Skincare ingredients explained: what is hyaluronic acid?

Dermatologist Dr Nick Lowe breaks down the skincare science…

It's the ingredient the beauty bloggers and skincare hoarders rave about for saving dry skin - but what is hyaluronic acid? As our skincare market becomes ever saturated, it's more important than ever to get clued-up on the science and ingredients that go into our products - so we can make better-informed choices about what to put on our skin. We chatted to expert Harley Street dermatologist Dr Nick Lowe to find out exactly what hyaluronic acid is, and why (or if) we really need to include it in our beauty routines…

What is hyaluronic acid?

"Hyaluronic acid is a naturally-occurring sugar molecule," says Dr Lowe. "It can be used in both skincare ingredients and in injectables, but it's also found in the body as one of the agents that helps to make collagen. So the collagen in your skin and joints is composed partly of hyaluronic acid, plus protein."

What do we use hyaluronic acid for?

"Its main use in skin creams is as a humectant - which is one of the agents that's able to hold moisture on the skin's surface," he says. "It can actually hold up to 1000 times its weight in moisture! So it's a really good hydrator of the skin."

"The other main use is as a volumising and line-filling injectable," continues Dr Lowe. "We connect multiple hyaluronic acid molecules together to give a more robust substance, which is then injected under deeper scars, wrinkles and fine lines - it comes in different thicknesses. Because it's injected, it penetrates much further and produces collagen, to more effectively plump and reduce lines."

What else do we need to know?

"Applied topically on the skin, hyaluronic acid makes the skin feel smoother and look smoother - but it is only temporary," says Dr Lowe. "It's an excellent skin ingredient, as it rarely produces any allergies or irritation."

READ MORE: Skincare ingredients explained - what are AHAs and BHAs?

"However some of the other claims about it are probably quite dubious," he warns. "There's a lot of implication in some of the creams that hyaluronic acid can help create collagen. Hyaluronic acid is a precursor for collagen, but only in the body and skin itself. Unfortunately in skincare, it doesn't penetrate beyond the superficial layer of the skin - it can reduce wrinkles, only temporarily, but by hydrating and plumping the outer layer, not by penetrating and producing collagen."

Can anybody use it?

"Hyaluronic acid is a really great product no matter your skin type - in the winter, many people find their skin surface becomes a little dull or flaky, and that's because the outer skin cells are drying out in the colder weather. Those who've been on sunny holidays might also find their skin becomes dry - it's these situations where humectants like hyaluronic acid are particularly useful as they smooth the skin surface, hydrate those skin cells and restore that healthy glow to the skin."

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"Look out for 'hyaluronic acid' or 'sodium hyaluronate' on the product packaging - and always make sure it's high up on the ingredients list to ensure a good concentration.

Our top picks:

The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% B5, £5.90

Offering all the benefits of a top quality skincare product without the painful price tag, The Ordinary's hyaluronic acid serum will leave the skin smooth and rejuvinated. Apply underneath your daily moisturiser and follow with an SPF. 

Africology Intense Hydration Night Treatment, £65

A richly luxurious night treatment, this moisturiser, which contains hyaluronic acid, smells of delicious essential oils. It's thick and will need to sink in overnight, so use only once or twice a week when your skin in particularly dry. 

Eau Thermale Avène Gentle Milk Cleanser, £11.99

This is a total hero product if you have dry and/or sensitive skin. The milky formula is ultra cleansing but doesn't strip the skin like some harsher products do. The hyaluronic acid means your skin will remain soothed throughout the day too. 

Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum, £44

Another one to add to the beauty table if you struggle with the winter making your skin flaky and dehydrated. This serum, from cult brand Drunk Elephant, is flawless at plumping and knocking up the dewyness factor. Free from any nasties, or in the words of the brand's founder, the "Suspicious 6’ (essential oils, drying alcohols, silicones, chemical screens, fragrance/dyes and SLSs)", you can use it whenever you fancy. We suggest carrying it around in your bag so you can top up your natural glow when you feel like it. 

Charlotte Tilbury Magic Cream

One of the most luxurious moisturisers out there, Charlotte Tilbury's legendary Magic Cream does not dissapoint. Easy to apply, the silky cream glides on beautifully and absorbs into the skin quickly meaning you don't leave in the morning with any residue on your face. With a blend of hyaluronic acid, vitamin C and e, shea butter and aloe vera - you know it's working over time to keep your skin looking flawless too. 

Clarins Hydra-Essentiel Bi-serum intensif, £44

Super light and refreshing to use, Clarins's new serum is the perfect hyaluronic-infused product to use if you have oily to combination skin as it's not too rich. Add morning or night on cleansed skin and follow with your moisturiser. 

WATCH BELOW: Hollywood's top dermatologist Dr Dennis Gross shares his A-list skincare tips

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