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Every time we turn around, it seems like there's a new skin product or ingredient that our skin care routine just "has to have." One ingredient that seems to have taken over the skin care world overnight? Hyaluronic acid.
Hyaluronic acid 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, explained New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick.
Although the body produces hyaluronic acid naturally, the skin is less able to produce it as we age, making it more common for the skin to get drier over the years.
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 told 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?
Although it’s called an "acid," don’t let the name fool you. Hyaluronic acid is not an exfoliator like salicylic or glycolic acid. Rather, it’s a kind of carbohydrate produced naturally by the body.
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.
The best hyaluronic acid serums and moisturizers
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.
This serum from Vichy that can be used on its own or followed by a thicker moisturizing cream, according to Garshick. It is also oil-free and won't clog the pores, making it suitable for all skin types.
"This face moisturizer contains hyaluronic acid and mineral-rich Vichy Volcanic Water to simultaneously help boost hydration and support the skin barrier, leaving the skin looking smoother and plumper," she explained.
Engelman is a fan of this treatment from Skinbetter Science. This treatment is made with sodium hyaluronate which is an ingredient that is extracted from hyaluronic acid and has a smaller molecule weight, allowing it to penetrate the top layer of the skin for deeper hydration.
Lain recommends this lightweight face serum from CeraVe. He says it’s especially good for sensitive skin and “has calming (vitamin) B5 without added fragrances.” This pick is made with the brand's highest concentration of hyaluronic acid and designed to help skin appear hydrated and smoother.
Garshick and Dolitsky are big fans 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 said.
Dolitsky also swears by Neutrogena’s single-use hydrating masks. It is made with 100% hydrogel material that allows the mask to hold up to 50% 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 said.
If you’re up for more of a splurge, Lain this Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier from SkinCeuticals. It is described by the brand as a "multi-functional corrective serum" that is designed to amplify the skin's hyaluronic acid levels, reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles on the skin and deliver long-lasting hydration. This serum is both paraben- and dye-free.
Lain is also a fan of this splurge-pick from SkinMedica. It is made with five types of hydrators, according to the brand, and is designed to provide eight hours of continuous moisture. Key ingredients in this hydrator include a peptide complex to rejuvenate the skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as vitamin E to protect the skin from damaging elements and signs of premature aging.
“They both… give you an immediate plump and they also will give you a long-lasting moisturization component as well,” he said of this hydrator and the SkinCeuticals Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier.
TODAY Style editor Bobbie Thomas 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 18,400 verified five-star ratings on Amazon.
Thomas also recommended this hydrating serum, which helps skin stay smooth and glowing all day long. This serum boasts a 4.6-star average rating and has over 7,600 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."
This serum, picked by Thomas, both hydrates skin and protects it from environmental stressors, using power-packed ingredients like raspberry antioxidant for lasting effects. One five-star reviewer called it the "best daytime moisturizer ever."
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.
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.
This serum has a 4.4-star average rating and over 23,100 verified five-star ratings on Amazon. It is gentle and made without any parabens, oils, dyes, fragrances or fillers. One five-star reviewer shared the significant differences they noticed in their skin like higher moisture retention, improved the appearance of crow's feet and softer skin.
This budget-friendly hyaluronic acid serum from The Ordinary has at least a 4.2-star average rating on the Sephora, Ulta and Target sites. It 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.
Made with two types of hyaluronic acid and B5, this top-rated serum is formulated to leave skin more hydrated and looking visibly plumper within hours. Designed with anti-aging benefits in mind, this serum tackles dehydrated skin, fine lines and loss of elasticity and volume. One Target reviewer called it their "new must-have."
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