Over the past few years, hyaluronic acid has established itself as the Samuel L. Jackson (stay with me) of buzzy skin-care ingredients: A-list name recognition, seemingly in everything, frequently praised for its performance — and, as it happens, maybe a little more problematic than it might initially appear.
"Hyaluronic acid is a complex sugar normally found in between the collagen bundles in the skin, providing hydration and plumpness," explains Ava Shamban, M.D., a Beverly Hills-based dermatologist and founder of SKIN FIVE. The stuff occurs naturally in the body and decreases as we age, dragging that youthful lustre down with it. The idea, then, is that applying a topical formula can counteract the loss of volume over time.
But there's reason to believe that the perception of hyaluronic acid as a panacea for dryness and wrinkles is vastly overstated — and, when used incorrectly, it can actually backfire. "Because it's a very large molecule and cannot possibly penetrate through the top layer of the skin, the justification for using hyaluronic acid as a topical hydrator is moderate at best," says Dr. Shamban. What hyaluronic acid can do is temporarily add water to the topmost layer of the skin, and provide a short-lived plumpness along with it — with a particular emphasis on "temporarily" and "short-lived."
And there's still yet another catch. "If your skin is dehydrated to begin with, and the air around you is dry, then the product can actually suck water from deeper in the skin," says Dr. Shamban. Hyaluronic acid works by absorbing moisture like a sponge, so when applied to dry skin in a dry climate, it absorbs moisture from the skin instead of pulling it toward it. When this happens, hyaluronic acid has the opposite effect of its intended purpose, leaving skin drier, thirstier, and more prone to showing signs of ageing.
That said, the cons of hyaluronic acid aren't a question of whether it is good or evil. It's a matter of how best to use it so that it helps your skin, rather than hurts it. The ingredient needs to be used in conjunction with other moisturisers; hyaluronic acid alone will not provide the necessary hydration skin needs. "It's really meant as a temporary hydrator, when applied to damp skin," Dr. Shamban says. "If your skin is already dry, you could actually be doing more harm than good."
So how do you make it work for you, without chucking the serum you maybe unadvisedly spent £65 on because your new facialist told you to? "Apply your hyaluronic acid on damp skin, and then apply moisturiser on top of it," Dr. Shamban says. When used together, an occlusive moisturiser will help lock in the additional hydration from the hyaluronic acid, instead of letting it escape and take more of your skin's water along with it. Trust us, they make a harder-hitting team than Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds in The Hitman's Bodyguard (thank you for your patience).