We discussed the role of vitamin C, peptides, and collagen in skin health here. Collagen is a vital support structure in the skin and provides tightness and turgor along with hydration. Vitamin C assists in collagen cross-linking and boosts collagen production in the skin. While collagen supplementation is an unclear science, it is very clear that topical vitamin C can produce lasting improvement to the skin. For the skin experts who have their sunscreen, moisturizer, tretinoin, and vitamin C routine on point, what else can we turn to for skin rejuvenation? We look into the benefits of hyaluronic acid for your skin.
What is Hyaluronic Acid?
Along with collagen, hyaluronic acid is a critical component of the skin and an exciting area of skin research. Firstly, it’s important to point out that HA is not an acid like alpha and beta hydroxy acids. Unlike acids that exfoliate, HA actually draws water into the tissues. HA is a glycosaminoglycan, which is a large protein molecule. It organizes itself into a flexible, supple mesh throughout the body. You can find HA in its highest concentrations in the eyes, joints, and skin. There, it serves as a cushion and protective agent for these delicate structures.
What is the role of Hyaluronic Acid?
You can find 50% of the HA in our bodies in the skin, distributed between the epidermis and dermis. Mother Nature certainly allocated this molecule well to maintain tightness and hydration for our skin. Over time, HA can thin out, usually due to a combination of normal aging, sun and ultraviolet exposure, and other environmental exposures such as free radicals. When functioning properly, HA molecules create an interlocking mesh that surrounds the skin cells, allowing moisture to glide effortlessly through the skin. HA is able to attract water in high amounts, with some studies suggesting that it attracts 1000x its own weight. As we age or as our skin is damaged, HA molecules become less able to attract water. This results in a dry, loose appearance to the skin. HA molecules also become less organized and are not able to effectively transport water and healing mediators throughout the skin.
How to prevent HA loss
Now that we understand the role of HA in the skin, how can we protect what we have and rebuild what has been lost? Prevention is always the first and best strategy. Studies show that sun-exposed skin exhibit accelerated HA degradation and redistribution, beyond even what is seen in normal aging skin. Normal aging skin also has lower levels of hyaluronidase, which is an enzyme that degrades HA, as compared to sun-exposed skin in age-matched controls. Wearing daily sunscreen and sun-protective clothing will slow down the process of HA changes.
Benefits of Hyaluronic Acid
Moisturizers and serums containing HA can also be very helpful to support and restore HA in the skin. In skincare products, HA acts as a humectant, which draws in water and moisturizes the skin. There are many different types of HA products available in skin regimens. The two most common are high and low molecular weight hyaluronic acid. There is also sodium hyaluronate, which is comprised of very small fragments of HA. High molecular weight HA is not well absorbed and tends to sit on the skin, rather than work in between the cells. While this type of HA can be a useful humectant, it is likely not going to provide benefit beyond that of a regular moisturizer. Low molecular weight HA, however, can hydrate the skin more deeply. This type of HA can be more useful in preventing and treating photoaging.
While topical HA is certainly an excellent humectant, it is important to note that the actual benefits of HA on photoaging are mixed. In many cases, the HA in topical products is simply too large to penetrate the skin effectively. Further, HA found in cleansers will not be effective due to the very short contact with the skin. HA found in serums may be effective in combination with tretinoin and other antioxidants, but that may have to do more with the non-HA components. Interestingly, HA also has been shown to increase the penetration of other products into the skin. If you are looking to boost your retinoid or other product, pre-treating with HA can be very useful. Tretinoin has been shown to increase HA in the skin, so as always, tretinoin is an excellent part of all skincare routines.
The bottom line…
We know that it’s important to maintain plump, healthy skin, but it is lost over time and that sun damage accelerates that process. Preventing HA loss by using sunscreen is key but what about replacing HA? Some low weight replacement HAs may help to add tightness back to the skin. However, the majority of HA products will mainly moisturize and slightly smooth the skin, which is great for any skincare regimen. Along with an effective tretinoin retinoid and sunscreen, HA is a great choice as a humectant and protector of skin.
It’s so cool that HA can attract 1000x it’s own weight in water even though it’s just one molecule. It makes a lot of sense why we need to drink so much water now. If HA goes throughout our entire body and it attracts a lot of water, we need enough for it.