There are studies that show that Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic Acid (LMWHA) induces inflammation in the skin. And therefore can cause acne and other kinds of breakouts.
Another concern is that High Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid (HMWHA) can cause dehydration in your skin if you live in a dry climate. And with less hydration in your skin, it will also be more vulnerable to breakouts.
These are the reasons why some people seem to react in a negative way when using products with Hyaluronic acid. Even though this ingredient is promised to help with everything from more glowy skin to less wrinkles.
This post will explain all you need to know about Hyaluronic acid used in skincare. What to look for and what to avoid. Potential risks. And what options you have.
This is what I’ll cover:
- Why is Hyaluronic acid used in skincare?
- High vs Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid
- Can Hyaluronic acid cause acne breakouts?
- Alternative to Hyaluronic acid
Why is Hyaluronic acid used in skincare?
Hyaluronic acid (also called Hyaluronan) is a huge sugar molecule that occurs naturally in our bodies.
It’s found mostly in our skin, but also in connective tissues, eyes and joints. And it plays an important role in retaining moisture in our skin. Since it has the ability to attract and hold water in a very powerful way (up to a thousand times its own weight).
With age and by being exposed to sun, pollution, stress etc. The natural production of Hyaluronic acid declines (my next blog post will explain how to reverse that). Which is a reason why many skincare companies are putting lab-created Hyaluronic acid (often sourced from bacterial fermentation) into creams, serums, and toners.
The expectations given by the skincare companies are more hydrated skin, more elasticity, and even calming of the skin and less inflammation.
These promises are not always fulfilled, and Hyaluronic acid can even be problematic for some people. Depending on the type of molecule that is used. And depending on where the user lives. Which is what the rest of this post is about.
Hyaluronic acid vs Sodium Hyaluronate
You may have seen that Hyaluronic acid often is labeled as Sodium Hyaluronate in the ingredient lists of your skincare products. And the reason for this is that the only form of Hyaluronic acid on the market is in salt forms. Where the most common one is Sodium Hyaluronate.
I’ve seen there is a lot of incorrect information on the internet that can be confusing. But if you do see the name Hyaluronic acid on the list, it still means it is in the form of Sodium Hyaluronate. I will use both terms alternately.
With that said. Let’s dig deeper into the lab-created forms of Hyaluronic acid (sodium hyaluronate) used in skincare. And how these different forms will affect your skin..
High vs Low molecular weight Hyaluronic acid
Sodium Hyaluronate can come in many different molecular sizes. And these are often measured in kilodalton (kDa). High Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid is often described as >500 kDa. While Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid is described as 10-500 kDa.
High Molecular Weight Sodium Hyaluronate will not penetrate the skin. Instead, it stays on top and attracts water to the outermost part of the skin. And if you live in a humid climate this means it will effectively take water from the air and retain it on your skin’s surface. Which is what you want.
But if you don’t live in a humid climate, it will instead draw moisture from your deeper skin layers. And the drier the air, the more water it will pull from your dermis (the middle layer of the skin). Leaving you with a dehydrated dermis and less plumpness of your skin
The Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid works a bit differently since these have been split into smaller fragments. These smaller molecules have a less hydrating effect than the larger molecules. But instead, they can penetrate the skin much easier.
The problem with the Lower Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid is that they are shown to trigger inflammation. And unnecessary inflammation is something you definitely want to avoid in your skin.
If a skincare company uses only the smallest molecules of Sodium Hyaluronate, they will usually brag about it and you will notice for sure and can easily avoid it. A common ingredient name is Hydrolyzed Hyaluronic acid. Which you can read more about in the next section.
But there is a problem when you just see Sodium Hyaluronate (or Hyaluronic acid) in the ingredient list. Because many skincare companies actually don’t say what molecular weight they are using in their creams and serums. Usually, it will contain a mix of both smaller and larger molecules. But you have to ask the manufacturer if you want to know for sure.
Hydrolyzed Sodium Hyaluronate or Hydrolyzed Hyaluronic acid?
