How It Works and 8 Best Products

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How It Works and 8 Best Products


So we all know hyaluronic acid to be the MVP of skincare—or, at least, that’s what you’ve read/heard/seen in every single article, commercial, and product description for the past year, right? (We get it, hyaluronic acid—YOU’RE POPULAR.) And although, yes, this little ingredient is usually the key to plump, glowing skin, it still needs to be used correctly or it could make your face sincerely unhappy. So if you have officially reached peak levels of confusion about WTF hyaluronic acid even is and how to use it, please allow myself and the experts to explain everything you need to know about hyaluronic acid for skin and the correct way to use it in your skincare routine.

Meet the experts:

  • Ana Mansouri, MD, is a cosmetic doctor at Kat & Co Aesthetics based in the UK who specializes in injectables and aesthetics.
  • Julie Russak, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Russak Dermatologist Clinic and Russak+ Aesthetic Center in New York, NY. Dr. Russak is also an assistant professor at Mount Sinai Hospital, where she teaches dermatology residents and medical students.
  • Lily Talakoub, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center in Virginia and founder of Derm to Door, a virtual skincare consultation service.

    What does hyaluronic acid do for skin?

    Hyaluronic acid (HA) is one of the most powerful hydrating ingredients used in skincare, says cosmetic doctor Ana Mansouri, MD. “It’s is a humectant—meaning it pulls water from the environment to the upper layers of the skin like a sponge.” Hyaluronic acid molecules can attract up to 1,000 times their own weight in water, which is why they’re so effective at hydrating the skin and keeping it moist and dewy throughout the day. “By increasing water content in the skin, hyaluronic acid can help plump the look of fine lines and wrinkles too,” says dermatologist Julie Russak, MD.

    Hyaluronic acid is also the go-to ingredient used in fillers (like lip injections), says dermatologist Lily Talakoub, MD. It works similarly when injected as it does when applied topically, binding to water in your body and making the skin plump up. The hyaluronic acid used in face fillers is cross-linked, meaning it comes in a gel form that holds it shape to help create volume and structure in the skin, adds Dr. Mansouri.

    Which hyaluronic acid product is best?

    You can find hyaluronic acid in tons of skincare products, but leave-on products (like toners, essences, serums, and moisturizers) will give you the best hydrating results. Dr. Talakoub recommends using a water or gel-based product with hyaluronic acid if you have oily skin an oil-based product with hyaluronic acid for dry skin. But if you’re using a straight-up serum, you absolutely need to layer it under a moisturizer and/or face oil (more on that below). Now, a few of our fave hyaluronic-acid-based products:

    Is it good to use hyaluronic acid every day?

    Yup! “Hyaluronic acid is safe and beneficial to use everyday for maintaining skin hydration,” says Dr. Russak. You just need to make sure you’re applying it correctly. As a rule, you want to apply your hyaluronic acid product to clean, damp skin, and the lock it in with a moisturizer and face oil.

    “If you put hyaluronic acid on top of a sunscreen or a moisturizer, it’s not going to work,” Dr. Talakoub says. “It’s got to sit on that top layer of your skin to hold the moisture in so it doesn’t evaporate from your skin barrier.”

    Might seem obvious, but it’s actually one of the biggest mistakes people with dry skin make with hyaluronic acid: thinking the only thing they need to use is a serum. Instead, think of hyaluronic acid as a team player that works best when used with a cream. Dr. Talakoub says even though hyaluronic acid holds water in the skin, a normal moisturizer that’s made for people with very dry skin has an emollient to lubricate the skin and an occlusive to hold the oils in the skin.

    Is sodium hyaluronate the same thing as hyaluronic acid?

    If you’ve scanned the ingredients list on your favorite hyaluronic acid product and you don’t see anything that says “hyaluronic acid” on there, don’t freak out. Different products include different forms of the ingredient, one of the most common being sodium hyaluronate (a salt form of hyaluronic acid). It’s the same thing as hyaluronic acid, but has a lower molecular weight so it can more easily penetrate skin, says Dr. Mansouri.

    Is hyaluronic acid bad for your skin?

    On the contrary! Hyaluronic acid is great for your skin—when used and applied correctly and in the right order. Remember what I said about using it on clean, damp skin up above? The damp part is key. Here’s the deal: If your dry skin is sitting in a humid room and you slather on hyaluronic acid, it’ll pull moisture from the air and into your dry face. But—but!—if your moisturized skin is sitting in a dry room (ahem, winter), the hyaluronic acid sitting on top of your face will pull water out of your skin and evaporate it into the air, leaving your face drier than before. When you apply your hyaluronic acid to damp skin, you’ve given it a water source to draw moisture from.

    What are the side effects of hyaluronic acid?

    According to Dr. Talakoub, hyaluronic acid is something that everybody’s skin could use, and it very rarely has any side effects (our bodies naturally make it, remember?). With that said, there are different sizes of hyaluronic acid molecules found in products that penetrate your skin at different depths. Studies show that hyaluronic acid with lower molecular weights penetrates deeper into the skin, which can cause inflammation, so if you’re noticing any dryness or irritation from your HA serum, stop using it and switch to another or ask your dermatologist for options.

    The takeaway

    Overall, hyaluronic acid is great for sitting on top of your skin and preventing moisture from being lost to the outside environment—but it’s not foolproof, so use it wisely. Always apply it to clean and damp skin, lock it in, and consult your derm if you’re noticing anything unusual. But all in all, it’s a pretty harmless and helpful ingredient for skin hydration.


    Deputy Beauty Director
    Lauren Balsamo is the deputy beauty director at Cosmopolitan covering all things skin, hair, makeup, and nails for both the magazine and website.


    Brooke Shunatona is a contributing writer for Cosmopolitan.com.

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