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Before retinol came along and stole its thunder, skincare ingredient hyaluronic acid was considered the gold standard. Scientists, dermatologists and skinfluencers alike regarded hyaluronic acid highly thanks to its many benefits, but mainly (and probably most impressively) how it can hold 1000x its weight in water.
Not to be mistaken for an exfoliating acid (the likes of which are notoriously irritating when used incorrectly), hyaluronic acid is a gentle hydrating acid. It's actually found naturally in the skin, which is why it's well tolerated by most people across the board.
Without forcing you to sit through a chemistry lesson, the ingredient is a 'humectant', so it attracts moisture from the environment and locks it into the skin. This is helpful for a couple of reasons: firstly, our natural hyaluronic acid reserves tend to run low over time, so it's pretty great news that we can top them up with the right skincare. Secondly, more moisture lends skin a plumper appearance, minimising the look of fine lines and giving skin an attractive glow.
The goody two shoes of skincare, it seems hyaluronic acid can do no wrong. But lately, experts and beauty influencers are falling out of love with it, and they're taking to social media to make their thoughts known. In a video captioned 'Beauty Products We Do NOT Need', dermatologist Dr Shereene Idriss (known as #PillowtalkDerm to her 89.8K TikTok followers) zoomed in on 'dedicated hyaluronic acid serums' in particular. It wasn't long before the video amassed 1.4 million views and her followers began to ask questions.
Is hyaluronic acid necessary in skincare?
In response to a query about why hyaluronic acid serums aren't all they're cracked up to be, Dr Idriss said that the ingredient is already "in every single product on the market, ranging from serums, exfoliating acids, moisturisers, lotions, sunscreens — you name it." In other words, a targeted hyaluronic acid serum might not be necessary when it comes to achieving skin you're happy with.
Dr Idriss' revelation is especially interesting when you consider that many skincare brands are slapping hefty price tags on such a simple, basic ingredient. Sure enough, a quick internet search for hyaluronic acid serums will serve up various dedicated hyaluronic acid products ranging from $12 through to $150. With the cost of living at a high, it's no wonder that expensive products are less justifiable, especially if the star ingredient is not the skincare saviour it has been made out to be.
Cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting is dubious of expensive hyaluronic acid serums. "Hyaluronic acid serums can cost you upwards of £250," she said in a TikTok video. "The thing is, they're not doing what you think they're doing." Dr Bunting went on to say that many of us assume hyaluronic acid in serum form is offering the same results as when it's in a syringe as dermal filler: "plumping, volumising and anti-ageing." In fact, continues Dr Bunting, "in a serum, it's just moisturising your skin and there is no need to spend so much of your hard earned cash to moisturise."
Dr Idriss refers to hyaluronic acid as "simply a trap to spend" — so where did the hype emerge from? Dr Idriss claims it's all marketing. "Hyaluronic acid," she said in another TikTok video, "is over a billion dollar industry." Because consumers are looking for the ingredient, she continues, brands "throw it in there so that they can be found by you when they search." Similarly, aesthetician and skincare expert Alicia Lartey says that just like anything which sounds unfamiliar, people create buzz or a hype around it.
"Initially," explains Alicia, "hyaluronic acid was the sexy sister to glycerin," — a highly moisturising ingredient derived from plants and found in lots of skincare products. "But now, it's simply just another humectant. At the end of the day, hyaluronic acid does help to add hydration into the skin, but the star power is absolutely not there anymore."
For this reason, Alicia doesn't use a dedicated hyaluronic acid serum in her own routine, nor would she recommend one to a client. "I love efficiency and the aim of my skincare routine is to get the job done as quickly as possible," says Alicia. "Hyaluronic acid is in everything, from cleansers to moisturisers." On a product, it may be listed as HA or even sodium hyaluronate (another form of hyaluronic acid), for example. "There is just no need [for dedicated hyaluronic acid]," says Alicia.
Is hyaluronic acid good for skin?
Perhaps our aforementioned love for basic skincare ingredients like hyaluronic acid is a response to overdoing it on other, more irritating ones such as exfoliating acids and high strength retinol. Though buzzy, when used incorrectly, acids and retinol can cause irritation in the form of redness, sensitivity and flaky skin. The latest skincare trend report from L'Oréal Active Cosmetics Division pinpointed a 'strong skin barrier' as a beauty movement set to take over in 2022, so it makes sense that we're gravitating towards simple, inoffensive ingredients like hyaluronic acid to get our skin back on track.
