloria Lu, the other founder of Chemist Confessions. “Water grabbers are really good hydrators, [but you can’t] look for a single hydrator to do all the work.” Sealing in that hydration with a softening emollient moisturizer is essential to keep skin hydrated, meaning that using an HA serum alone won’t give you the moisture your complexion needs.

The Little-Known Truth About Hyaluronic Acid

Despite its benefits, there is a growing sense that the hyaluronic acid hype has reached a fever pitch and that it might not be the best option for achieving that enviable hydrated glow. Many beauty aficionados aren’t aware that there’s a risk of going overboard with too many HA-rich products — something that could potentially damage your skin in the process.

As board-certified dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss, M.D., explains, “Low molecular weight HA [which brands usually tout as being better for your skin] can be pro-inflammatory. So, if you are using it in too many steps of your routine, it can actually cause inflammation, only making matters worse for already dehydrated skin.” Lu reiterates that lower-weight hyaluronic acid products are slightly more likely to irritate the skin. “But like with anyone else, we always say to [patch] test since everyone’s skin is unique and has different triggers,” she adds. As with many things in beauty, like exfoliation or dermal fillers, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to hyaluronic acid, so it might be wise to stick with a singular HA-laden moisturizer or essence rather than layering multiple formulas.

Besides overusing hyaluronic acid, some people misuse it — namely, by forgetting to seal it in with something emollient (as mentioned before). Without that layer on top, you run the risk of experiencing the opposite of that hydrating benefit you were looking for. Since it draws moisture from the air, if there’s not anything occlusive covering it, a dry environment could suck moisture out of your skin.

Also of note? While many brands like to call out the nearly superhuman ability of HA to hold 1000x its weight in water, that claim is not as straightforward as it sounds. “Hyaluronic acid can have different structures (cross-linked versus linear) which also dictates how much water the molecule can hold onto,” says Fu. “So the claim is substantiated for some sources of HA, and there are many different molecular sizes [but that] is pretty difficult to assess as a skin care shopper.” A good rule of thumb for any beauty product is that if a benefit sounds too good to be true... there’s a strong likelihood that it is.

So, if we can all agree that hyaluronic acid is perfectly fine in moderation, how did our collective HA mania originate in the first place?

The Power Of Beauty Marketing

According to Idriss, the current hyaluronic acid boom is mostly due to marketing and the existing depth of consumer knowledge around the ingredient. “Education is the most expensive tool when it comes to marketing,” she says, adding that beauty brands are able to capitalize on this preexisting knowledge and not invest in teaching potential customers about the benefits of HA. Still, as she says, “you don’t need it in every step of your routine and you especially don’t need a dedicated single-ingredient HA serum.”

Lu reveals that HA actually first entered consumer consciousness as a must-have ingredient about a decade ago, and has recently been revived by social media. “It spread around like wildfire and it’s back to being popular again,” she says.

Fu adds that, “In comparison to a lot of other hydrating molecules, HA has an easier story to communicate. We always joke about how HA is like the [beauty] equivalent to the low-rise bell-bottom jeans we wore in high school: Things are cyclical so it’s come back again. That’s what happens with these active [ingredients].”

With hyaluronic acid hogging so much of beauty fans’ attention, it’s understandable that other, potentially more effective, ingredients get overlooked. But many experts are urging clients and shoppers to explore different options in the name of more hydrated skin.

What’s The Next Hydrating Superstar?

As brands explore other tried-and-true hydrators to set them apart from their competitors, hyaluronic acid is facing some much-needed competition. “There is research to suggest that polyglutamic acid [PGA] is more hydrating than hyaluronic acid, so we may see more products using that ingredient in the future,” says Hartman.

All of the experts cited glycerin as a stellar humectant ingredient, and one that is already surging in popularity with many products already available. “Glycerin is a far better humectant than hyaluronic acid,” says Idriss, adding that the ingredient can travel deep into your dermis and allow the skin to hydrate itself (whereas HA is a much larger molecule, even the options with the lowest molecular weight, so it doesn’t penetrate as deeply).

Fu and Lu also believe that panthenol, aka vitamin B5, is waiting in the wings as a new go-to skin care superstar, as well as cica, which is already extremely popular in the Asian beauty market.

Still, it’s important to remember that not all of your hydrating products should feature humectants alone. Fu explains that using a humectant like HA is not enough to keep your skin truly hydrated; rather, a well-rounded moisturizing routine utilizes a trifecta of ingredients: humectants, emollients (which create a protective film to lock moisture in the skin), and occlusives (typically a heavier product that prevents water loss).

“As a skin care product, a [blend of ingredients] can do more for your skin [than just HA], whether it’s hydrating more or providing any other skin benefit [like softening or smoothing],” says Fu. Adds Lu, “It gets really confusing with marketing lingo because everything is ‘hydrating,’ but we need to focus more on a [multifaceted] strategy when it comes to moisturizing.”

By utilizing a variety of vetted ingredients (and of course testing a few different formulas to see what works best for your skin) it won’t be long until hyaluronic acid becomes an ensemble player in your skin care routine rather than the headliner — exactly where it was always meant to be.

Shop Hydrating Skin Care

The Gel-Based Serum

“Our Aquafix moisturizer has the humectants and emollients your skin needs in a light, layerable gel cream,” says Lu of this serum that contains allantoin, panthenol, and madecassoside (a soothing antioxidant) for hydration.

The Barrier Serum

“The Cocokind Ceramide Barrier Serum is a newer obsession of mine that has five types of ceramides and squalane to help lock in moisture underneath a moisturizer,” says Idriss.

The Soothing Balm

Idriss is also a fan of this drugstore balm for the hydrating job. “I love the La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume B5 with zinc to help soothe and reset your skin barrier,” she says.

Studies referenced:

Camargo, F.B. (2011). Skin moisturizing effects of panthenol-based formulations. J Cosmet Sci. 2011 Jul-Aug;62(4):361-70. PMID: 21982351

Essendoubi, M. (2016). Human skin penetration of hyaluronic acid of different molecular weights as probed by Raman spectroscopy. Skin Res Technol. PMID: 25877232 DOI: 10.1111/srt.12228

Fallacara, A. (2018). Hyaluronic Acid in the Third Millennium. Polymers, 10(7).

Lee, R. (2014). In vitro evaluation of new functional properties of poly-γ-glutamic acid produced by Bacillus subtilis D7. Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences, 21(2), 153-158.

Litwiniuk, M. (2016). Hyaluronic Acid in Inflammation and Tissue Regeneration. Wounds. 2016 Mar;28(3):78-88. PMID: 26978861

Papakonstantinou, E. (2012). Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging. Dermato-endocrinology, 4(3), 253-258.

Sethi, A. (2016). Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian Journal of Dermatology, 61(3), 279-287.


Victoria Fu, a cosmetic chemist and co-founder of the skin care science blog and brand Chemist Confessions

Dr. Corey L. Hartman, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL

Dr. Shereene Idriss, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Pillowtalk Derm

Gloria Lu, cosmetic chemist and co-founder of Chemist Confessions