Ask any skincare enthusiast—even a neophyte—what their go-to formula is, and hyaluronic acid is likely to be top of mind. It plumps! It hydrates! It is anti-ageing! It reduces scars! “It is my holy grail,” said one friend I texted. “Can’t live without it but not sure how to pronounce it,” said another. Hy-al-uron-ic acid is known for its hydrating abilities and is said to lift the skin, hold in moisture and leave the cells plumped and healthy. But, even with an ingredient this loved, too much really can be too much. And research about the product isn’t as conclusive as people think. Could it maybe, possibly be over-hyped? We asked the pros.
How does hyaluronic acid work?
The OG Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a sugary carb that is present in our skin cells and joints. “HA is a hygroscopic agent that is naturally present in the skin and joints as a viscous material that creates suppleness, suppleness and dewiness in the skin. It binds water so it will pull water from everywhere to make the skin more moist and hydrated,” says Dr Kiran Sethi, dermatologist and medical director of Isya Aesthetics, Delhi. It is able to hold 1,000-6,000 times its weight in water, provided it has enough to extract from.
This makes it sound like a super-ingredient, but the way it works when applied topically is slightly more complicated. When applied to the skin, “the molecules only offer hydration on the surface,” says Pune-based dermatologist Dr Poorva Shah. This is because HA has a high molecular weight, making it too large and heavy to actually sink into the skin. Cosmetic chemists are able to break these into low molecular weight particles to improve penetration, but these also only make it to the epidermis (the upper-most layer of the skin).
This is why we have fillers. “Typically normal hyaluronic acid spreads on the surface, but with dermal filler, it gets cross-linked so it stays in one place. With different amounts of crosslinking, you can use HA to lift the skin, create structure in jawlines, noses or chins or cheeks, or to fill up lines,” says Dr Sethi.
Could topical HA be harmful?
There is no conclusive research that proves that topical HA actually has the water-pulling capabilities that it is said to have. A class-action lawsuit filed against skincare brand Peter Thomas Roth alleges that they falsely advertised their Water Drench line by suggesting that the ingredient “will draw moisture from the atmosphere into the user’s skin” and “will hold 1,000 times its weight in water.” In fact, some research may suggest that low molecular weight HA (the kind that penetrates deeper) can cause inflammatory reactions in people with sensitive or rosacea-prone skin because skin cells may not consider it a recognisable format.
The water-pulling ability might actually be harmful if you’re applying it in very dry, low-humidity climes. “It will pull moisture from where it can. So if there’s low humidity in the air, it will draw moisture from the deeper layers of skin—even from your own naturally created HA—and bring it to the surface, where it then evaporates and leaves skin drier than it was in the first place,” says Dr Geetika Mittal Gupta, dermatologist and founder, ISAAC Luxe. While this might feel gratifying in the moment (like licking your lips to fight dryness), your skin is more dehydrated than it ever was. A study supported this: low molecular weight hyaluronic acid can actually increase water loss by pulling it from the skin’s own reserves.
Can you still use HA to plump and hydrate skin?
If you use it right, and your skin really is dehydrated, all three pros suggest keeping the ingredient in your cabinet. “Start with a damp face, because HA needs a reserve of moisture to pull from. Then, after applying, lock it in with a rich moisturiser,” says Dr Mittal Gupta. Here too, it may not be creating long-term internal moisture, but it leaves the skin looking dewier and healthier without affecting the skin’s hydration level. There’s nothing wrong with a little quick-fix, all three pros confirm. “It is a temporary effect but works well for at-the-moment hydration,” says Dr Shah. If you’re looking for a HA topical, look for one that has a mix of molecular weights. The largest ones will sit on the surface and act as a barrier, while medium-sized molecules give a film-forming effect.
What else can you swap HA with?
Experts suggest just using HA once a day, or when you really need a boost of obvious hydration. If you want to switch it up, Dr Sethi, Dr Shah and Dr Mittal Gupta all speak highly of Polyglutamic Acid. “This cutting edge ingredient is a major game change for skincare in future,” says Dr Shah. It is a humectant, but more importantly, it inhibits hyaluronidase (the enzyme which breaks down the body’s natural HA), making it a preventative product.
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