Of course, hyaluronic acid does have its place in beauty products, but as we all become more skincare savvy, we're beginning to realise that other ingredients do the same thing — and sometimes better. While the star power of a skincare product comes down to the way it is formulated, in Alicia's opinion, glycerin is a much more effective ingredient in terms of boosting moisture in the skin. Dr Idriss also omits hyaluronic acid from her skincare routine in favour of glycerin, which she claims is more effective.
Alongside glycerin, Alicia pinpoints peptides — particularly amino acids. These are skin-friendly proteins, and much like hyaluronic acid, they too help hydrate the skin. But they go above and beyond, also strengthening the skin barrier and providing protection against the environment, such as pollution. Brands like Drunk Elephant, The Inkey List and Ole Henriksen to name a few have all unveiled peptide moisturisers recently, for example.
How do you use hyaluronic acid?
Another reason why hyaluronic acid is being cropped out of the picture is that we've realised we are simply using too much skincare in general. Dermatologists will argue that 10-step routines are potentially doing more harm than good, leading to clogged, irritated skin. As a result, we're looking to cut down on products, and with hyaluronic acid found in most other skincare, it makes sense that some experts think dedicated HA serums should get the chop.
"I think people have realised that applying multiple active ingredients is complicated and can start to disrupt the skin if it is overdone," explains consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Hextall at the Tarrant Street Clinic. "Increasingly we are looking for multi-tasking skin products that are straightforward to use and less likely to cause issues." Alicia adds: "When the skincare world was new, we often turned to single ingredient formulas [like hyaluronic acid] because it was easier to understand the function of the product." Now that we understand skincare a lot more, says Alicia, we can use complex formulas, such as moisturisers which contain multiple beneficial ingredients — including hyaluronic acid. This could shorten your routine and even save you money.
On top of this, it's so easy to use hyaluronic acid wrong, perhaps another factor in why experts are no longer enamoured with it. Though a handful of experts believe dedicated hyaluronic acid serums are not necessary, Dr Hextall thinks they have multiple benefits when used correctly. Most serums are meant to be applied to clean, dry skin. But HA works better if your skin is slightly damp. In fact, experts argue that using it on dry skin could have the opposite intended effect, leaving skin dehydrated.
Who is hyaluronic acid good for?
"In my clinical experience," says Dr Hextall, "as soon as I get my patients to apply my recommended hyaluronic acid [serum] onto damp skin and under a hydrating moisturiser, they really start to notice a difference," — particularly if their skin is very dry, irritated and tight. "Their skin is calmer and hydrated for longer periods and starts to get that bounce and glow," adds Dr Hextall. That's because hyaluronic acid is a moisture magnet. In other words, the more hydration you give hyaluronic acid (in the form of water, a face mist or a moisturiser on top) the better it'll perform.
"I know that a lot of moisturisers contain humectants such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin," says Dr Hextall, "but I don't believe you get the same penetration," she continues, compared to a targeted hyaluronic acid serum. "In my view," adds Dr Hextall, "sealing that hydration with an effective moisturiser (which also contains glycerin and other important ingredients, such as barrier strengthening ceramides and shea butter) is the perfect combination," especially if your skin is very dry. Dr Hextall doesn't like to put any of these ingredients on a pedestal. "I feel they work perfectly in combination."
If you do want to use a dedicated hyaluronic acid serum, it pays to be canny. Dr Hextall suggests hunting down a hyaluronic acid that has "varying molecular weights." A product with smaller hyaluronic acid molecules will penetrate deeper, whereas larger molecules will sit on the surface and hold moisture, giving you two-in-one benefits, says Dr Hextall. "NIOD does an excellent multi-molecular weight hyaluronic acid serum, as does La Roche-Posay, with its Hyalu B5 Hyaluronic Acid," adds Dr Hextall.
The consensus? While it may be buzzy (and it can be great for dry, tight types) hyaluronic acid isn't the be all and end all of great skin. One thing all experts featured in this article do agree on, though, is that you don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on it if you do choose to use it.
Ultimately, the best skincare product is one that works for you. If hyaluronic acid has changed your complexion, that's great. But if your skin is happy without it, there's no need to get caught up in the hype.