Hyaluronic ‘acid’ in your anti-ageing skincare: should you be scared?

Scan your skincare label and you’re bound to see the words ‘hyaluronic acid’. It’s the ingredient du jour, but what is it and does it live up to its anti-ageing promises? Fiona Embleton reports

‘Hyaluronic acid’: it’s admittedly a mouthful when sober let alone after two glasses of Pinot Grigio. But you’d better get practising, as the time to include it in your beauty vocabulary has arrived. Not only is hyaluronic acid a favourite ingredient for dermatologists but, crucially, it could also mean the difference between a peachy and prune-like complexion in your 50s.

So what exactly is ‘hyaluronic acid’, aside from a cunning way to beat your friends at Scrabble? To be clear, hyaluronic acid isn’t like glycolic and salicylic acids so won’t exfoliate or peel away your skin. In fact, it has the opposite effect, as it plumps and cushions the skin.

“Scientifically-speaking, hyaluronic acid is a big polysaccharide molecule found naturally in many of the body’s tissues,” says Dr Nick Lowe, consultant dermatologist at London’s Cranley Clinic. “In particular, significant amounts can be found in the skin’s middle layer, the dermis.”

It has two important functions here: hyaluronic acid enables the skin to produce collagen (“You can’t have one without the other,” explains Dr Lowe), and it acts as a humectant, drawing water to the skin’s surface and trapping it there.

“What makes the hyaluronic acid molecule unique is that it can hold 1,000 times its own weight in water,” says Dr Stefanie Williams, medical director at European Dermatology London.

Which, unfortunately, brings us to the bad news. You guessed it, with age, the hyaluronic acid content in our skin gradually begins to decline. “The thinning, wrinkling and sagging we eventually see is partly due to this loss of hyaluronic acid and collagen,” says Dr Lowe.

The exact tipping point varies from person to person. “A lot depends on lifestyle and genetics,” says Dr Lowe, “but certain factors such as smoking and accumulated sun damage are guaranteed to accelerate the decline in hyaluronic acid. This is because they reduce the fibroblasts in your skin, which are the cells responsible for manufacturing collagen from hyaluronic acid.”

Do hyaluronic acid supplements work?

But we can replenish our skin’s natural supply, right? The latest hyaluronic acid supplements and drinks claim to do just that but the jury is out on whether they work.

Dr Lowe isn’t convinced: “I find it difficult to understand how an hyaluronic acid supplement or drink can increase hyaluronic acid levels in the skin rather than simply be flushed out of your body.”

For him, a more realistic approach is to up your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, as vitamin C and other antioxidants maintain optimum collagen production. Also, wear a daily SPF15 broad spectrum sunscreen, even on cloudy days, as ageing UVA rays are still present. He refers to these as “the enemies of healthy collagen”.

Dr Williams is less sceptical of supplements. “Two studies, including one in the high-profile journal of Aesthetic Dermatology, confirmed that taken orally, hyaluronic acid supplements can improve the smoothness of the skin,” she says.

But before you race off to the nearest health food store, there is one caveat: not all supplements are created equal. “The effectiveness of any oral product depends largely on the dose, form and bioavailability. An example of a good, evidence-based product is Aneva Derma Nutritional Skin Beverage (£110 for a 30-day supply), because a daily scoop of powder, mixed into a glass of water, contains a solid dose of 210mg of hyaluronic acid alongside hydrolysed powdered collagen and a variety of skin-strengthening vitamins.”

Hyaluronic acid in skincare

When it comes to hyaluronic acid in skincare the benefits are thankfully more black and white. “Put into a face cream, hyaluronic acid is great at reducing moisture loss,” says Dr Lowe. “You don’t even need a high dose for it to be effective. Anywhere between one and ten per cent will do the trick.”

This is largely because the hyaluronic acid molecules have been biologically engineered so their structure and function are extremely similar to what our bodies naturally produce. “What skincare companies have to do is find ways to ‘cut’ the hyaluronic acid molecule into smaller pieces to allow topically applied hyaluronic acid to penetrate the skin,” says Dr Williams.

What hasn’t been proved is that hyaluronic acid, applied topically, can increase your skin’s natural reserves of this molecule. Nor that it subsequently helps your skin produce fresh collagen.

The only way to do that might be fillers, if you are someone who would consider going down the injectables road. “Hyaluronic acid filler injections are the safest type of fillers,” says Dr Lowe, “and used to lift the skin in the cheekbones as well as to plump up the lips. In the US, recent studies have shown that if you inject hyaluronic acid into the skin you can measure an increase in collagen production.

“This may be because you’re inadvertently stimulating the fibroblasts or because you’re injecting under the skin’s surface where hyaluronic acid is needed most.”

Other options for purely improving collagen production include professional laser or radiofrequency treatments.

Non-invasive hyaluronic acid beauty products

But if you prefer to stick to less invasive hyaluronic acid treatments, these are our pick of the best:

Dr Nick Lowe The Secret is Out Instant Face Lift, £29, plumps out wrinkles and is a good non-surgical alternative to fillers

Skinceuticals Hydrating B5 Gel, £48.49. “One of my favourites,” says Dr Williams, as it moisturises so well.

Atopiclair Cream (prescription only), recommended by Dr Lowe for eczema sufferers as it is so effective at helping to repair the skin’s protective barrier

Indeed Laboratories’ Hydraluron Moisture Jelly, £24.99, contains a high grade of hyaluronic acid alongside red algae for immediate absorption

And for something that’s a little more effort, but still non-invasive:

WrinkleMD Eye Hyaluronic Acid Deep Infusion System, £189, a high-tech gadget designed to erase crow’s feet. A miniature computer, which attaches to disposable patches you place underneath your eyes, calibrates your hydration levels and uses tiny pulses of positive and negative charges to push a hyaluronic acid serum deep into the skin. It comes with three patches and you use one every three days. Their clinical trials show a 73 per cent reduction in wrinkles after just one treatment. One of my High50 editors, who is 52, tried this and, although it seemed fiddly to use at first, says it’s actually really simple. She saw some definite improvement after one use and more after all three, and says if she had a big event coming up (especially where photos are likely to be taken!) she would use it again.

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