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Your Everything Guide To Hyaluronic Acid

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The Violet Files

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Find out why skin pros love this iconic ingredient — and how to make it work for you.

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Hyaluronic acid is one of skin care’s most buzzed-about complexion-boosters. We often associate it with glowy skin, but what exactly is the molecule known as HA? What does it do? And if it is, in fact, the must-have ingredient we’ve been lead to believe it is, what’s the best way to incorporate it into our daily beauty routines? We asked two top New York skin experts (a plastic surgeon and a dermatologist) to field our all-things hyaluronic acid questions.


Hyaluronic acid is a carbohydrate, or sugar, that naturally occurs all over the body including connective tissue, eyes, and mostly in the skin, which holds about half of our HA. In other words, it’s the gooey substance responsible for keeping water in the body’s tissues. “Hyaluronic acid can hold in up to a thousand times its weight in water. So, it plays this essential role of locking moisture in our tissues,” says Sachin Shridharani, MD, a plastic surgeon in New York City. As we age, we lose hyaluronic acid in our skin. “This is part of why we start to see less firmness and plumpness [in our faces] as we mature,” says Dr. Shridharani.

Hyaluronic acid can be found in both topical (skin care) and injectable (filler) forms. Both are derived from the metabolization process of tiny organisms like bacteria. One difference between the two: “The HA used for filler goes through rigorous sterilization and a process called cross-linking that makes it sturdier and last longer,” says Dr. Shridharani. For topical versions, you’ll see “molecular weight” mentioned with hyaluronic acid. Low molecular weight hyaluronic acid can penetrate deeper into the skin giving it a temporary firmness, while high weight HA sits on top of the epidermis, conferring a noticeable glow. The bottom line: A combination formula helps maximize moisture on every level.


Who can use it?
Hyaluronic acid is essentially a no-downsides ingredient. It can be used by pretty much everyone, no matter the age or skin type. In general, hyaluronic acid is non-irritating and won’t trigger an allergic reaction because it occurs naturally in the body. "I don’t think anyone can really go wrong with HA. Whether you've got really great skin and you want to continue to keep it looking refreshed and hydrated or if you're somebody who has mature or aging skin, it’ll help," says Dr. Shridharani.

What will it do for my skin?
Unlike some active ingredients, namely retinoids, HA won’t actually change your skin over time, notes New York City dermatologist Marina Peredo, MD. It’s like giving your skin a drink of water. “It’s a temporary boost of hydration — a very good moisturizer,” says she adds. The ephemeral effect doesn’t diminish HA’s usefulness, though. Skin is happier — less irritated and clearer — when it’s hydrated.

Hyaluronic acid is in everything. How do I pick the right one?
With all of the options on the market — toners, essences, serums, and creams — choosing an HA product can be a daunting task. If your skin is oily or acne-prone, go with a lighter formula, like a toner or a serum, which won’t feel greasy. “As for more mature or very dry skin, try an HA product that’s thicker and more occlusive, like a cream,” says Dr. Peredo. One thing to note: While HA is a humectant (it draws water to the skin) it’s not necessarily a replacement for a moisturizer, which is occlusive, meaning it keeps water in the skin. In other words, pair your hyaluronic toner and serum with a moisturizer for maximum moisture.

How should I work HA into my routine?
Apply your active ingredients first, suggests Dr. Peredo. “So if you’re using a retinoid for acne treatment or for rejuvenation that should go on first,” she said. Then, layer your HA product on after. “Otherwise your active-ingredient products may not absorb as well,” said Dr. Peredo. If you’re not deferring to an active ingredient, apply your HA in an order based on its formulation. Hyaluronic acid toners and serums should be applied before thicker products like creams. Want a little extra pampering? Set aside time for a self-care moment and apply a hyaluronic acid-infused mask once or twice a week.