The human body is a vastly complicated organism. For those outside the medical field, remembering all the different parts of a cell or describing exactly what the pancreas does can be just as complicated. So when you pick up a bottle of sunscreen and read “hyaluronic acid” in the ingredients, your first thought is not likely to be “oh, that’s a naturally occurring polymer with anti-inflammatory and superior water-binding properties!”
All of that is true, but we have been taught to be suspicious of hard-to-pronounce ingredients. Hyaluronic acid (pronounced hy-al-uron-ic) doesn’t make it easy but it is an essential ingredient, not only in sunscreen, but also in our overall health. Consider this: do you have skin? Eyes? Knee joints? If so, don’t let them hear you question hyaluronic acid because it’s in all of those body parts (in addition to an increasing number of health and beauty products), and it’s doing some pretty amazing things.
HA can be found throughout the body, but mostly in our skin, our eyeballs, and the lubricating synovial fluid found between our joints. Many of its functions are complicated, involving “fibroblasts” and “cell-to-cell communication.” But the reasons hyaluronic acid has made its way into beauty products, artificial tears, arthritic treatments and much more, are a lot simpler.
The Science of Skin
If you have ever walked through a museum-sized cosmetics store or even browsed a popular magazine at the grocery store, there seems to be a lot of options for products claiming to improve the quality of your skin. Do you want to enhance it? Reenergize it? Rejuvenate it? There’s a product to take care of all of it. And the ingredients are seemingly endless. Some you can recognize, like aloe or coconut oil, and others have 15 syllables and so many X’s in their names, you’d swear they must be alien. You might instinctively group hyaluronic acid into that second category simply because it’s so hard to pronounce, but after reading more about it and what it can do, you might start to actively seek it out.
Fountain of Youth
One of the most popular claims of the cosmetic industry is that a product is “anti-aging.” On its face (pun intended) that claim probably incites skepticism. It sounds too good to be true, like when ice cream is “totally sugar free!” or a service has “absolutely no hidden fees!” Granted, a cosmetic product might not let you turn back the clock on aging entirely, but if it includes hyaluronic acid (or its brother with a different structure, sodium hyaluronate), then there is some strong science backing its claims.
The aging process of skin isn’t entirely understood, but there are a few things scientists know for sure. One of the main factors in the aging of skin is the amount of moisture it can retain. The more moisture in our skin, the more pliability and resilience it will have, which is associated with youthful-looking skin. Skin ages as a natural process like all of our organs, but that process can be accelerated by outside factors like injury and exposure to UV radiation and pollutants.
As skin ages, it is less able to retain water, and the most essential component of moisture retention is hyaluronic acid. It acts as a sponge, able to bind a ton of water to itself, and keep your skin moist and supple. It is no coincidence that as skin ages, the concentration of HA drops1.
Research has shown that HA-based cosmetic products can decrease the depth and volume of wrinkles, increase the volume of lips, and decrease sagging around the cheekbones and throughout the facial contours2. The thought process seems too simple: if the skin is losing HA, then just put more into it! But occasionally, the simplest solution really is the best.
It’s not just aging skin that can benefit from hyaluronic acid. It’s been found that the substance can help treat skin damaged by external factors, like smoke and UV radiation from the sun3.
Approximately 80% of skin aging is attributed to the sun, so don’t forget your sunscreen, and consider a product that includes HA1.
As if HA isn’t already offering enough help for our skin, it turns out HA helps heal wounds too! Once researchers discovered that it was naturally produced by our bodies in response to injuries, it probably seemed only natural to study its effects as a treatment. Sure enough, HA has been shown to help speed wound healing and to reduce unsightly scar tissue after a wound has healed4
What Else Can HA Do?
We’re still discovering other uses hyaluronic acid might have as doctors continue to experiment with different applications, but there are a few more benefits that are well documented.
Treating Joints and Tendons
While most of the HA in our body is concentrated in the skin, it also shows up in the synovial fluid of our joints. When the HA concentration is too low, it can lead to osteoarthritis, a condition that causes pain and stiffness due to the degeneration of joint cartilage. Viscosupplementation (the injection of HA directly into the joint) has gained prominence as a treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee and is usually employed when more conventional therapies have been unsuccessful. Lubricating knee movement with HA injections can reduce pain and perhaps even slow the progression of osteoarthritis. Thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to enhance collagen deposition, it has also been used successfully in studies to enhance the healing of injured tendons5
Are you noticing a pattern yet? HA as an ingredient is most helpful in the parts of the body where it already naturally occurs. The same is true of the eye.
Hyaluronic acid can be found in the vitreous of the eye, which is the jelly-like substance that makes up most of the mass of the eyeball. HA is used to replace some of that fluid during certain eye surgeries and is also in many products designed to cleanse the eyes and offer relief from dryness.
The same moisture-binding and anti-inflammatory properties that make it so awesome for skin care also lend themselves well for use in artificial tears. HA adds a unique viscosity to artificial tears that allow them to remain on the surface of the eye longer and thus provide more sustained moisture than other products6.
The anti-inflammatory and wound healing functions of hyaluronic acid offer another benefit to sufferers of severe dry eye. These patients can often experience damage to the surface of their eyes due to chronic dryness. Treatment with products containing HA has been shown to help reverse that damage and promote healing of the ocular surface6.
What was once a tongue-twisting, seven-syllable mystery ingredient should now be invited into the warm inner circle of aloe vera and coconut oil! Of course, don’t go out and buy the first bucket of hyaluronic acid or sodium hyaluronate you find. As with many ingredients, how it is incorporated into a product and at what concentration is still important. Do your research and be informed. Discover for yourself why HA is often called a fountain of youth.
- Papakonstantinou, Eleni, Michael Roth, and George Karakiulakis. “Hyaluronic Acid: A Key Molecule in Skin Aging.” Dermato-endocrinology. 2012.
- Nobile, Vincenzo et al. “Anti-Aging and Filling Efficacy of Six Types Hyaluronic Acid Based Dermo-Cosmetic Treatment: Double Blind, Randomized Clinical Trial of Efficacy and Safety.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. 2014.
- Wiest, L. and Kerscher, M. “Native hyaluronic acid in dermatology – results of an expert meeting." JDDG: Journal der Deutschen Dermatologischen Gesellschaft. 2008.
- Neuman, Manuela G., et al. “Hyaluronic Acid and Wound Healing." The Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences (JPPS). 2015.
- Abate, Michele, Cosima Schiavone, and Vincenzo Salini. “The Use of Hyaluronic Acid after Tendon Surgery and in Tendinopathies." BioMed Research International. 2014.
- Kaya, S., Schmidl, D., Schmetterer, L., Witkowska, K. J., Unterhuber, A., Aranha dos Santos, V., Baar, C., Garhöfer, G. and Werkmeister, R. M. “Effect of hyaluronic acid on tear film thickness as assessed with ultra-high resolution optical coherence tomography." Acta Ophthalmol. 2015.