Few skincare ingredients have gotten as much hype as hyaluronic acid in the past few years. It’s everywhere, dubbed as the ultimate moisturizer and the key to glowy, youthful skin. Its reputation is comparable to that of Vitamin C and its ability to brighten dark spots, or retinol for its alleged ability to reduce signs of aging.
But any sceptic knows that the skincare industry comes with few hard truths. At the end of the day, everyone’s skin is different, and while one thing may work for someone, it may not for you. So before we get conclusive about hyaluronic acid’s benefits, it’s important to first break down what it really is.
Hyaluronic acid is a molecule that is found naturally in our skin. It’s what holds water and keeps it hydrated and moisturizers. It’s believed, when additionally taken topically, to hold a magical power to retain moisture—this is due to the molecule’s studied ability to bond with water molecules, and its ability to draw moisture from the air.
At surface level, hyaluronic acid might seem like magic. And in many ways, it is. Applying hyaluronic acid can help replenish and hold moisture in one’s skin, ultimately reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and even making the skin more plump.
But the skincare industry can be deceiving. Hyaluronic acid has a counterpart, and it’s called sodium hyaluronate. The problem is, they’re pretty different. But much of the skincare industry views them as interchangeable, marketing sodium hyaluronate as hyaluronic acid.
Natural hyaluronic acid—the one naturally present in our skin—has been shown to hold up to 1000 its weight in water. It’s why hydrating our bodies with water is so important. That water is ultimately retained by our hyaluronic acid which expands, plumping the skin in the process.
But as is the case with most molecules, we can’t simply absorb native hyaluronic acid, hence the creation of sodium hyaluronate by scientists. Sodium hyaluronate is much, much smaller than hyaluronic acid, and unlike what brands might claim, that doesn’t mean it penetrates the skin better.
And according to dermatologist and YouTuber Shereene Idriss, unlike hyaluronic acid which can draw water from our blood supply, sodium hyaluronate draws water from its closest source: our skin. This means that, over time, it slowly empties our cells of its water content. This will plump your face in the short term, but it completely dehydrates your skin over time.
That doesn’t mean you have to stop using the product entirely. It just makes it important to not overuse it.