Hyaluronic acid is everywhere – but how do you get the most out of the super hydrator and which hyaluronic acid serums are a cut above the rest? We explain
For a term as tongue-twisting as hyaluronic acid to have become common parlance, it’s got to be doing something right – and no skincare expert would disagree. Although it’s an acid, it’s not an exfoliating acid and is unlikely to irritate. It’s easy to use – no oiliness, no unpleasant smell or disagreeable texture – and more effective than most ingredients at keeping skin hydrated. “This incredible, heavily researched molecule was identified 85 years ago and is a gift to skincare formulators,” says cosmetic scientist and founder of Nourish London, Dr Pauline Hili.
Now, you can find HA in what seems like just about every hydrating skincare, product as well as body serums and even haircare product these days (not to mention it being the main component of facial fillers and injectable moisturisers such as Profhilo), with claims being made not just about its hydrating prowess but about its supposed anti-ageing benefits as well.
To help you distinguish between truth and hype and to get the best results out of your hyaluronic acid, we’ve found the 17 best hyaluronic acid serums on the market – scroll down for our edit. If you want to take a deep dive into the ingredient, read on.
What is so special about hyaluronic acid?
- It holds on to water
HA is a humectant – a water-binding molecule that absorbs moisture from its surroundings and traps it inside our tissues. It’s one of dozens of humectants (more on that later), but HA’s special party trick is that it is the moisture magnet champion: it holds 1000 times its weight in water – a stat so neat, you’ll probably have read it at least 1000 times by now!
- Our bodies make it, it’s a natural lubricant
HA’s other distinguishing feature is that it’s naturally present in the body, which may partly explain why it’s so easily tolerated. “It’s the predominant molecule in the extracellular matrix, which is responsible for skin moisture [this matrix also holds our collagen and elastin],” says Hili. “More than 50 per cent of it sits in the skin, but it’s also a key lubricant in the rest of the body, found in joints and cartilage and, most concentratedly, in the eyes.”
- We make less of it as we age: skin becomes drier and more lined
Wouldn’t you know it, HA declines with age (six per cent per decade) and particularly as oestrogen and testosterone levels start to drop in menopause (yes, everything gets drier!). As a result, you’ll start to see dehydration lines which progress into wrinkles, and the skin starts to appear dull and less elastic. Applying HA topically is one of the fastest ways to counter the effects of dehydration, at least temporarily. In our pursuit of glowing dewy skin, this is a major factor behind its popularity.
Is hyaluronic acid vegan?
HA used to be extracted from animal sources such as rooster combs, but science has long known how to make it in the lab, using a fermentation process involving lactic acid bacteria. Today, it’s rarely derived from animals.
Is hyaluronic acid simply the best moisturiser?
Don’t be confused! HA is not a moisturising ingredient but a hydrating one. It adds water to the skin but not oils. That means it has its limitations as most skins need water and oils to remain healthy.
So despite its much-lauded quenching ability, you should never rely on a serum with just hyaluronic acid to moisturise your skin. “Ensure your serum or cream combines it with an ingredient that seals the skin’s top layer to stop moisture evaporating,” says facialist and skincare expert Fiona Brackenbury.
Which ingrdients to combine it with? Ceramides, which are tiny lipids naturally found in the skin’s protective lipid layer, are the lightest, most weightless option, easily included in watery serums and great for oilier skins. Natural plant oils such as super-light squalane are another great partner for hyaluronic acid, while on the richer end of the scale, plant butters such as shea butter and occlusive agents such as silicones will also help keep the hard-won moisture from leaching out.
HA is only one of many humectants, and while it may be top of the class for holding the most water, other humectants have brilliant properties that HA doesn’t have. For example, “algae-derived humectants do many things besides hydrating, such as delivering essential minerals and lipids to the skin,” says Georgie Cleeve, founder of Oskia skincare. Glycerine, she says, also delivers lipids (as well as moisture) and is far cheaper than HA. Polyglutamic acid, meanwhile, “is actually more powerful than HA at tiny concentrations”, while panthenol (vitamin B5) is soothing and redness-relieving.
Aside from different talents, says Cleeve, “all humectants have different molecular weights,” meaning they work at different depths of the skin. So for ‘the best’, most effective moisturising serum that quenches long term, you want HA plus a blend of other humectants, plus a choice of moisture-sealing agents such as ceramides or squalane.
Is hyaluronic acid anti-ageing?
