What Is Hyaluronic Acid and How Does It Benefit The Skin
Don’t be fooled by the name: hyaluronic acid doesn’t behave the way you might expect an acid to behave. It doesn’t help clear pores or slough away dead skin cells like some acids do. In fact, it doesn’t exfoliate or whisk things away at all; instead, hyaluronic acid is in the business of attracting – specifically moisture, which it does very well indeed.1 For this reason, you might find it helpful to drop the acid talk altogether and think of it by its other commonly used name, hyaluronan1; to keep things simple, we’ll go with HA.
No matter what you call it, you might have already heard some buzz about HA. It’s developed quite a reputation in skincare circles thanks to its ability to draw water to tissue and bind it there.2But HA isn’t just a so-hot-right-now ingredient, it’s also a naturally occurring substance that’s found in all tissues and fluids of the body, from our joints and the tiny valves in our heart, to the fluid surrounding our eyeballs and – you guessed it – our skin.2
In fact, around 50 per cent of the body’s entire HA supply is located in the skin, where it’s in both the epidermis (the outermost layers of the skin) and to an even greater extent, in the dermis underneath.2 As well as being in the cells themselves, HA is also found in the matrix of molecules between cells.2
By now you probably get the picture: HA really is (almost) everywhere! It’s rapidly refreshed and turned over, as it goes through a continual process of synthetisation, distribution and degradation.3
What does the hyaluronic acid in our skin do?
Sure, it might be everywhere but what does HA actually do? Great question! As we mentioned above, HA is brilliant at binding moisture to tissue; just one gram of HA can hold up to six litres of water – that’s equivalent to 6000 per cent of its own weight!1 This leads us to the role of HA in the body, which is to keep it lubricated and well cushioned. In the skin, it’s one of the most important molecules for keeping our complexion hydrated from the inside,(2.) and it helps impart that “bounciness” that comes from excellent skin elasticity.2 Think about the plump springiness and supple texture of a child’s skin, and you get an idea of how HA contributes to to skin’s appearance.
As we age, however, the levels of HA in our skin begin to disappear, especially in the epidermis.2 As you might expect, this change at the surface level of the skin contributes to dehydration, dryness and a loss of elasticity.2 For this reason, researchers think that HA may be linked to the visible signs of skin ageing.2
In what other ways does hyaluronic acid benefit the skin?
HA is terrific at drawing in the moisture, but it also benefits the skin in other ways. For example, because it exists in the space between cells known as the extracellular matrix, it provides a scaffolding or framework for the skin tissue.2 It also helps with wound-healing and repair by stimulating certain cells that are involved in the body’s inflammatory response.4
Can hyaluronic acid be damaged?
Although HA is continually generated and spread throughout the body, this seemingly plentiful supply unfortunately doesn’t last forever. Research is still being done into the extent to which HA may become degraded and there are not yet definitive answers on this.5 It is known, however, that HA can become degraded prematurely by free radicals, as well as one all-too familiar culprit in skin damage: excessive sun exposure.5 In particular UVB rays – they’re the ones responsible for sunburn – have been found to both degrade the skin’s HA and compromise the synthesis of new HA.5 So if you needed yet another reason to stay protected in the sun, do it for the sake of your hyaluronic acid!
1. Becker LC, Bergfeld WF, Belsito DV, Klaassen CD, Marks JG Jr, Shank RC et al. Final report of the safety assessment of hyaluronic acid, potassium hyaluronate, and sodium hyaluronate. Int J Toxicol. 2009;28(4):5-67.
2. Papakonstantinou E, Roth M, Karakiulakis G. Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging. Dermatoendocrinol. 2012;4(3) 253–258.
3. Stern R. Hyaluronan catabolism: a new metabolic pathway. Eur J Cell Biol. 2004;83(7):317-25.
4. Weigel PH, Fuller GM, LeBoeuf RD. A model for the role of hyaluronic acid and fibrin in the early events during the inflammatory response and wound healing. J Theor Biol. 1986;119(2):219-234
5. Averbeck M, Gebhardt CA, Voigt S, Beilharz S, Anderegg U, Termeer CC et al Differential regulation of hyaluronan metabolism in the epidermal and dermal compartments of human skin by UVB irradiation. J Invest Dermatol. 2007;127(3):687-97.
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