Hyaluronic acid is a naturally-occurring compound which is widely used to enhance the healing of injuries and speed up surgical recovery times. More than just a simple tissue stimulant, hyaluronic acid is a potent recovery agent that has a history of use in treating arthritis and contributing to successful eye surgery.
Despite a history of application in the surgical field, hyaluronic acid has only recently been employed in skin care. In fact, it has only been ten years since this powerful healing agent has been topically applied for skin health. Since then, it has become one of the most exciting developments in skin care of late and its benefits certainly warrant this popularity.
Where does it come from?
We all have naturally-occurring hyaluronic acid in our cells to keep them healthy and vital. This natural abundance means hyaluronic acid (and sodium hyaluronate) behave extremely well with almost any skin type. Sadly, the production of hyaluronic acid drops off as we age leaving our cells vulnerable to damage and moisture loss1, 2.
Topically applied sodium hyaluronate will “top-up” the naturally occurring hyaluronic acid levels in your epidermal cells. The impressive water binding ability of this molecule allows the epidermis to retain moisture as if it was made of younger, more vital cells. This is especially noteworthy because while most of our skin’s building blocks like collagen and elastin reside deeper in the skin’s dermal layers, hyaluronic acid is much more concentrated in the outer layers of the epidermis making it easier to restore through skincare 3
The most mentioned attribute of this little molecule is that it can hold “1,000 times its weight in water”4. While this is true, it doesn’t fully capture benefits of hyaluronic acid for your skin. It’s much more than just a tiny water tank.
Hyaluronic acid has been called a “radical scavenger” because of its unique ability to trap skin-damaging free radicals 5. These are unbalanced oxygen atoms that do not behave as they should thanks to a mismatched electron pairing. Free radicals can damage or destroy the outer wall of skin cells leaving your skin with premature signs of aging6. In some cases, this damage can even lead to skin disease7. Hyaluronic acid prevents the cell damage that free radicals cause by creating a tight mesh around the cells in your skin. This bond acts like a net that catches and traps free radicals while restoring suppleness and elasticity 8.
The effects of hyaluronic acid are even more impressive when you expose your skin to UV light, like on a sunny day at the beach. With hyaluronic acid, the same protective mesh that traps free radicals works to regenerate tissue, letting your skin repair sun damage more quickly 9. Using hyaluronic acid with a sunscreen can help the sunscreen block out the damaging effects of UV light even more effectively 10. Even infection is resisted with this ingredient thanks to the immune response that hyaluronic acid provokes. It will signal new tissue growth, assist in building new blood vessels, and encourage stronger cellular immunity 11,12.
Sodium Hyaluronate: The Future
Despite a long list of benefits, Hyaluronic acid in its original form isn’t perfect. Its major downside is that unrefined, it can be difficult to store. Hyaluronic acid breaks down easily causing it to lose its effectiveness with time. Sodium hyaluronate is a smaller form of the hyaluronic acid molecule suspended in a way that lets it stay potent for much longer13.
This small difference means two important things: Firstly, because it is smaller and far more soluble than normally-applied hyaluronic acid, sodium hyaluronate will pass into your skin far more readily. Compared to the unrefined hyaluronic acid, sodium hyaluronate can access the cells that it’s trying to help more easily. Secondly, on your skin, the effects will last longer. You can apply it less frequently. One application of skincare containing hyaluronic acid should be enough ensure benefit to the skin throughout the day.
The Conclusive Truth
As an industry, it can be challenging to bring true ingredient innovation into skincare. There is rigorous testing involved and a pretty high bar to surpass if a development team is to create something truly new. Hyaluronic acid may be one of the most helpful ingredient innovations from the past decade, a statement to which it’s popularity can attest.
 Longas MO, Russell CS, He XY. Evidence for structural changes in dermatan sulfate and hyaluronic acid with aging. Carbohydr Res 1987; 159:127-36; PMID:3829041; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0008 6215(00)90010-7
 Sutherland (1998) Novel and established applications of microbial polysaccharides. Trends Biotechnol. 16:41-46.
 Maltusch, Röwert-Huber, Matthies, Lange-Asschenfeldt & Stockfleth (2011) Modes of action of diclofenac 3%/hyaluronic acid 2.5% in the treatment of actinic keratosis Journal of the German Society of Dermatology. 9(12): 1011-101
 McKee CM, Penno MB, Cowman M, Burdick MD, Strieter RM, Bao C, et al. (1996) Hyaluronan (HA) fragments induce chemokine gene expression in alveolar macrophages. The role of HA size and CD44. J Clin Invest; 98:2403-13; PMID:8941660; http://dx.doi.org/10.1172/JCI119054