Hyaluronic acid: does it work?

Hyaluronic acid has been around in skincare for many years – why?

Hyaluronic acid article

Well, primarily because it’s a natural part of our bodies, and helps to give it the spring and bounce we associate with younger skin.

Hyaluronic acid is one of a family of materials that have a splendid scientific name – glycosaminoglycans. I’ll call them GAGs for short.

GAGs are long chain molecules made up of modified sugars. There are similar molecules in aloe vera gel, and “gel” is the give-away word. GAGs absorb amazing amounts of water – so they are a good source of moisture when applied to the skin surface.

But in dermis, within the skin’s inner layer, where hyaluronic acid is found naturally in large amounts, it forms part of a cushioning gel – great for protecting our skin against injury.

So why is hyaluronic acid suddenly so popular?

Hyaluronic acid used to be confined to a few of the most premium products because it was hard to produce and amazingly expensive.

Why? Let’s just say it used to be derived from animals. Now production has been brought into the 21st century. Using biotechnology methods, safer, purer and more consistent hyaluronic acid can be produced, without resorting to animal tissue extracts.

I believe there’s another reason it is finding its way into cosmetic products. Hyaluronic acid is one of the many “fillers” used by cosmetic surgeons and aestheticians to plump up the deeper facial wrinkles. That makes it sound like a great idea for cosmetics – but there’s a catch!

Hyaluronic acid is a huge molecule that will not cross the skin barrier – for it to get into the dermis it needs to be injected!

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So how come manufacturers put it in cosmetics?

Gels like aloe or hyaluronic acid act as great humectants – they form a blanket trapping water on the skin surface – and if you read my piece on moisturisation you’ll know that this is really important. Not only that, but hyaluronic acid gels, especially the newer forms, also help your skin feel better to the touch, adding to the pleasant sensory experience a face cream can give you.

What’s this about newer forms of hyaluronic acid?

Because the hyaluronic acid molecule is so big and can’t get into the top-most layers of the skin, it was difficult to make it work in a useful way. (And it costs a lot too.) Ingredients suppliers have been able to produce smaller “sub-units” aiming to get into the skin, to stay longer and be more effective.

Many of today’s products with hyaluronic acid contain these “sub-units” that still have its great humectant properties and better absorption into the skin’s top layers.

There’s more but I I’ll leave it here for now.

My take home message: hyaluronic acid is a great ingredient that contributes to a cream’s moisturising properties and will continue to find new uses in cosmetics. As with all cosmetics, the trick is getting the best blend of key ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid, together with other components to create a product that suits your skin’s needs.

About Steve Barton

I'm a skin biologist fascinated by the wonders of this organ that keeps us apart from the outside world. I'm semi-retired, continuing to keep a hand in cosmetic product development by working in consultancy and education. When not talking skin you'll find me listening to or playing music; or I'll be finding hills to walk, photos to take, or sketches and short stories to create; unless I'm distracted by my 2 granddaughters! I can be found on Twitter @Skin_Thinking