Many people spend countless hours using harmful beauty products to keep their skin looking vibrant and young. But there’s a better way. Hyaluronic acid can keep your skin glowing, and it also benefits your joints — all without the harmful side effects of toxic skin products.
Hyaluronic acid is often recommended by dermatologists and other physicians for its ability to improve skin’s texture and appearance, along with reducing joint pain and other symptoms associated with aging. HA is probably most well-known for its inclusion in pricey anti-aging skin serums, but you’ll also find it joint-supporting formulas, cold sore treatments, eye drops and lip balms.
So what is hyaluronic acid exactly, and how does it work?
Hyaluronic acid is a lubricating, clear substance that’s produced by the body naturally. In the human body, hyaluronic acid is found in the greatest concentrations in the skin, inside joints, within the eye sockets and in other tissues where it helps retain collagen, increase moisture, and provide elasticity and flexibility.
Today, HA is incorporated into different anti-aging beauty and health care products — you can now find hyaluronic acid lotions, creams, serums and supplements sold in health food stores. There’s a good chance your dermatologist even offers HA in injection form. Read on to learn why.
Hyaluronic Acid Benefits
1. Hydrates Dry, Aged Skin
Many people report that their skin feels “dewier,” the bags under their eyes become lighter and their skin texture is smoother after applying serums containing hyaluronic acid. The primary way in which HA helps improve appearance of “chronoaged skin” (skin aged due to sun exposure) is by reducing water loss. In fact, one reason that hormone replacement treatments sometimes cause the skin to look more youthful and less sun-damaged is because they increase the skin’s HA concentration. (1)
Dryness, dandruff, drooping eyes or lips, and sagginess are associated with aging skin because as we get older molecules in our skin lose some of their ability to bind and retain water. This not only causes dryness, but also decreases skin’s volume. Skin aging is triggered by both intrinsic and extrinsic aging, meaning daily environmental exposure to pollutants and UV light, along with the “the normal process of aging.” Studies show there are multiple sites in the skin involved in the control of HA synthesis, deposition, cell and protein association and degradation.
Researchers have found that stratum corneum dryness caused from prolonged sun exposure plays an important role in wrinkle formation. It’s now been shown that wrinkles and fine lines are usually also more visible in low humidity compared to high humidity environments because they further reduce the water-holding capacity and elasticity of the skin. HA can help naturally reduce signs of aging by decreasing “epidermis water loss” associated with sun exposure, skin dryness or flakiness.
2. Helps Reduce Wrinkles
Although most research shows that HA might take six weeks or more to improve skin’s appearance, some studies have found that anti-wrinkle HA serums and eye creams can sometimes start to work within just two to four weeks of use. For more substantial anti-aging results, dermatologists now use prescription injections or formulas containing hyaluronic acids (including Juvéderm Ultra Plus or Allergan) over the course of several months to reduce lip and eye sagginess.
Results from a 2014 double-blind, randomized clinical trial that appeared in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology showed that products containing hyaluronic acid effectively decreased the appearance of wrinkles and reduced skin sagging within 30 days of consistent use. Some study participants also reported experiencing fuller lips and increased cheek volume by the end of one month (two traits associated with having a youthful appearance). The trial was carried out on 40 adult females who showed mild to moderate clinical signs of skin aging prior to the study, including decreased skin volume and alterations in the skin’s surface. After either applying a product called Fillerina (which contains six forms of hyaluronic acid) or a placebo product, results were measured after three hours and then seven, 14 and 30 days later. (2)
Researchers found that after 30 days (and some starting after 14 days), those using Fillerina showed significant “improvements in facial contours and volumes” compared to the placebo group, and to the baseline measurements. The active treatment group experienced reductions in sagging of both the face and the cheekbones contours, improved lip volume, and decreased wrinkle depth and volume, while the placebo group saw no such improvements.
3. Treats Sores, Sunburns and Wounds
Aside from lowering the appearance of wrinkles and dryness, HA is beneficial for treating cold sores and mouth sores, ulcers, wounds, bites and burns due to how it keeps damaged tissue moist. It also provides sunburn relief. Many cold sore treatments for the lips and mouth contain hyaluronic acid gel to speed up the healing process and prevent cracking or bleeding.
HA is part of the structural component of the mouth and the lips, which are made up of connective tissues made partly from collagen and water. Collagen and HA help give lips their structure and shape. Because HA binds to water, it hydrates the skin and tissues within the mouth/lips and keeps skin junctions tight, helps bring nutrients to damaged tissues, controls inflammation and helps fluids carry out waste.
