Hyaluronic Acid 101: Everything You Need to Know About This Hydrating Ingredient

hyaluronic acid

Like retinol and antioxidants, hyaluronic acid is one of those skincare ingredients you’ve likely heard about for years. Maybe you’ve heard about it from a dermatologist, a magazine, or someone recommending it at a beauty counter. But just like those other evergreen go-tos, you might not know exactly how or why you should be using it — or even what it is.

Don’t let the word “acid” in its name fool you. Unlike the aforementioned retinol, which can be a little tough on first-time users, topical hyaluronic acid is gentle and hydrating, making it easy to designate the star of your skincare routine. We consulted with top dermatologists, who broke down every aspect of this ingredient — along with sharing some top product picks and recommendations. 

What exactly is hyaluronic acid?

“Hyaluronic acid is a carbohydrate naturally occurring throughout the body,” explains dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman. “It binds to water to lubricate joints and muscles. It is an effective moisturizer because it can hold 1,000 times its weight in water.”

As you might have guessed, that capacity to hold water means hyaluronic acid is a hydration powerhouse. Applying it topically helps create a barrier on top of the skin, sealing in moisture and helping smooth the look of texture. “Skin loses water and moisture as we age,” says Dr. Engelman. “This ingredient will help store hydration.”

What are the benefits of topical hyaluronic acid?

Essentially, hyaluronic acid acts as a humectant, which means it brings plenty of hydration to your skin. “Topically, it can help the skin retain moisture as well as plump the skin, temporarily diminishing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and skin laxity,” says New York City cosmetic dermatologist Sejal Shah, founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology.

Who should use topical hyaluronic acid?

Pretty much any skin type can benefit from the topical hydrating superpowers of hyaluronic acid. It’s a favorable option for people with dry or eczema-prone skin, sensitive complexions, and mature or aging skin.

What’s the best way to use hyaluronic acid topically?

There are several different types of skincare products that feature hyaluronic acid, and according to Dr. Shah, it plays nicely with other active ingredients. So it can be used daily (morning and night, if you’d like!) and layered with other formulas.

To get the most bang for your buck with skincare products, the goal is to ensure that ingredients penetrate the skin barrier. That’s why Dr. Shah prefers to use hyaluronic acid via serums. Generally, the ingredients are more concentrated (a higher concentration of hyaluronic acid will deliver more of the hydrating, skin-softening benefits), and the molecules in the formula are smaller. That helps the active ingredients go deeper into the skin. Some of her standbys include Peter Thomas Roth Water DrenchTM Hyaluronic Cloud Serum ($65), which features 75 percent hyaluronic acid, and Skinceuticals H.A. Intensifier ($98) and Neutrogena® Hydro Boost Hydrating Serum ($20), which both wear well under makeup.

Dr. Engelman recommends choosing a hyaluronic acid product based on your skincare concern. “If the skin is in desperate need of hydration, masks are a quick fix,” she says. “Masks are supercharged because they add concentrated active ingredients back into the skin in a short time frame.” She’s a fan of Elizabeth Arden SUPERSTART Probiotic Boost Skin Renewal Biocellulose Mask ($67 for four masks), which combines hyaluronic acid with probiotics to help nourish and protect skin.

Of course, you can use this hydrator in moisturizers, which often spotlight hyaluronic acid as a main ingredient. “Think of moisturizers as a shield,” Dr. Engelman says. “You use moisturizers to lock in active ingredients and block harmful aggressors out. Even if skin does not seem dry, it still needs that layer of protection.” We like IS Clinical Moisturizing Complex ($87), which also features a blend of powerful antioxidants like green tea, vitamin C, and vitamin E, and SkinMedica® HA5® Rejuvenating Hydrator ($178) (read our review of HA5 ® here!).

Dr. Dendy Engelman and Dr. Sejal Shah are paid Allergan consultants.

SkinMedica® is an Allergan-owned skincare product line.