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We're betting you've noticed hyaluronic acid blended into many of your go-to serums and moisturizers, but may ask yourself, What exactly is it? For starters, the beloved ingredient is actually something your body naturally produces, and is key in helping plump fine lines and making skin look supremely dewy. Ahead, we asked dermatologists for more of a breakdown on hyaluronic acid (or HA), along with some of best ways to incorporate it into your regular routine for those new to its benefits.
What is hyaluronic acid?
Hyaluronic acid is a sugar molecule found naturally in our bodies that holds up to 1,000 times its weight in water to keep our skin hydrated and plump. Lily Talakoub, a dermatologist at the McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center, in McLean, Virginia, tells Bazaar that HA binds with collagen and water molecules, which traps the acid in our skin and prevents it from evaporating into the air.
Similar to collagen and elastin, the amount of naturally-occurring hyaluronic acid in our bodies decreases as we get older. But experts suggest that there may be ways to stimulate production of the molecule in our bodies. “Diet affects the skin significantly,” says Howard D. Sobel, a dermatologist in New York City. “Eating fruits and veggies with lots of antioxidants can protect the skin from inflammation, and in turn, helps the skin retain hyaluronic acid.”
How hyaluronic acid works as a powerful humectant
When used topically in skincare products, including creams and serums, hyaluronic acid gives your complexion a boost by quickly increases the skin's moisture level. “Because of its ability to draw and hold water, it can be used as a humectant in your skincare regimen,” explains Rachel Nazarian, a dermatologist at the Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. “It continually keeps skin moisturized throughout the day.”
As an added bonus, hyaluronic acid also plays well with most other skin actives, making it easy to pair with peels, retinols, vitamins, and other acids. Nazarian advises that the only exception could be combining the ingredient with acids containing lower pH levels, like glycolic, because it may ultimately degrade the HA, rendering it ineffective. "As long as it is in the right formulation, hyaluronic acid will make the skin appear younger and more dewy because it helps improve its elasticity,” Kavita Mariwalla, says dermatologist and founder of Mariwalla Dermatology in New York City. She often recommends the SkinCeuticals Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier to her clients in need of increased skin firmness.
How to choose the right HA products for you
Choosing the right hyaluronic acid serum in particular can sometimes be tricky, as Nazarian says the molecule can sometimes be times too large to effectively deliver hydration to the skin's layers. Her top tip to find the right HA fit? “See where the molecule is micronized, or if the hyaluronic acid is in a vehicle that penetrates the skin in order to be effective where it needs to be,” she adds. “Otherwise you are just putting it on top of the skin without it being helpful.”
Hyalu B5 Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum
Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5
The Dewy Serum
Darker Skin Tones Hyaluronic Serum
The Base Face Milk
Plum Plump Refillable Hyaluronic Acid Moisturizer
Universal Pro-Bio Moisture Boost Cream
Vinosource-Hydra S.O.S Intense Hydration Moisturizer
Hyaluronic Acid Toner
According to Harvard Medical School, larger HA molecules, though best at binding water, can't penetrate deeply into the skin. And when they're applied topically, they only provide hydration to its surface. While smaller acid molecules can penetrate more deeply through the skin's layers, it's ideal to look for a product contains a mix of hyaluronic acid molecules in different sizes.
When used incorrectly, hyaluronic acid serums can actually dehydrate your skin. The molecule needs water in order to plump, but without moisture on the surface of your skin or from the air, it pulls water from deep inside your skin. This process is easy to counteract: apply a HA serum on damp skin, then quickly top it with your moisturizer of choice. "HAs are best used under a more occlusive moisturizer to trap in the water-binding effects of the acid," adds Purvisha Patel, dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. Patel often suggests Vichy's Mineral 89 to her clients in search of a plumping serum.
To keep skin extra hydrated, Nazarian typically recommends the Proactiv Green Tea Moisturizer. "I love that it’s lightweight, and oil-free, so good for my acne-prone patients," she says. "It also includes green tea, an antioxidant that works to improve skin aging, and hyaluronic acid to help maintain skins hydration."
What are hyaluronic acid injectables?
While the most common use of hyaluronic acid in skincare is topical, the acid is also available in injectable form through popular dermal fillers like Juvéderm and Restylane. Fillers active the ingredient in gel form to add volume to the dermis (or inner layer between the two main layers of skin). “In fillers, hyaluronic acid is bound in a gel carrier which holds it in place where it is injected,” explains Mariwalla. “The hyaluronic acid creates volume because it draws in water to the area, creating a filling effect.” While these products last up to nine months, the gel solution helps to restore facial contours, smooth fine lines, and improve radiance.
The side effects experienced after injection are typically minimal: you may experience some swelling or bruising that can last for two or three days. The most important thing to remember when getting any kind of filler or injectable os to go to a trained and board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon. “Injectables do come with their own risk—they can be injected too superficially, or in rare cases, into a blood vessel,” says Nazarian.
Since hyaluronic acid is something our bodies already produce, it's considered safe for use in a wide range of options to enhance the face and body. Nazarian adds that dermatologists often use dermal fillers to smooth bumps on the bridge of the nose, and on the feet and toes to boost cushioning and offset the effects of tissue loss.
Depending on your skincare needs, hyaluronic acid can be pivotal in maintaining or increasing your level of moisture while making it easy to strengthen the skin barrier overtime.
Meet the Experts
Lily Talakoub is a board-certified dermatologist at the McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center, in McLean, Virginia.
Howard D. Sobel is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.
Rachel Nazarian is a board-certified dermatologist at the Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.
Kavita Mariwalla is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Mariwalla Dermatology in New York City.
Purvisha Patel is a board-certified dermatologist based in Memphis, and founder of Visha Skincare.
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For more than 150 years, Harper’s Bazaar has been the preeminent fashion and beauty resource for women at every age. We cover what’s new and what’s next in beauty by working with the world’s leading authorities in dermatology, plastic surgery, cosmetics, skincare, haircare, and fragrance. Every story we publish has been thoroughly researched and vetted by our team of beauty editors and industry experts.
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