From lip products to hair care, hyaluronic acid has infiltrated beauty routines everywhere from head to toe. The popular ingredient is found in so many skin care products these days, and many dermatologists swear by it — but what exactly is it? We asked dermatologists to explain what hyaluronic acid is, how it can benefit the skin and whether there are any side effects to worry about.
What is hyaluronic acid?
Hyaluronic acid is a substance produced naturally by the skin. It’s a humectant, which means it can absorb and retain water — kind of like a molecular sponge.
“It gives a lot of support and structure to the skin,” Dr. Ted Lain, chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology in Austin, Texas, previously told TODAY Style. “It brings in moisture, so it’s responsible for a lot of the water content of the skin as well.”
In fact, hyaluronic acid can absorb and retain up to 1,000 times its weight in water, making it a powerful hydrator, according to Dr. Charisse Dolitsky, a dermatologist with the Schweiger Dermatology Group in Long Island, New York.
Hyaluronic acid can also plump the skin alongside its hydrating effects, which can improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles to leave the skin looking healthy and refreshed, explains New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick.
People often use serums or moisturizers containing hyaluronic acid to get a little extra hydrating boost. (The hyaluronic acid in skin care products is a synthetic version of the compound made in a lab.) It also has uses beyond a surface-level topical, including some medical uses like helping with joint issues and healing wounds.
"As a dermatologist, I use this type of product as a dermal filler when I inject it into the skin to help with fine lines and wrinkles as well as to volumize the face," dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman tells Shop TODAY.
What are the benefits of using hyaluronic acid?
First and foremost, hyaluronic acid can be a fantastic moisturizer. When present in creams and serums, it penetrates the skin barrier to help with hydration.
“It can affect the skin by making the cells plump up, make it more dewy and more hydrated and moist, and it can minimize the appearance of fine lines,” Dolitsky previously told TODAY Style.
It can be especially great for people with skin prone to irritation.
“[For] certain people that have a compromised skin barrier, many hyaluronic acid products are nonirritating,” she said. “They have a soothing effect on the skin, if you have a very sensitive skin condition.”
For that reason, hyaluronic acid is often found in combination with other skin care ingredients that could be more irritating, like retinol.
“It gives the topical preparation more of a soothing property,” Dolitsky said. “It can be combined with many different things.”
She added that certain formulations of hyaluronic acid can even stimulate the body to create its own hyaluronic acid.
Does hyaluronic acid have any side effects or risks?
Because hyaluronic acid doesn’t peel or exfoliate the skin at all, it’s generally very safe to use.
“It’s very low on side effects,” Dolitsky said. “In rare instances, some products can be irritating, probably the ones on the extreme end of the spectrum with extremely low molecular weight...they penetrate and they can cause some inflammation and irritation, but it’s rare.”
More often, side effects can occur if you use a product containing hyaluronic acid in combination with other, more irritating ingredients. But both Dolitsky and Lain agree that hyaluronic acid on its own is almost always safe and suitable for all skin types.
Regardless, when trying out products containing hyaluronic acid, Dolitsky recommends testing a small area first to make sure you don’t have a reaction to any of the ingredients.
There are so many products containing hyaluronic acid on the market, and it can be hard to know where to begin. Here are some of the best dermatologist-recommended and top-rated hyaluronic acid serums and moisturizers.
Best hyaluronic acid serums and moisturizers, according to experts
Size: 1.0 fl oz | Other key ingredients: Dipropylene glycol, propanediol
Dolitsky swears by Neutrogena’s single-use hydrating masks. It is made with 100 percent hydrogel material that allows the mask to hold up to 50 percent more essence than a standard paper face mask.
“People with acne, their skin might be irritated from their medicines, and they put on the hydrogel sheet masks and it’s just kind of soothing, and they feel good,” she says.
Size: 1.7 fl oz | Other key ingredients: Glycerin
Dolitsky is also a big fan of Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost line, and especially this water gel moisturizer.
“I tend to deal with people with dry skin and other issues, so usually need something (like this) that’s a little more of a heavy moisturizer,” Dolitsky says.
Size: 1.0 fl oz | Other key ingredients: Glycerin
TODAY style editor Bobbie Thomas recommended this hydrating serum, which helps skin stay smooth and glowing all day long. This serum boasts a near five-star average rating and has 14,500+ verified five-star ratings on Amazon. One reviewer even said their dermatologist suggested they "stop paying premium price for 'high-end' skin care products and switch to the Neutrogena brand."
Size: 1 fl oz | Other key ingredients: Glycerin
Thomas also previously recommended this serum from L’Oreal Paris. With the optimal concentration of hyaluronic acid, it aims to reduce wrinkles while hydrating and providing younger-looking skin in just a week. This serum is a customer favorite and has over 33,000 verified five-star ratings on Amazon.
