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What is hyaluronic acid? Hyaluronic acid's benefits in skin care

Learn all about this natural ingredient including its benefits and side effects, as well as the best serums and moisturizers to try.
hyaluronic acid
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/ Source: TODAY

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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.

And if you're looking to add hyaluronic acid to your skin care routine, we also asked experts to share their top picks for serums and moisturizers containing this powerful ingredient.

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, 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.

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.

So 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.)

Dermatologists also sometimes use hyaluronic acid as an injectable filler that plumps the skin and makes it appear younger. It even has some medical uses, including helping with joint issues and healing wounds.

What are hyaluronic acid's benefits?

First and foremost, hyaluronic acid is a fantastic moisturizer. When it’s 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 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 compounds 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.

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.

And, as with any skin care product, stick to reputable brands sold by authorized retailers.

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 hyaluronic acid serums and moisturizers:

  • CeraVe Hyaluronic Acid Face Serum, $17, Amazon

Lain also recommends this hydrating face serum from CeraVe. He says it’s especially good for sensitive skin and “has calming (vitamin) B5 without added fragrances.”

  • Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Water Face Gel Moisturizer, $16 (usually $19), Amazon

Dolitsky is 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,” she said.

  • Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hydrating Hydrogel Mask, $2, Amazon

She also swears by Neutrogena’s hydrating masks.

“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.

  • SkinCeuticals Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier, $109, Amazon

If you’re up for more of a splurge, Lain also loves both the SkinCeuticals Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier and SkinMedica’s HA5 rejuvenating hydrator.

  • SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator, $120, Amazon

“They both … give you an immediate plump and they also will give you a long-lasting moisturization component as well,” he said.

  • L'Oreal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Hyaluronic Acid Facial Serum, $20, Amazon

Bobbie Thomas, a TODAY Style contributor, recommended this serum from L'Oreal Paris. With the optimal concentration of hyaluronic acid, it reduces wrinkles while hydrating, providing younger-looking skin in just a week.

  • Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Serum, $16, Amazon

Thomas also recommended this hydrating serum, which helps skin stay smooth and glowing all day long.

  • Avon Anew Hydra Fusion Replenishing Serum, $23 (originally $40), Avon

This serum, picked by Thomas, both hydrates skin and protects it from environmental stressors, using power-packed ingredients for lasting effects.

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.

  • Dr. Brandy Skincare Hyaluronic Facial Cream, $72, Sephora

This daily plumping hydrater 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.