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You are here: Anti-Aging Skin Treatments > Topical Actives >

Hyaluronic acid for skin hydration and possibly a lot more

Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a biopolymer naturally occurring is the skin and other tissues. It is an important component of the skin matrix. HA is also a popular skin care ingredient often used topically. To learn what this underappreciated biopolymer is all about we strongly recommend starting with our introductory article on HA. Here we focus on possible skin benefits and limitations of topical hyaluronic acid.

Moisturizing effects of hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is highly effective humectant, i.e. an ingredient that holds moisture. HA can hold hundreds of times its weight in water and is often used in moisturizing formulas. Indeed it can provide effective skin surface hydration, either alone or in combination with other moisturizing ingredients.

However, there is a controversy whether concentrated HA formulas should be used as a moisturizer in dry climate. When air humidity is very low, HA may preferentially pull water from the skin rather than from the air, thus producing the opposite effect. The optimal use of HA as a moisturizer needs further research. Until then, when trying out HA-based products, it is prudent to be watchful for such an effect, especially in very dry environments. If proper skin hydration is not achieved, you can try adjusting HA concentration and/or combine your HA-based formulation with other skin care products. If you are using a commercial HA product, you can dilute it with a compatible neutral base and/or co-apply with a compatible hydrating product (e.g. a colloidal oatmeal-based moisturizer, such as Aveeno). If you need additional flexibility regarding the concentration of HA and/or combining it with other ingredients, you can easily make an HA-based formulation yourself (see DIY Anti-Aging Skin Care Infopack for practical directions).

Skin irritation and inflammation

Hyaluronic acid is a polymer and the size of its molecules (chains) may vary in a wide range. Depending on the size, HA chains may produce different physiological effects. In particular, relatively large HA chains (molecular weight 500,000 Da or more) appear to reduce inflammatory response. There is some evidence that topically applied HA can reduce skin irritation from various causes (such as retinoids, laser treatments, chemical peels and others). Unfortunately, as of the time of this writing, very few studies investigated HA as a topical anti-irritant. Further research is required to determine optimal HA concentrations and usage patterns for specific conditions. (The concentrations studied so far ranged from 0.1% to 2.5%.)

Actinic keratoses

Actinic keratoses (AKs, solar keratoses) are premalignant inflammatory skin lesions particularly common in fair skinned people who had substantial cumulative sun exposure. In several studies, a topical formula with 2.5% HA and 3% diclofenac (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) produced marked improvement or complete clearance of AK lesions in at least half of the patients after 90 days. HA alone also produced improvement in some patients but overall was less effective than the combination.


The content of hyaluronic acid in the skin matrix decreases with age, which may contribute to the development of fine lines, wrinkles and other signs of aging. Hence there is a considerable enthusiasm in the media about topical HA as a potential wrinkle cure. At present, such hopes appear exaggerated at best. HA variants typically used in skin care have relatively long chains (molecular weight 500,000 Da or more) and seem unlikely to penetrate the skin well enough to affect dermal matrix. A small size variant of HA (5,000 - 20,000 Daltons) may penetrate better but there is a catch. Small size HA appears to promote certain inflammatory responses, i.e. in that regard it has the opposite effect to large size HA, which is anti-inflammatory. Therefore, even if small size HA can penetrate the skin, it may not be a good skin rejuvenation agent. (To learn more, see our our introductory article on HA.) More research is needed to determine whether any form of topical HA is useful in treating fine line and wrinkles.

Bottom line

Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a natural biopolymer that can be very effective for skin hydration and moisturizing if used properly. Preliminary evidence suggests that large size HA may also help combat skin irritation and inflammation. The effectiveness of topical HA for wrinkles is unproven.

There are many commercially available products that contain hyaluronic acid. Unfortunately, most are relatively expensive (at least compared to the cost of ingredients) and may not contain HA concentrations that fit your needs. If you cannot find a HA-based product optimal for your skin, you can relatively easily make one yourself. For practical direction on making your own skincare formulations, including those with hyaluronic acid, see DIY Anti-Aging Skin Care Infopack.


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