4. Lubricates Achy Joints
Hyaluronic acid is found in all bones, connecting tissue, joints, tendons and cartilage structures throughout the body — especially a type called hyaline cartilage, which covers the ends of bones and provides cushioning. Because it helps buffer bones and provides resistance to wear and tear, HA is useful for lowering pains and tenderness associated with degenerative joint diseases.
It’s also found in another important part of our joints called the synovial membrane, which forms a coating over two articulating bones and produces synovial fluid. Synovial fluid is a “viscous fluid” that helps joints absorb shock, remain elastic and carry nutrients to cartilage.
Hyaluronic acid is now a popular substance used in supplements for treating osteoarthritis pain and injuries. It’s also been approved by the FDA for treatment of osteoarthritis when administered in relatively high doses through injections given by a health care provider. (3) Some research shows that lower doses can also be effective for reducing joint stiffness and chronic pain, although results seem to vary. The types of joint pains most commonly treated with HA include those of the elbows and knees. (4)
5. Helps Reduce Dry Eyes and Eye Discomfort
The fluid inside the eye socket (called the vitreous humor) is composed almost completely of hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid eye drops (such as the brand Hyalistil) can help relieve chronic dry eyes by replenishing moisture within the eye socket, helping with tear production and restoring fluid balance. (5) Some studies have also found that hyaluronic acid helps suppress oxidative damage caused by UVB light within the cornea. (6)
Doctors commonly use lubricating HA formulas to treat eye injuries and disorders, including cataracts, especially at the time before or after surgery when the eyes are most sensitive and dry. HA drops can be beneficial during eye surgery or recoveries, including after cataract removal, corneal transplant or repair of a detached retina.
Hyaluronic Acid Facts, Plus How It Works
The biggest advantage that hyaluronic acid has to offer is that it has a very high capacity for retaining water, whether on the skin, in the eyes or within soft tissue. HA is considered a glycosaminoglycan, which gives it its capacity to hold a large volume of water along with its high viscosity. Throughout the body, HA is distributed in many different tissues, especially in the skin, where it provides moisture and structure. The skin accounts for about half of all the HA found in the entire body.
Other body parts where HA is concentrated include tendons and joints, the membranes of the eyes, the umbilical cord, synovial fluid, skeletal tissues, heart valves, lungs, aorta, and prostate. HA is basically a very long link of carbohydrate molecules bound together that hold water and therefore allow for fluid movement and pressure absorption.
Over the past two decades, emerging research has shown that beneficial functions of hyaluronic acid include hydration, lubrication of joints, a space-filling capacity within tissue and between cells, building the framework through which cells migrate, repairing tissue and wounds, regulating activation of inflammatory cells (inflammation), enhancing immune responses, repairing injury of fibroblasts, and maintaining skin’s epithelial cells. (7)
How Hyaluronic Acid Works:
The size of different HA molecules is critically important for hyaluronic acid’s various functions. Larger molecules are found in healthy tissue and help keep inflammation/free radical damage and dehydration under control (they’re “antiangiogenic and immunosuppressive”). On the other hand, smaller polymers of HA can send distress signals to the immune system and raise inflammation to help with injury or wound healing.
- HA has been referred to as “the key molecule involved in skin moisture.” In recent years, there’s been an explosion of new natural skin care products hitting the market that contain hyaluronic acid, promising to make skin smoother, plumper, more even-toned and generally more “refreshed” looking. HA is capable of holding up to 1,000 times its weight in water — however, because the size of its molecules are relatively big compared to other acids, it’s never been easy for skin care manufacturers to produce a hyaluronic acid product that actually penetrates and stays on the skin.
- Only in the past decade have scientists been able to create technology-advanced HA formulas that are capable of really seeping below the skin’s surface. Recent studies show that topical application of advanced (low molecular weight) HA serums can improve skin moisture and lead to significant reductions in wrinkle depth within just several weeks. HA is beneficial for reducing oxidative damage to the skin caused from both internal and external factors, especially ultraviolet irradiation (also referred to as photoaging).
- In addition to UV damage, researchers now believe that skin aging is also influenced by hormonal changes, including decreased production of sex hormones like estrogen. Decreased estrogen can result in collagen degradation, which leads to dryness, loss of elasticity and wrinkling of the skin (along with other aging problems, such as joint achiness and dry eyes).
Because HA is involved in slowing down collagen loss in addition to reducing fluid or water loss, it can also help improve joint lubrication, reduce pain, and treat various problems of the eyes and mouth.
Hyaluronic Acid vs. Glucosamine
- Like hyaluronic acid, glucosamine helps provide elasticity and structure within joints and tissue that can be used to lower pain.
