Well Being

My New Skincare Obsession, Hyaluronic Acid: What It Is & Why It Makes My Skin Look Great

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I have a new skincare obsession: hyaluronic acid. I've been using hyaluronic acid for about a month and I'm amazed at what it's done for my acne-prone skin. Inspired to learn more about how the stuff works (and if it's really ok to put something involving the word “acid” on your face), I talked to a few experts to find out what hyaluronic acid is and why, exactly, it's so awesome.

I first read about this magical stuff called hyaluronic acid over on I Heart Daily (tons of good stuff over there, all the time, by the way!). Then I found it recommended over and over again as an ingredient in facial creams in the beauty magazines I read on a recent flight. So I thought, why not try it? I ordered up a bottle and started using it, twice a day.

And whoa. When I layer this on underneath my regular daily moisturizer with SPF, my skin looks incredibly dewy. Yup, dewy. I'd always read that word in beauty mags but thought it was just an overused editorial cliché, not a descriptor that could ever be applied to my own skin, with its large pores and tendency towards oiliness. But dewy it was. And the acne that's plagued me since 7th grade (over half of my life) has considerably lessened, too. All of a sudden, I have beautiful, clear, perfectly moisturized skin, even in the dead of winter.

I'm pretty committed to being as “natural” as possible with my skincare, meaning I try to buy products that use ingredients sourced from nature rather than chemicals and plasticizers. I knew I loved hyaluronic acid, but I wanted to know more about what it actually was and if it fell into my own admittedly loose category of “natural.” (Yes, I know I probably should have done more research before I started slathering it all over my face.) Here's what I found out:

What Is Hyaluronic Acid?

Hyaluronic acid isn't necessarily a new ingredient in skincare, but it's been growing in popularity in recent years. According to Dr. Jessica Krant, dermatologist, founder of Art of Dermatology and Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center:

Hyaluronic acid, or hyaluronan, is the body's lubricant molecule. It is basically a very big and complex sugar-related molecule called a glycosaminoglycan that is found naturally throughout the body and works in many different ways to keep us healthy and active. It's involved in the health and function of skin, joints, and the immune system, among others. It is very popular as used in a number of cosmetic fillers known as hyaluronic acid dermal fillers, which get injected under the surface of the skin to replace lost volume and fill deep folds. Lately, topical products have begun to include the molecule as a moisturizing or antiaging ingredient.

So, it's found naturally in the body and is commonly used in fillers. Ok. But if it's found in the body, where, exactly, does the hyaluronic acid that I use on my face come from? Cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Oscar Hevia explained that cosmetic hyaluronic acid is made in a lab:

The current method of production involves bacterial fermentation, a process whereby genetically modified bacteria can produce the hyaluronic acid in large quantities which is then filtered extensively to obtain a purified, finished product.

Is Hyaluronic Acid Natural?

So is something that's made in a lab “natural?” Dr. Hevia continued:

…it depends how you define “natural.” Most would probably not utilize this term for a substance that is produced by genetically modified bacteria, but nonetheless, the finished product is pure and identical to human hyaluronic acid.

Why Does Hyaluronic Acid Work?

And why and how, exactly, does hyaluronic acid make my skin look and feel so good? Dr. Krant had even more insight:

In topical products like moisturizers and serums, the hyaluronic acid molecule works in an unexpected way. Not only is the molecule itself slippery, it's too large to be absorbed through the skin surface into the skin, so it sits on top and doesn't go anywhere for a long time. This allows the water that it is dissolved in, or that it attracts from the environment, to sit on the skin too, keeping everything hydrated.

That's apparently why hyaluronic acid is so popular as an ingredient in anti-aging creams. Rather than actually changing the skin, the hyaluronic acid “plumps up” the skin, making it look and feel younger. But it's good for the skin in other ways, too, Dr. Krant told me:

It also has a bit of an anti-inflammatory component and is very soothing on the skin, in addition to aiding wound healing,  which makes it great for use after laser resurfacing procedures or burn injuries.

Woohoo! Why isn't everyone using this all the time, then? Dr. Krant stresses that hyaluronic acid is an ingredient that must be mixed with something else to increase its efficacy, at least when it's used topically. The product I like says it's 100% pure hyaluronic acid, but it's actually mixed with quite a bit of water and dehydroacetic acid, a preservative.

Now that I know more about my favorite new product, I feel better about how much I totally, incredibly love what it's done for my skin. I now know that I should always use it in conjunction with another moisturizer, but hyaluronic acid has taken its rightful place as an important part of my skincare routine.

Photo: Shutterstock