What exactly is Hyaluronic Acid?. . . And what’s the science behind it?

You may have heard of hyaluronic acid, the principal ingredient in facial fillers and also in some topical skin products. But what exactly is it? How does it work? Is it safe? Let’s take an in-depth look at this game-changing substance that has been helping your favorite Hollywood celebrities and posibly many of your friends and family, look younger for decades.

Hyaluronic Acid- what is it?

Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a disaccharide– a molecule consisting of two sugar molecules (uronic acid and N-acetylglucosamine) that occurs naturally in the body. It is most prominently found in the eyes, skin and connective tissue. In the skin, HA chains are usually between 1,000 to 10,000 disaccharides long. This sprawling molecule can attract and hold almost 1000 times its weight in water, helping to keep skin plump and hydrated. High levels of hyaluronic acid in the skin also encourage collagen production and facilitate nutrient transfer through the skin, helping the skin to heal from damaging ultraviolet radiation exposure. You can see why it was first targeted as a possible ally in the fight against aging.

Our body produces its own hyaluronic acid, and the highest levels can be seen in the skin of babies, which is smooth, firm, well-hydrated and resilient. As we age, the amount of HA our bodies produce declines dramatically. By age 50 we are only producing an estimated half of what we did in our youth.

How do products containing hyaluronic acid work?

In a cosmetic setting, hyaluronic acid can be found in two forms: injectable hyaluronic acid and topical products.

Injectable hyaluronic acid. Dermal fillers such as Juvederm XC, Restylane and Voluma involve injecting a gel-like form of hyaluronic acid (or a similar molecule) into the skin to fill in wrinkles, provide structure to areas of the face that have lost volume, or to plump up the lips. Different products are designed specifically to provide optimal results for different areas of the face or body (fillers can be used on the ears, hands, etc.). The gel hardness, viscosity, consistency, HA concentration and other factors affect the aesthetic results of hyaluronic acid injections. Used in this form, the hyaluronic acid is actually providing a sort of “scaffolding” for the skin and other facial structures. The first hyaluronic dermal filler was approved by the FDA in 2003. Since then, many products using hyaluronic acid or similar molecules (such at the poly-L-lactic acid used in our Sculptra facial filler) have been designed to work better, last longer, and maximize the body’s natural skin-repairing functions.

Topical hyaluronic acid. Unlike some other smaller molecules, hyaluronic acid is too large (3,000 nanometers) to be absorbed directly into the skin where there is only between 15 and 50 nanometers of intracellular space. And topical HA cannot produce the dramatic results resulting from dermal filler injections, but the right topical HA product can help skin look younger, brighter and more hydrated by employing full-size HA molecules as well as an array of sodium hyaluronates (a water-soluble salt form of hyaluronic acid) that come in smaller molecular weights that are able to penetrate the skin. The best products offer HA in a mix of molecular weights. The smallest molecules provide hydration, healing in the form of antioxidants, and even fill in fine lines and wrinkles. Medium-sized molecules penetrate to some degree and add a protective layer to hold in moisture. Meanwhile the largest, or full-size molecules, sit on the surface of the skin, providing a barrier while attracting moisture from the environment.

Is hyaluronic acid safe?

One of the bonus features to hyaluronic acid in any form is that allergic reactions are extremely uncommon. Because the molecule is produced naturally by the human body, few people have negative reactions of any kind. Those who do react are usually reacting to a different substance, such as the lidocaine which is used as a numbing agent in some injectable fillers. Injection reactions are usually mild and resolve quickly without complication.

A word of warning: hyaluronic acid is also sold in ingestable form; however, HA taken orally does not make its way to the skin to offer the same kinds of benefits it does when injected or applied topically. Don’t fall for any claims that it does.

If you’d like to learn more about hyaluronic acid facial fillers, HA topical products, or our other cosmetic dermatology products and services, call our office for a consultation with one of our providers, you’ll be glad you did.