Hyaluronic acid sounds a little scary. Like something that might burn your skin if you're not careful, right? But while that’s true of some acids used in skincare (lactic, retinoic) when used to excess, hyaluronic acid feels great, agrees with just about everyone, and is extremely beneficial for the texture and resilience of your skin. It’s a great first step into caring about the specific ingredients that go into a skincare routine, once you’ve got the basics like cleanser and moisturizer down.
People ask me about the ingredient a lot, though I have heard far fewer questions since that late-2018 L’Oreal commercial starring Eva Longoria. Just like the ad says, hyaluronic acid plumps your skin and reduces wrinkles. It does this by preserving skin hydration far better than pretty much anything else. If you commit, you’ll see significant improvements to your skin’s tautness, radiance, and resilience in the long term. (Yes, you should plan on using it indefinitely.)
Here’s the real rundown on how hyaluronic acid works, as well as my favorite products that contain it.
What does hyaluronic acid do for the skin?
Hyaluronic acid, in short, binds to water molecules and is very insistent on maintaining that bond—it can retain over 1,000 times its own weight in water. Your body naturally produces hyaluronic acid, and uses it in the skin, eyes, and joints. In the case of skin, hyaluronic acid helps strengthen and fortify the skin’s hydrolipidic barrier—that’s what keeps moisture locked inside the skin, and keeps bacteria out. (If you’ve ever heard people talk about the skin’s “barrier function”, this is what they are referring to.)
As you age, however, you may notice that your skin is less firm and more dull, it could be due to issues with moisture retention, and a weakening of this skin barrier. Not only do you need to commit to a good moisturizer and maybe even a retinol-anchored anti-aging regimen, but you should also consider a deep-penetrating serum—and one loaded with hyaluronic acid—as a pre-moisturizer step. (You can also find some moisturizers with hyaluronic acid mixed in, too.) But even young people will notice significant improvements to their skin’s brightness by using the ingredient daily.
But won’t acids burn?
Your skin is naturally acidic. Do you remember learning about acids and alkalines in high school chemistry? That stuff is extremely important in the production of skincare, since it’s important to preserve the pH balance of the skin. On the 1-14 scale, wherein 1 is extremely acidic and 14 is extremely alkaline, your skin is just left of neutral—a 5 or 6 on the acidic side of things. And so, skincare products work to preserve this acidic balance in your skin without toppling you too far in either direction.
Acids are at the core of many skincare products, like the alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids in many serums that help dissolve dead skin and keep your complexion clear. Hyaluronic acid, like those alpha- and beta-hydroxies, can be applied topically in order to obtain the aforementioned hydration benefits.
How to apply hyaluronic acid
Let’s assume you’re applying hyaluronic acid from a serum dropper (since those are the products we’ll recommend here—anything else just apply as directed by the brand).
First, wash your face. You’re not going to get the proper product benefits without removing oil, dirt, and grime. Towel dry the face, but leave it slightly damp. Since hyaluronic acid pulls moisture from the air, you want to be in the habit of leaving a bit of water on your skin (but just a bit) so that it can more easily pull moisture from there. I only say this in case you’re in a bone-dry environment wherein there is little moisture in the air. It always helps to give the serum a small boost. But again—only a little moisture. Too much water will only distill the serum and could prevent proper application.
Next, drop 1-2 drops of serum onto your pointer and middle finger, then rub those fingers against the same ones on your opposite hand. Bring both pairs of fingers to your face, and apply the serum first across both cheeks, starting at the nose, then lift and bring the fingers to the middle of the forehead and apply the product outward towards the temples. Now that the serum is on the face, you can repeat this motion—first the nose to the temples, then the middle of the forehead to the temples—until it is thoroughly absorbed. Then, you can do a second pass with 1-2 drops from the chin to the cheekbones, and can even hit the jowls or neck with any excess.
Be cautious around the eyes—you can test the skin around the eyes for their sensitivity to whichever product you’re using. Some hyaluronic acid products are specifically targeted at this area, too.
Wait about 15-30 seconds for the serum to absorb, then apply a moisturizer over top.