What Does Hyaluronic Acid Do for Your Skin?

Hyaluronic acid is a trendy ingredient in many skincare products and a hot product on social media, and has become quite the staple in skincare routines in recent years, but what exactly does it do for your skin?

What is Hyaluronic Acid?

Hyaluronic acid is a natural substance found in the body, and the largest amounts of it are found in the skin, connective tissue and eyes, where its main function is to retain water and keep your tissues and joints well moisturized.

Topically, many skincare brands advertise hyaluronic acid as an anti-aging serum that helps reduce wrinkles and fine lines and can improve facial contour and volume, but the truth of the product is that we might be giving it more credit than it deserves, according to several dermatologists.

Dr. Fayne Frey, a New York dermatologist and author of The Skincare Hoax who studies skincare product ingredients and product formulation, told Newsweek that hyaluronic acid, on a molecular level, is a "repeated disaccharide unit, so it's a long chain of sugar molecules."

Hyaluronic acid molecules are bigger than the small spaces in skin layers that it needs to squeeze through, and for that reason, they can't actually get deep into the skin to eliminate wrinkles.

woman using hyaluronic acid
A woman using a serum on her face with a detail inset of serum from an eyedropper. Getty; Julia Cherkasova/Getty

"Those large molecules of hyaluronic acid really can't penetrate those 20 layers [of skin] to get down into the epidermis, which is the lower part of the top layer of skin, down all the way into the layer below called the dermis, where the wrinkles are happening," Frey said. "There's just no way for that hyaluronic acid to penetrate all that far down."

Dr. Claire Wolinsky, MD, a New York City-based, board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, echoed a similar sentiment.

"The myth is that it's anti-aging, and it's not," Wolinsky told Newsweek. "It's something hydrating and plumping, so your skin's gonna look good with something moisturizing like hyaluronic acid."

Wolinsky added, "Putting a cream that's hyaluronic acid on top of your skin is moisturizing, but it's not actually going to plump the skin or make it look more youthful necessarily. It's definitely not preventative in anti-aging, but what it is is a great moisturizer."

What Does Hyaluronic Acid Actually Do for Your Skin?

While still a great ingredient in skincare products, hyaluronic acid has been advertised as an anti-wrinkle agent, but its main benefit is simply being a hydrating moisturizer.

"We don't want to oversell it as something preventative anti-aging, but something that, day to day, your skin's gonna look hydrated and good," said Wolinsky.

And in the winter months, an extra layer of moisturizing power is sometimes exactly what is needed to combat that dry, cold winter skin.

"Something really hot right now is this notion of the skin barrier," Wolinsky explained. "So our skin protects us from the outside environmental harms, and hyaluronic acid is a nice support of that skin barrier so that you are protected against the winter months, having eczema and chapped skin, dry skin, which is all good for skin health."

Dr. Frey stated however that for a less hefty price, other ingredients could serve the same purpose.

"It's a good ingredient to use as far as cosmetic formulation is concerned for a marketing purpose," Frey said of hyaluronic acid, "But whether it's really more effective than say glycerin, which is a fraction of the price, in my opinion, I don't think it's worth it."

How to Use Hyaluronic Acid in Your Skincare Routine

For those still looking to use hyaluronic acid in their routine as an added layer of moisturizing, it is best paired with using a retinol or retinoid, which works to add collagen to the skin in order to reduce lines and improve overall skin texture.

Dr. Wolinsky recommends using vitamin C and sunscreen in the morning, followed by hyaluronic acid to hydrate, and at night, using a retinoid or retinol.

"[It's] really hot to use retinols and retinoids," Wolinsky said, "but they're hard to tolerate. They dry the skin out, they can cause inflammation, so hyaluronic acid is a great support for a retinoid or retinol."

She also recommended a "sandwich" technique, which she described as a layer of hyaluronic acid or another moisturizer first, followed by a layer of retinol, and an additional layer of hyaluronic acid or moisturizer after that to really combat some of the drier effects of retinol.

All in all, while the experts deem hyaluronic acid cannot be used as a magic potion for anti-wrinkles, it is a great source of hydration, and extremely beneficial for keeping the skin fresh and moisturized.