Many times, you can see the description “Hydrolyzed Hyaluronic acid” or “Hydrolyzed Sodium Hyaluronate” in ingredient lists of skincare products. And again, there is some misinformation out there about these terms.
To set things straight. These are both names for the exact same thing. Chopped up Sodium Hyaluronate. Because (as explained above) the only forms of Hyaluronic acid used in skincare, are in salt forms.
The making of hydrolyzed Hyaluronic acid consists of heat and acidic hydrolysis. And this process can produce very low-weight molecules.
In other words, Hydrolyzed Hyaluronic acid means Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid in the lowest part of the range. You can also find it as the description Very Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid.
Can Hyaluronic Acid cause acne breakouts?
First of all, it depends on the size of the molecules. Studies have shown that High Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid is able to stimulate an anti-inflammatory effect in the skin. While the Low Molecular Hyaluronic acid is able to stimulate a pro-inflammatory effect. Pro-inflammation means a higher risk of acne and other inflammatory situations.
Secondly, it depends on the humidity you live in. If you live in a dry climate it can be problematic with the larger High Molecular Weight Hyaluronic Acid too. Because if the air is lacking moisture (less than 55%), this large and powerful humectant will draw moisture from your inner skin layer. The dermis. And a dehydrated dermis can contribute to more sebum production. Which is not beneficial for acne-prone skin.
So be careful with using too much of the High Molecular Hyaluronic Acid if you live in a dry climate.
And despite the climate, avoid the Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid due to its inflammatory effect. Not just can it risk more acne breakouts. But it has also been shown to contribute to the formation of scars (this post will help you shrink cystic acne and reduce scarring if you are prone to that).
In other words, it would be wise to definitely avoid the smaller molecules of Sodium Hyaluronate if you are acne-prone. This, as mentioned above, can be tricky since not all skincare companies reveal the sizes they use in their products.
To be on the safe side, you can use products with other humectants. Alternatives to Hyaluronic acid that are shown to be safe, anti-inflammatory, soothing, and very beneficial for the skin. The next section will explain more.
Also, I highly recommend you check out my blog post about how to increase your natural hyaluronic acid production. Which is not just the safest way to plump up your skin. But also the most effective.
Alternative to Hyaluronic acid in skincare
Sodium Hyaluronate (the form of hyaluronic acid used in skincare) is a very popular and powerful humectant. But there are many alternatives if you feel that this humectant is problematic for your skin.
I personally avoid Hyaluronic acid since I live in a climate that is quite dry most months of the year. And I definitely experience acne breakouts if I use products with Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid on my skin. So I avoid it like the plague.
Some humectant alternatives are Glycerin, PCA, and the newcomer Snow Mushroom. This section will explain their benefits, how they differ from Sodium Hyaluronate, and if they can be a better alternative for your skin type.
Just remember that a humectant works by attracting and retaining water. It is not the same thing as a moisturizer. And you will need good moisturizing ingredients on top of your humectant regardless of which one you use. A good moisturizing cream will have it all included. Such as my favorite that I write about here.
Now, let’s look at the common humectant alternatives to Sodium Hyaluronate that you find on the market.
Glycerin is a humectant that is used very frequently in skincare. And has been for many decades. It’s a natural compound of the skin. And is most often derived from plants.
It differs from Sodium Hyaluronate by being much milder in its ability to attract and retain water. Instead of holding its own weight in water 1000 times. It holds its own weight about 170 times.
Glycerin has a naturally lower molecular weight which means it can hydrate deeper into the skin. But in contrast to the Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid, it does this without triggering any inflammation. And is completely safe for all skin types.
Glycerin is a common ingredient in pharmaceutical skin creams since it is very powerful in treating dryness and making the skin more healthy and elastic. And it’s a great ingredient for repairing a damaged skin barrier (which you can read more about in this post).
I personally love glycerin and it’s in all the moisturizers I use.
Another humectant that is used in skincare is pyrrolidone carboxylic acid, or PCA. Which is also a natural compound of the skin and has the ability to retain water about 250 times its own weight.