Size: 1.7 fl oz | Other key ingredients: Hydropeptides
This daily plumping hydrator was another one of Thomas’ favorites. It locks in moisture for up to 72 hours, and its peptides help restore and rejuvenate skin, leaving visible results. It dries down to a soft, velvety texture, making it perfect for makeup application.
Size: 1.0 fl oz | Other key ingredients: Vitamin B5
Thomas also liked this oil-free serum, which replenishes moisture and restores radiance, creating a smoother complexion. It's powerful enough to be used alone, but gentle enough to be paired with your favorite daily moisturizer.
Editor-recommended hyaluronic acid serums
Size: 30 ml | Other key ingredients: Ceramides, pro-vitamin B5
This budget-friendly hyaluronic acid serum from The Ordinary is vegan and cruelty-free, made without the presence of oil, alcohol, nuts, silicone and gluten. For under $10, this serum is a great option for those who don’t want to invest in a high-cost item just yet.
Emma Stessman, an associate commerce editor at Shop TODAY, recommends this serum. She says, "I have pretty dry skin and I find that this, (along with my other serums and moisturizers) helps keep it moisturized and prevents it from flaking — which often happens this time of the year. My skin is noticeably plumper and my fine lines are less visible when I’m using it."
Size: 1 fl oz | Other key ingredients: Vitamin E, B5
This serum boasts instant absorption and deeply hydrated skin for 48 hours. It's a highly-rated shopper favorite and takes up regular residence in the beauty routine of Shop TODAY associate editor Fran Sales. "I like to use this one as a base layer to my ritual every morning and every night, after cleansing and toning, because it is very lightweight but still moisturizing," she says.
Something to note: Sales says this serum comes in a "very small container" which helps with portability but can run out quickly unless used in a skin cycling rotation.
Size: 2.7 fl oz | Other key ingredients: Green tea extract
Madison San Miguel, and editorial assistant at Shop TODAY, recommends this hyaluronic acid serum that she says "feels like a drink for the skin!" She continues, "It instantly absorbs and layers well with other skin care. I love using it in the morning for extra hydration, especially now that it is getting extra chilly." Not only does the serum have a refreshing green tea scent, but it's even formulated with it.
Size: 1.7 fl oz | Other key ingredients: Squalane
Sales says this serum also has a place in her skin cycling routine. "It really does help calm my easily irritated facial skin (especially when I'm traveling) in addition to moisturizing it; the subtle calming scent is a nice added touch," she says.
"In the beginning, I doubted whether it would actually moisturize," she admits. "But while it goes on sheer, it does the job [and is] great as a base or on its own." As a bonus, she also said the glass bottle is eco-friendly and looks good on her dresser.
Size: 1.0 fl oz | Other key ingredients: Squalane, collagen
Lauren Witonsky, an associate editor at Shop TODAY, suggests this hydrating serum that can be applied both day and night. She says, "I usually use a serum to target my combination/acne-prone skin, but have completely switched over to hydrating products for winter."
Witonsky continues, "This lightweight, fast-drying serum has given me exactly the extra boost of moisture I need — and has even seemed to help get rid of blackheads more than acne products have in the past. I always use at night, but have even tried using 2 pumps under makeup and it works well as a base!"
Size: 1.0 fl oz | Other key ingredients: Vitamin E
Camryn Privette, a production coordinator at Shop TODAY, recommends Plump Jelly by Moon Juice. She talks about skin-hydrating product and says, "This hyaluronic serum has become a staple in my routine and I don’t know why it took me so long to try it."
Privette continues, "It leaves my skin feeling noticeably brighter, dewy and bouncy. While Moon Juice is known for their vitamin and supplements, their skin care line is worth every penny. Don’t sleep on this!"
How we chose
While choosing hyaluronic acid serum moisturizers, we included specific recommendations from board-certified dermatologists. We also mentioned various editor favorites that are developed to help moisturize and plump skin.
Meet the experts
- Dr. Ted Lain is the chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology in Austin, Texas who's also a board-certified dermatologist.
- Dr. Charisse Dolitsky is a board-certified dermatologist based in Long Island, New York at the Schweiger Dermatology Group.
- Dr. Marisa Garshick of New York, New York is a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology.
- Dr. Dendy Engelman is a dermatologist and board-certified dermatologic surgeon based in New York, New York at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue.
- Bobbie Thomas is the TODAY Show's style editor, who's also the author of "The Power of Style: Everything You Need to Know Before You Get Dressed Tomorrow."