- The primary difference between the two is that HA provides more lubrication due to how it holds water, while glucosamine provides more structure and strength.
- HA is an integral component of synovial fluid and articular cartilage, where as glucosamine (especially when used with chondroitin sulfate) works by helping build cartilage. Basically, HA is more beneficial to the joint fluid and important for shock absorption, while glucosamine helps prevent cartilage/collagen loss.
- Many people experience the best results when they use these products together. It’s even been found that glucosamine increases hyaluronic acid production. (8)
- Some anti-aging formulas contain several joint-supporting substances in addition to HA and glucosamine, such as manganese sulfate. Used together, these can all be effective for lowering osteoarthritis pains, improving functions of the cartilage matrix and replenishing synovial fluids.
Hyaluronic Acid History and Interesting Facts
As you could probably guess, some of the most interesting research to emerge in recent years regarding hyaluronic acid has to do with the way it affects aging skin and joints.
- Believe it or not, HA was first used commercially in 1942 as an egg white substitute in bakery products. (9)
- HA belongs to the extracellular matrix (ECM) molecules of the skin. When it comes to anti-aging products, we usually hear about the primary skin layers (epidermis, the dermis and the underlying subcutis) but not the matrix of ECM molecules that lies between cells of these layers.
- The ECM helps build the skin layers and has an important role in regulating cellular functions. These ECM molecules include glycosaminoglycans, proteoglycans, growth factors and structural proteins, such as collagen. The most abundant part of the ECM has been discovered to be hyaluronic acid.
- Other than being part of the ECM, HA has a variety of physicochemical properties in other parts of the body that are showing importance for anti-aging treatments.
- Researchers are now linking higher levels of HA to increased protection from reactive oxygen species (free radical damage), arthritis, chondrocytes that raise inflammation, certain types of cancer, lung injury, abnormal immune regulation, eye disorders and more.
How to Use Hyaluronic Acid
Hyaluronic acid for your skin and eyes:
- Hyaluronic acid injections: These are administered by doctors only, so talk a dermatologist about recommendations if you’re interested in using HA on your lips, eyes or skin.
- Hyaluronic acid cream/serum/lotion: Different brands contain varying concentrations and types of HA molecules. The most effective types have more than one size of hyaluronic acid molecules, since various sizes work in different ways. Studies have found that daily topical application of serums containing around 0.1 percent HA can lead to significant improvement in skin hydration, wrinkle appearance and elasticity. (10)
- For treating dry eyes: HA can be administered in liquid eye drop form three to four times daily for three months. Look for a concentration of HA around 0.2 percent to 0.4 percent, but also make sure to always read directions.
Hyaluronic acid supplements for joint pain:
- According to the Arthritis Foundation, there are now several hyaluronic acid treatments approved for knee osteoarthritis in the U.S.: Hyalgan, Orthovisc, Supartz and Synvisc. These are often made from rooster or chicken combs and sometimes bacteria. (11)
- In adults over age 18: 50 milligrams of hyaluronic acid can be been taken by mouth one to two times daily with meals.
- For people with osteoarthritis, research shows that 80 milligrams (containing 60 percent to 70 percent hyaluronic acid) taken daily for eight weeks helps relieve symptoms best.
- You can also talk to your doctor about hyaluronic acid injections. Some perform direct injections of about 20 milligrams into the painful joint once a week for several weeks to control pain and inflammation.
Possible Side Effects/Cautions of Hyaluronic Acid
The FDA reports that HA products are normally safe when taken by mouth or used topically on the skin/mouth. HA supplements and injections should be avoided by pregnant women or those who are breast-feeding, since it seems to be able to linger in breast milk and might be capable of negatively affecting a developing fetus or baby.
Prescription and commercial products containing hyaluronic acid are usually made from either bacteria created within a lab or prepared from bird protein and cartilage. People with allergies to eggs or feathers should not use these products since they can trigger reactions and even bleeding. If you have allergies, always read ingredients and dosage directions so you’re not unsure of the type of HA you’re getting.
People using medications that affect blood clotting, such as warfarin (Coumadin) or aspirin, shouldn’t use HA supplements since this can increase risk of bleeding.
Final Thoughts on Hyaluronic Acid
- Hyaluronic acid is a lubricating fluid that’s naturally found in the skin, eyes, joints, fluid and connective tissue.
- Because HA has a very high capacity for holding water, it’s used in supplement, lotion, eye drop or serum form to give structure and moisture to damaged tissue.
- Certain types of HA also have anti-inflammatory properties and help reverse collagen/cartilage loss.
- Benefits of using hyaluronic acid including firming aging skin, reducing achy joints, moisturizing wounds and rewetting dry eyes.
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