You can sort of claim it is because dehydration of the skin leads to it functioning less well, resulting in, among other things, becoming less capable of churning out plumping collagen and elastin. So technically, hyaluronic acid could be deemed ‘anti-ageing’ by dint of it rehydrating parched skin. There is also research that shows that in the deeper dermal layers of the skin, additional HA can rev up the body’s own production of HA – but this happens when you inject it and that is a far cry from applying it topically. So hyaluronic acid serums that claim they will plump and de-age skin ‘like fillers’ are taking liberties with the truth.
How do I use hyaluronic acid?
Brackenbury swears by always using HA directly after a bath or shower: “a warm, humid environment provides the water for HA to attract and trap,” she says. By the same token, cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting says HA by itself is useless in dry surroundings such as on an airplane or in freezing, bone-dry air, because there’s no moisture to grab on to. Some even go so far as to say that if you don’t apply HA to damp skin, the active will suck its water from the deeper layers of your skin, effectively dehydrating it.
But in practice, a good hyaluronic acid serum will be formulated with plenty of water to trap, alongside ingredients to seal the water in, Dr Sonia Khorana (@dermgp), a GP with a special interest in dermatology, told us at the launch of Olay’s hyaluronic acid range. She does note that when skin is damp, it’s more absorbent, so it’s rarely a bad thing to put skincare on damp skin.
What about different ‘molecular weights’ of hyaluronic acid?
Like other humectants, hyaluronic acid comes in multiple forms with different sizes or weights that allow them to penetrate to different depths inside the skin. “Using a mix of sizes is the best way to get the full benefits of this molecule,” says Hili. Brands will advertise their inclusion of ‘multi-weight’ or ‘multi-molecular’ hyaluronic acid prominently on their packaging, so you needn’t be an ingredient sleuth.
Some products boast as many as eight different weights of the stuff but the three most-used ones will feature on your ingredients list as follows:
- Hyaluronic acid: higher molecular weight, hydrates skin surface
Pure hyaluronic acid is the highest molecular-weight HA molecule of all. The higher the molecular weight, the larger the HA molecule and the more trouble it has penetrating the skin. The ‘hyaluronic acid’ on your INCI list means you get a slippery gel that sits on top of the skin, drawing water to the surface and making it look plump and smooth. It also forms a delicate temporary seal over the skin (which feels oddly dry to the touch), but the hydrating effect is short-term and you’ll want to reapply in hours.
- Hydrolysed hyaluronic acid: medium weight, especially good for sensitive skin
This is HA broken down into smaller particles via a chemical reaction with water. The resulting medium molecular-weight HA can sink slightly below the skin’s surface to hold moisture there for semi-long term dewy-looking skin. According to ‘alternative facialist’ Justine Masters, this is the molecule you want: “studies show that a very small molecular weight HA [see below] can cause inflammation and dehydration, especially if you suffer from acne or rosacea,” she says. “Instead, choose medium-weight HA, at a low percentage, for optimised hydration.”
- Sodium hyaluronate: low molecular weight: travels deeper
This is a derivative salt form of hyaluronic acid, and in most cases far smaller in size than the other two. It’s commonly described as ‘low molecular-weight HA’ and can travel to the deeper epidermis, plumping from within for a long-term hydrating, wrinkle-softening effect. It’s very stable and compatible, so you’ll find it in most skincare. Some attribute it with the power to stimulate skin’s own HA production.
A mix of different weights, as you can see, will plump lines out from within while suffusing the skin surface with water for radiant dewiness – a win-win-win, especially if you add other, synergistic humectants and barrier lipids.
The best hyaluronic acid serums for your skin type and budget
The supercharged HA serum: Medik8 Hydr8 B5 Intense Hyaluronic with NMF Replenish & Boost, £59
Silky and fast-absorbing, this has multi-molecular weight HA, panthenol and glyceryl glucoside to quench skin at every level, plus a barrier-strengthening complex, protective antioxidants and the ability to boost skin’s own HA production. What more do you want?!
The pampering HA serum: Balance Me Tri-Molecular Hyaluronic Serum, £30
Ultra-watery (three types of HA, glycerine and aloe vera provide the weightless moisture), this also has yarrow and camomile oil to calm inflammation, lock in moisture and essential oils for some calming, deep-breathing me-time.
The hyaluronic acid serum for oily skin: L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Filler 1.5% Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum, £24.99
Containing two weights (‘micro’ and ‘macro’) of hyaluronic acid plus additional humectants glycerine and glyceryl glucoside, this lightweight, heavily scented serum has no oil or lipids so is good if your own skin makes plenty of those already.
