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What Is Hyaluronic Acid Exactly? We’ve Got All the Answers on This Skincare Darling


As skincare ingredients go, hyaluronic acid has gone from under the radar to mainstream in a matter of years. If you have even a passing interest in skincare, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the hydrating, anti-aging powerhouse. But even with its buzzword status, hyaluronic acid can still be intimidating—both to pronounce and to use. Although it’s commonly associated with bouncy, dewy skin, hyaluronic acid (or, its equally beneficial derivative sodium hyaluronate) has a laundry list of skincare benefits, including plumping fine lines, healing dry spots, and moisturizing skin. Oh, and did you know there are also hyaluronic acid fillers? Yeah, we’ll get to those, too.

So what is hyaluronic acid? For a full breakdown on this skincare darling, we turned to the expert, board-certified dermatologist Audrey Kunin, MD, to learn just what hyaluronic acid is, why it’s a skincare favorite, and how to incorporate it into your routine.

About the Experts:

Audrey Kunin, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist, author, clinician, and educator. She is also the founder of DERMADOCTOR and the Chief Product Officer of NovaBay Pharmaceuticals City in Kansas City.

What Is Hyaluronic Acid?

Hyaluronic acid (or HA) is actually a sugar molecule that is found naturally within the collagen in our skin. It’s the main component of the extracellular matrix. Because we can’t have nice things, the human body produces less and less of it as we age—but, luckily we have topical HA which “holds 1000 times its weight in water,” says Dr. Kunin, making it the perfect supplement from the outside world for our skin.

Like glycerin, hyaluronic acid is also a humectant, which means that it acts like a sponge to attract water into the skin (hello, hydration!). In fact, HA molecules can hold up to 1,000 times their weight in water, which translates to moisturized, bouncy skin. “It acts as a humectant, helping hold onto water and providing moisturization and cushion to skin,” says Dr. Kunin.

You may also see products that boast multiple types of hyaluronic acid. These types refer to the weight of the molecules. Those with high molecular weight target the outermost layer of skin, while those with a low molecular weight can penetrate deeper into your skin.

What Are the Benefits of Hyaluronic Acid?

To put it simply, HA “is a temporary moisturizer and plumping agent,” Dr. Kunin says, which means there are a multitude of benefits for the skin:

1. It hydrates the skin’s surface.

The humectant-like molecule binds to water, helping keep the skin looking dewy and hydrated.

2. It protects your skin barrier.

Because it binds to water, hyaluronic acid can easily and deeply penetrate the skin, replenishing skin cells with moisture and helping to heal your skin barrier.

3. It can help to plump fine lines.

By boosting your skin’s moisture levels, HA will temporarily smooth fine lines and fill hollows, leaving you with plump, soft skin.

Who Can Use Hyaluronic Acid?

Hyaluronic acid does not discriminate—it’s gentle enough for “everyone,” Dr. Kunin says, including the most sensitive skin. It doesn’t have any harsh chemical properties, so it works on all skin types too, whether you have dry skin, oily skin, or combination skin. However, if you do experience any side effects after using hyaluronic acid products, stop use immediately and contact your dermatologist.

How Are HA Injectables Different From Topical HA?

Even the biggest hyaluronic acid fans may not know that hyaluronic acid is also available at your dermatologist’s office in injectable form (do the names Restylane and Juvéderm ring a bell?). But, whereas topical HA ”temporarily hydrates skin for several hours,” the benefit of getting HA injected is that it “provides long-term, immediate volume to tissues when strategically injected,” says Dr. Kunin. Unlike topical products—which are applied to the epidermis, a.k.a. the outermost layer of skin—HA injectables are injected into the dermis (the thicker layer beneath the epidermis).

Lasting anywhere from six to 18 months, the anti-aging effects of fillers are ideal for someone looking for a long term anti-aging treatment. But unlike hyaluronic acid skincare products, injections don’t offer the same hydration benefits. There are also additional risks involved, including infection, bruising, and, in the worst cases, blindness. So, as with any dermatological procedure, be sure to get a full consultation from your doctor to find out if it’s right for you, and only go to a reputable, certified dermatologist.

How Do You Use Hyaluronic Acid?

Dr. Kunin suggests “Apply[ing] approximately 5 droplets to the area and gently smooth[ing] it into the skin.” Also, don’t forget the basics of skincare layering: Always “Apply heavier products and make up on top of HA serums” because HA serums have a lighter, water-like consistency. The rule of thumb when layering skincare is applying from the lightest consistency to thickest.

Products We Love:

Ready to boost your glow with hyaluronic acid? Try these skin-plumping serums—all of which are past Glam Bag favorites.

1. GLOW RECIPE Plum Plump Hyaluronic Cream

GLOW RECIPE Plum Plump Hyaluronic Cream

This stunner will be your go-to cream for plump, radiant skin. The whipped gel-cream formula features a unique blend of plum, hyaluronic acid, and polyglutamic acid for long-lasting hydration. Plus, willowherb helps to keep your oil balanced while supporting your skin’s microbiome, too.

2. KOPARI Ultra Restore Body Butter with Hyaluronic Acid

KOPARI Ultra Restore Body Butter with Hyaluronic Acid

Who doesn't want buttery-soft skin? Thanks to this whipped body butter, your skin will feel smoother than you’ve ever imagined. It’s packed with hydrating hyaluronic acid, coconut oil, and antioxidant-rich plant extracts to deeply moisturize without being greasy.

3. WISHFUL Thirst Trap Juice HA3 Peptide Serum

WISHFUL Thirst Trap Juice HA3 Peptide Serum

Hyaluronic acid isn’t hailed as a hero-hydrator for nothing—and this serum is boosted with three different types of HA to give your skin a big drink. Plus, firming peptides help fortify your skin’s barrier, and hollyhock rose and aloe vera nourish and help to leave you looking and feeling bouncy and supple.

4. JLO BEAUTY That Blockbuster™ Hydrating Cream

JLO BEAUTY That Blockbuster™ Hydrating Cream

This skin-plumping cream is pumped up with next-gen hyaluronic acid, peptides, niacinamide, and collagen-protecting carnosine to help give you ultra-soft, supple, and radiant skin. Natural ferments and a proprietary olive complex also help to nourish and plump fine lines.

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About the author
Alexandra Schultz
Alexandra Schultz
Alexandra is a senior copywriter at IPSY, a foodie, and a beauty lover. With over nine years of experience, her work has been published in both the fashion and beauty industries for brands including Savage x Fenty, Biossance, and NYX Cosmetics.
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Article Last Updated April 27, 2023 12:00 AM