Is Hyaluronic Acid Really The Skincare Superstar It's Supposed To Be?

If you walk down any skin care aisle at Sephora, Ulta, or CVS, you'll be sure to find an array of products with hyaluronic acid in them. According to WebMD, hyaluronic acid (HA) is naturally found in the body to lubricate connective tissues. Newsweek explains that the substance has recently exploded on the beauty scene for its significant promises. This includes providing moisture and anti-aging benefits, amongst other things (per Healthline). Healthline also adds that hyaluronic acid supplies the skin with a glowy look and is beneficial for everyone, including individuals with acne. Moreover, there is little risk of it causing allergic reactions (via Harvard Health). 

Having said that, skin care experts have long praised hyaluronic acid. Dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse told Allure, "Hyaluronic acid penetrates easily, which is why it works so well when applied topically." She added, "Our skin is the largest organ in the body and absorbs up to 60 percent of nutrients we apply to it." Another dermatologist, Ava Shamban, said (via Byrdie), "It is a superstar at alleviating dry skin." She continued, "Hyaluronic acid is a moisture binder, which means that it will attach itself to the water in the cells making them 'plump.'" But, perhaps hyaluronic acid may not be as clear-cut as it seems.

You shouldn't use hyaluronic acid on its own

Newsweek reports that the primary advantage of hyaluronic acid is that it acts as an incredible moisturizer. In addition, it can also retain moisture. Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning it moisturizes by maintaining water in the skin (per Glo Skin Beauty). CNN notes that hyaluronic acid is especially ideal for individuals with mature skin. 

However, Shape states that hyaluronic acid is not a cure-all for dry skin. In other words, you should not use it on its own. Per Shape, you must use another moisturizer to reap the full benefits of hyaluronic acid. Gloria Lu, a skincare chemist, explained (via Bustle), "It takes a team to get all of your moisturizing agents." She added, "Water grabbers are really good hydrators, [but you can't] look for a single hydrator to do all the work." 

Although this might sound counterintuitive, dermatologist Ava Shamban told Refinery 29 that hyaluronic acid works best when the skin is already hydrated. She said, "If your skin is dehydrated to begin with, and the air around you is dry, then the product can actually suck water from deeper in the skin." Meaning, this can dry out your skin even more.

Hyaluronic acid can cause inflammation

A study titled "Hyaluronic Acid in Inflammation and Tissue Regeneration" published by the Wound Care Learning Network notes that hyaluronic acid can regulate inflammation and lead to better wound healing. Despite this, "Hyaluronic acid and its biomedical applications: A review" (via Engineered Regeneration) reports that the substance can have the opposite effects; it all depends on the molecular weight of the hyaluronic acid. If hyaluronic acid has a high molecular weight, it will likely provide repairing properties. If it has a low molecular weight, it can lead to inflammation. 

Dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss explained (via Bustle), "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." According to "Hyaluronic Acid in Inflammation and Tissue Regeneration," this phenomenon has yet to be widely understood. However, the study states that it likely stems from the substance producing an immune response in the body. 

In an article for The Cut, writer Parizaad Khan Sethi details her experience dealing with skin inflammation, only to find that the cause was her low-molecular-weight hyaluronic acid products. The publication adds that by reading the label, you can quickly discover if your hyaluronic acid has a low molecular weight.

Hyaluronic acid marketing and false claims

Beyond its popularity, Vantage Market Research (via GlobeNewswire) writes that hyaluronic acid is a familiar skincare ingredient, so it continues to thrive because consumers don't need an introduction; they know its advantages. However, some consumers might be unaware that their hyaluronic acid product might contain sodium hyaluronate, per Versed Skincare. Healthline reports that sodium hyaluronate is the salt form of hyaluronic acid. It has similar benefits, and due to its low molecular weight, it can seep through the skin better. 

Although some products claim to have up to 90% hyaluronic acid, esthetician Kerry Benjamin explains that this is false. She said (via Byrdie), "If a product were actually made with 90 percent HA, it would be a salt rock," Benjamin continued, "It's not truly 90 percent HA — it's 90 percent of the total solution, which is primarily water." She added that products found in stores consist of 1% to 2% hyaluronic acid. 

One of the most popular selling points is hyaluronic acid's moisture retention. Harvard Health states that hyaluronic acid can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water, which is what keeps skin dewy and hydrated. Oumere, however, notes that lab experiments say otherwise and that this is a false claim that skincare brands continue to make. In 2022, consumers filed a lawsuit against Bath & Body Works for misleading claims that their hyaluronic acid-containing product "attracts and retains up to 1,000x its weight in water to make skin look smoother and more supple" (via Law Street Media). 

There are better moisturizers on the market

Slate rightfully notes that no skincare product is perfect. Nonetheless, hyaluronic acid is a powerhouse ingredient (per Harvard Health). However, if you're uneasy that it will trigger inflammation or have other concerns, there are other products you can use. 

According to NetDoctor, polyglutamic acid, also known as a PGA, can hold up even more moisture than hyaluronic acid. Versed Skincare reports that polyglutamic acid is perfect for individuals with dehydrated skin. Famed makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury explained (via Byrdie), "Not only does it draw water into the cells, like HA, but it also forms a protective film on your skin that prevents water from evaporating."

Per The INKEY List, polyglutamic acid can be used alone but will work best when combined with hyaluronic acid. Together, these two substances create an ultra-hydrating treatment. There are, of course, other alternatives to both polyglutamic acid and hyaluronic acid. This includes glycerin, vitamin B5, and cica. In fact, Supergreat states that glycerin might be a better option for those who want to keep their skin hydrated. As for vitamin B5, MDSUN Skin Care notes that it retains water and moisture in the skin. Cica, on the other hand, has a plethora of anti-aging benefits and moisturizing effects (via IPSY).

The right way to use hyaluronic acid

If you're loyal to hyaluronic acid, applying it correctly is the best thing you can do for yourself and your skin. Skincare chemist Victoria Fu told The Cut that the pros of hyaluronic acid outweigh the cons. She noted, "Often, rather than a problem with HA, it's a confusion in usage. If you don't use something like a cream or oil to seal it in, it can cause dryness." In addition, Grove Collaborative states that applying hyaluronic acid when the skin is wet is the best course of action. Per Refinery 29, Nicolas Travis, the founder of Allies of Skin, explained, "Once hyaluronic acid comes into contact with water, it knows what it's doing and your skin will end up supremely hydrated and plumped." Similarly, dermatologist Purvisha Patel told Shape, "Either face mists or plain old water are good for dampening the skin — then you'll want to 'trap' the moisture with your go-to moisturizer."

According to The Cut, some hyaluronic acid products will already have occlusives in them. Michigan State University explains that this ensures that moisture gets locked into the skin. But, if your product does not have an added occlusive, dermatologist Harold Lancer suggests (via The Cut), "Use a moisturizer to increase the benefit of the HA, seal it and enhance the retention of fluid." Simply put, using a moisturizer is a must when properly using hyaluronic acid.