Wait, topical hyaluronic acid?

Remember hyaluronic acid, that crazy-huge glycosaminoglycan we talked about yesterday? I mentioned how it’s used as a cosmetic filler because of its ability to fill space and hold water (it’s actually insane how much water it can hold: one GRAM of hyaluronic acid can hold six LITERS of water).

The skincare industry has been adding hyaluronic acid (HA) to creams and serums for years – but since the skin can’t possibly absorb anything as gigantic as HA (on average, HA has 25,000 disaccharides!), such products were little more than marketing hype.

But new ways of formulating HA (chopping it up, putting it in microspheres, etc.) seem to have solved the size problem – and there are now lots of topical HA products that actually work. You won’t get the dramatic effects of injectable HA – but maybe that’s a good thing.

If you’re interested in learning more about how topical HA works, and which HA-containing products are legit, this New York Times article is a well-researched and accurate review.

The Second Coming of Hyaluronic Acid
New York Times | Courtney Rubin | December 30, 2015

After spending hours on airplanes to help run her family’s photography business, Sonia Deasy was desperate for a quick solution to her dehydrated skin. “I’m a mother of five,” Ms. Deasy said. “I don’t have time for a fuss.”

So Ms. Deasy, who lives in Dublin, enlisted her sister, a biochemist, to help make a hyaluronic acid serum. Within a week of its release last year, the product, Pestle & Mortar Pure Hyaluronic Serum, sold out.

Cameron Silver, who owns Decades, a vintage boutique in Los Angeles, described the serum as being “like Xanax for your skin: It kind of takes the edge off.”


Mr. Silver, who often appears on television, added: “It’s like Vaseline around the lens. It just makes the skin a little bit smoother, a little bit dewier.”

Hyaluronic acid — a clear, sugary goo that occurs naturally in the body, where it lubricates joints and even sustains the shape of the eyeballs — is not a new beauty product.

Dermatologists have long touted its plumping and moisturizing ability because it can carry up to 1,000 times its weight in water. Its downside: The molecules were too big to penetrate the skin’s surface (scientists call this high molecular weight), so results could be easily washed away.

But new formulations have solved that problem, potentially making them more effective and with longer-lasting results. Products like La Prairie’s eight-month-old Anti-Aging Rapid Response Booster and Eve Lom’s Brightening Mask, coming in February, offer a cocktail of molecules at lower weights, which can make their way into lower layers of skin.

Once there, there is evidence that they may stimulate collagen growth, said Dr. S. Tyler Hollmig, the director of laser and aesthetic dermatology at Stanford University. (Further research and publication in peer-reviewed journals would be needed for him to change that “may” to a “can,” he said.)

HA serum

Fillerina, a 14-day topical treatment designed to mimic a filler (only without the needle), includes six different weights of hyaluronic acid molecules that scientists spent six years testing.

“The largest molecules give good plumping of the skin in the outer layer,” said Manuela Guglielmo, the director of marketing for the Italian company Labo, which makes Fillerina. “The smaller ones go deeper.” (The big molecules are better at moisturizing, hence the need for both.)

A study published in the 2014 Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology showed that Fillerina measurably reduced wrinkle depth and skin sagging, and increased lip and cheek volume. The study, whose length was 30 days, did not address collagen growth, as collegen takes at least six weeks to form.

Similarly, studies of La Prairie Anti-Aging Rapid Response Booster and Kane NY Serum Savant, which have lower-weight molecules, showed that they measurably improved skin at the two- and four-week mark; but they, too, did not measure collagen growth. (Kane NY’s study was done independently; La Prairie’s wasn’t.)

Dr. Barbara Sturm, a dermatologist in Düsseldorf, Germany, recently introduced hyaluronic acid ampuls, available on Net-a-Porter, that you snap open and apply directly to deep wrinkles.

“It’s like a therapeutic serum: It has a long-term effect,” said Dr. Sturm, who created the product in part because she wanted her patients to be able to apply it at home after more-invasive procedures. “It’s not just, ‘I apply my skin-care product and tomorrow I have to do it again because the effect is gone.’”

Tiffany Masterson, the founder of the skin-care company Drunk Elephant, uses a bioengineered form of hyaluronic acid that she says breaks down more slowly, “so it can be delivered over longer periods of time.” Ms. Masterson is so pleased with the ingredient, which she offers in a serum, that next year she will include it in two new products, her Hydra B Vitamin Gel and Lala Day Cream.

The consumer appeal of hyaluronic acid is that it’s a natural component of skin — “People like it because it’s not foreign,” Dr. Hollmig said — and it is turning up in a baffling array of products, though not all are created equal. (How to tell what grade of hyaluronic acid is in a product? You can’t, unless companies choose to tell you; they are required only to list ingredients.)

“Ten years ago you only saw hyaluronic acid in a few high-end moisturizers,” said Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist who founded thebeautybrains.com, a website and podcast where scientists examine skin-care ingredients and industry claims. “Now you see it even in powdered makeup, which is kind of ridiculous.”

That’s because hyaluronic acid absorbs moisture, so if there is an appreciable amount in a powder, the product is more likely to clump. Cosmetic powders in general are not a good delivery system for moisturizing and anti-aging ingredients because they are not applied all over the face, and they do not provide a uniform coating, he said.

If you choose just one product, Mr. Schueller suggested a serum was best. They traditionally have the highest levels of hyaluronic acid, he said, “so in that sense they give you the most bang for your buck.”

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