The luxury hyaluronic serum: By Terry Hyaluronic Global Face Serum, £85
Watery-milky and silky, these unscented drops have eight (!) types of hyaluronic acid alongside other humectants, lipids, squalane, niacinamide and peptides, all at active levels to tackle dehydration as well as signs of ageing.
The eco hyaluronic acid: True Skincare 1% Hyaluronic Acid Complex, £17
Three molecular weights of HA plus algae extracts in a waterless liquid base (the moisture effectively comes from mineral-rich 'algae juice') that ups the skin nourishment while minimising water wastage. Cruelty-free and vegan too, it has no added lipids so is best for oilier skins.
The unisex HA serum: Olay Hyaluronic Acid 24 + Vitamin B5 Ultra Hydrating Day Serum £38
Fragrance-free, quenching and silky but with a matte finish, this is easy to use for humans of any description and teams the multi-level hydration of HA, B5 and glycerine with the barrier-boosting power of niacinamide and the moisture-sealing ability of silicones.
The glow-giver HA serum: Ren Everhydrate Marine-Moisture Restore Serum, £40
This teams hyaluronic acid with a whole host of humectants, including nourishing, pollution-fighting algae extracts, in a silky, grassy-scented serum that helps balance and regulate skin’s moisture distribution for hydration that lasts (up to 72 hours, no less).
Best hyaluronic for dry, mature skin: 1611 Labs Formula 1/V.7 Intense Moisturisation and Anti-Dehydration Complex, £65
A very well-balanced complex of multi-molecular HA, HA stimulators, glyceryl glucoside, phospholipids and other barrier reinforcers, pigment busters, peptides, antioxidants and more for instant and long-term hydration and brightening. Light but silky-feeling, it leaves a glow and a lasting feeling of comfort.
The vegan hyaluronic acid quencher: Nourish London Ceramide Moisture Boost Essence, £25
Most HAs are in fact vegan but this whole formula is certified vegan, teaming HA with humectant trehalose, ceramides, antioxidants and minerals in a slippy liquid formula that isn’t officially a serum, but functions just like one for a hit of moisture and protection that’ll make subsequent skin care work even harder.
Best HA serum for super-sensitive skins: Skin Diligent Cellular Hydration Serum
Justine Masters’ favourite, this is a light, non-sticky medium-weight HA solution spiked with pre-, pro- and postbiotics, minerals and ferments to balance skin hydration, reinforce the barrier and ward off pollution.
The budget hero hyaluronic: The Ordinary Hyaluronic 2% and B5 Serum, £13.90
The Ordinary is often accused of peddling ‘simplistic’ formulas, but this jelly serum has four different weights of HA plus soothing, hydrating panthenol (B5). The bottle is twice the size of your average HA serum; just top it with a cream or lotion to seal in the moisture.
Best HA serum for combination skin: La Roche Posay HyaluB5 Hyaluronic Acid Serum, £45
Two types of HA plus reparative panthenol and glycerin to hydrate, and lipids, vitamin E and silicones to seal in moisture and nourish dry, flaky patches. Feels silky and is scented.
The classic HA serum: Skinceuticals H.A. Intensifier, £105
Skinceuticals were the first to add hyaluronic acid-boosting technology to a HA serum. This ultra-lightweight gel-serum has just low-molecular weight hyaluronic acid but is assisted by glycerine and proxylane for further humectant action. A bunch of anti-inflammatory, HA-stimulating and moisture-sealing ingredeints work alongside for a promised 30 per cent increase in HA in the skin.
Best HA on-the-go: Elizabeth Arden Hyaluronic Acid Ceramide Capsules Hydra-Plumping Serum, £49
Super-low molecular weight HA (hydrolysed sodium hyaluronate) that can penetrate extra-deep is assisted by three types of ceramides, a host of nourishing oils, smoothing lactic acid, peptides and elastin-stimulating ginger. Pop one cap every day of your journey for intensely smooth-feeling facial and neck skin.
Best Hyaluronic for teens of all ages: Byoma Brightening Serum, £12.99
Simple but effective, low-molecular weight HA and glycerine hydrate while a host of barrier boosters, including ceramides and niacinamide, heal and seal. There’s also lactic acid to get rid of dullness.
The wrinkle-fighting hyaluronic: Beauty Pie Triple Hyaluronic Acid Lipopeptide Serum, £85 (£19 for members)
Has three weights of HA plus plumping humectant polysaccharides to hydrate, ceramide precursors to reinforce skin and peptides to fight wrinkles. Somewhat sticky and very light, so better for skin that’s not too dry.