This humectant is often listed as Sodium PCA (the most common one) or Zinc PCA. Since this ingredient (just as hyaluronic acid) needs to be in a salt form.
The PCA salts are very hydrating. And when in the form of Zinc-PCA, it also has soothing and anti-bacterial properties. Personally, I am completely in love with Zinc-PCA and that is why I use this toner every day.
PCA salts are also able to penetrate deeper into the skin compared to Sodium Hyaluronate. But without the risk of triggering inflammation.
Snow Mushroom (Tremella fuciformis) is a humectant that has been used in both skincare and as food in Asia for centuries. It is now starting to show up in Europe and the USA as well.
Compared to the other humectants, Snow Mushroom is not a natural compound of the skin. But it has been shown to have some very promising effects on the skin. Not just as a hydrating factor. But also thanks to its naturally high content of vitamin D and amino acids. It also seems to have very powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
Snow Mushroom can bind its own weight in water 500 times. And just as with the PCA salts and Glycerin, it’s naturally smaller than Sodium Hyaluronate and can hydrate deeper in the skin. Without the risk of increased inflammation.
I have never tried this ingredient myself but would love to hear in the comments if any of you have.
Worth mentioning is that just like Hyaluronic acid, all other sugars actually work as humectants too. That is why you will often see ingredients like glucose, fructose, rhamnose, sucrose, and trehalose, in your skincare products.
- Hyaluronic acid in skincare is always in a salt form. Where the most common used is Sodium Hyaluronate.
- Sodium Hyaluronate can come in many different sizes, divided into High Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid and Low Molecular Hyaluronic acid. The larger molecules sit on top of the skin and the smaller ones can penetrate deeper into the skin.
- Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid has been shown to trigger inflammation in the skin. Which can contribute to acne breakouts.
- The smallest version of the Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid is called Hydrolyzed Hyaluronic acid (or Hydrolyzed Sodium Hyaluronate).
- High Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the skin.
- High Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid can still be problematic if you live in a dry climate. Because instead of pulling water from the environment, it will then pull water from your deeper skin layer, the dermis. And a dehydrated dermis will decrease the plumpness of your skin. And can also increase sebum production.
- Some very skin beneficial alternatives to Hyaluronic acid in skincare are Glycerin, Sodium PCA, Zinc PCA, and Snow Mushroom. They are all very soothing, can hydrate deeper into the skin, and work anti-inflammatory.
Hope you found this post useful. Please let me know in the comments below if you have any questions regarding Hyaluronic acid used in skincare.
I have not covered any information about injectable Hyaluronic acid. But if you are wondering about that, please see my in-depth post about temporary fillers. It will explain all the risks and side effects of these cosmetic injections. They may not contribute to acne, but they can indeed age your skin faster.
Personally, I prefer methods that naturally increase my body’s own production of Hyaluronic acid. That is the safest and most effective way to get more hydrated and plump skin. I share all the tips and tricks in my post about natural hyaluronic acid for plump skin.
When it comes to skincare I avoid everything that has Low Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid. And I have experienced (before knowing better and understanding why) some really bad cystic acne from it.
I also avoid serums with High Molecular Weight Hyaluronic acid. Unless it’s far down the ingredient list. Since I live in a climate where the air isn’t very humid most of the year.
Instead, I love using the humectants Glycerin and Zinc PCA!
If you are curious about what skincare products I use in my daily routine. My complete list is here:
*Please note, this post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission if you purchase through any of those links. It doesn’t cost you any extra and I only recommend products I truly love and use myself. You can read my full disclosure here.
Antioxidant serum for daytime: OZ Naturals facial serum with vitamin C and astaxanthin. You find my review and more info about vitamin C serums here.
Update: During my pregnancy, I discovered a retinol alternative that I recommend just as must as my Retinol serum (if not more). I have a complete post about these Bakuchiol pads from Indeed labs.
Sometimes I don’t use any serum at all. And allow my skin to rest from active ingredients. As long as I fill up my skin from within with important nutrients. Such as the carotenoids explained in this post. And vitamin C explained in this post.
That’s it for now! Until next time, keep loving your skin!