Written by Apoterra Skincare with Hayley Wood
“Science is a tool to understand nature, but does not dictate it”. One of the primary goals at Apoterra is to continually question and improve our understanding of how plants and earth-derived ingredients interact with the skin and affect skin health. The understanding of how ingredients work is constantly evolving, as scientists unearth new discoveries and improve our understanding of how nature works. In an effort to help you make informed decisions about your skin health, we make it a priority to keep that same lens of curiosity turned on so we can provide you with updated research and the best possible skin care.
In today’s discussion, we are going to share our team's research on the highly popular yet often misunderstood hyaluronic acid. We felt the need to dive deeper into our own understanding of the best way to use hyaluronic acid since new research has shed more light on how hyaluronic acid works in the body and on the skin. We initially formulated our Rose Hydrating Toner based on research that indicated that hyaluronic acid is not only safe but also a super effective humectant, which means it helps draw water to the skin and increases skin hydration when applied topically. Over the past few years, we started reading reports of possible negative effects of using Hyaluronic Acid topically, which of course alarmed us and peaked our curiosity. To make sure we are producing the best product possible we decided to dive in and share some of what we uncovered with you!
WHAT IS HYALURONIC ACID?
First, sodium hyaluronic acid is the hyaluronic acid commonly found in topical skincare, filler or medical injections, and can also be used as a supplement. Even with the word acid in the name, Hyaluronic Acid is not actually an exfoliant. The benefits of Hyaluronic Acid as a topical ingredient include its humectant and lubricating properties as well as its ability to maintain plumpness and hydration in the skin.
The ingredient origin of topical Hyaluronic Acid is most commonly extracted as a by-product of plant, sugar, or wheat fermentation. This is what is considered the pure form of Hyaluronic Acid, and to get the benefits, it can be used on its own or formulated with other ingredients for skin care. Medicinal injection use for injuries also sometimes uses Hyaluronic Acid derived from rooster comb. For full transparency, we feel the best Hyaluronic Acid to use that fits into accordance with our sourcing and quality standards is vegan and produced by glucose fermentation. You can find it in our Hydrating Rose Toner.
COMMON HYALURONIC ACID CLAIMS
Since 1996, when Hyaluronic Acid was recognized for its benefits and started to be used in cosmetics, it has become one of the most recognizable (though still heavily unpronounceable) ingredients in the skincare industry. Nowadays, it’s very common to see product labels touting the hydrating benefits of Hyaluronic Acid as it’s quickly populated all different types of skincare products. With claims to increase skin hydration, address signs of aging, and speed up wound healing - all while being natural and clean - it's no wonder hyaluronic acid has become such a hot ingredient. A quick google search of the best Hyaluronic Acid will pull up 51,000,000 hits in .72 seconds! We must admit, the research on topical Hyaluronic Acid benefits and hyaluronan (our body’s natural Hyaluronic Acid) is difficult to decipher. Which is what seems to cause confusion for conscious consumers trying to understand the benefits of this ever popular ingredient.
One of the most popular claims associated with the safety and efficacy of using topical Hyaluronic Acid is how we naturally produce a form of Hyaluronic Acid in our skin. This claim alludes to topical Hyaluronic Acid’s benefits and safety based on how our internal Hyaluronic Acid works. Before we share the discoveries we made about this claim, it is important to understand the hyaluronic acid naturally occurring in your body.
HOW DOES HYALURONIC WORK IN THE BODY?
Hyaluronan, our body’s natural production of Hyaluronic Acid, is defined as “a glycosaminoglycan (GAG) with a unique capacity to bind and retain water molecules” found in the skin. It is a key part of the top building blocks in your cell structure, which also includes collagen and elastin. 50% of the hyaluronan found in our body is actually found within our skin in both the epidermis (top layers of skin) and dermis (bottom layers of skin). In addition, hyaluronan is also found in connective tissue, in the fluids of our joints, and even our eyes.
Size and location matter most when it comes to the hyaluronan in our body. Research shows that the epidermis holds less hyaluronan than the dermis. Skin cells are born in the dermis and gradually make their way up to the epidermis layers where they eventually shed off in a process called desquamation. The amount of Hyaluronic Acid in our skin layers is a product of cell degradation that happens naturally in the turnover of our cells and with age. The structure of HA varies based on a chain of disaccharides which range in length. This length determines what is called low-molecular-weight (LMW) or high-molecular-weight (HMW). Molecular weight affects Hyaluronic Acid’s capability to act as a receptor for different immune responses in the skin. The space created by HMW is required for signaling to specific toll-like receptors responsible for healing responses. One study states;
“The size of HA appears to be of critical importance for its various functions...HA of high molecular size, usually in excess of 1,000 kDa, is present in intact tissues and is antiangiogenic and immunosuppressive, whereas smaller polymers of HA are distress signals and potent inducers of inflammation and angiogenesis.”
As mentioned earlier, there are also many claims that the benefits of Hyaluronic Acid include its ability to plump the skin or help with wound healing. The research shows that this is unique to our internal hyaluronan production. The plumping effect is best due to the existing Hyaluronic Acid we currently have in our dermis which can hold a HMW Hyaluronic Acid since the chain of disaccharides is longer. This however can be altered by Hyaluronic Acid filler injections. Also when it comes to wound healing, there hasn’t been much research conducted to prove that topical HMW Hyaluronic Acid or LMW Hyaluronic Acid make a difference - but rather the studies prove that a benefit of Hyaluronic Acid is its incredible internal response to help heal wounds. Which is why the medicinal/medical? use of Hyaluronic Acid injections have proven to support wound healing in cases of osteoarthritis.
How hyaluronan works in our skin cells is a key piece of information that helps us better understand the benefits of topical Hyaluronic Acid. The difference between our body’s natural Hyaluronic Acid and synthetic/topical Hyaluronic Acid is important to help us better acknowledge its potential for how we/it can benefit the skin long term.
TOPICAL BENEFITS OF LOW MOLECULAR WEIGHT HYALURONIC ACID
You might now be thinking that HMW topical Hyaluronic Acid is best for optimal skin hydration, right? Not necessarily.
“The challenging characteristic of conventional HAs in the use of topically applied anti-aging preparations has been that its molecules are 3,000nm in diameter, whereas the intercellular space is only 15 to 50nm and just 6 to lOnm at the hyaline membrane.1 This makes it impossible for conventionally produced HA to penetrate into deep layers of the dermis.”
In fact, according to the same study quoted above, a LMW Hyaluronic Acid (in this case a nanoHA) used topically demonstrated a decrease in wrinkle depth to upwards of 40%, increased hydration by up to 96%, and an increase of skin firmness and elasticity by up to 55%. This is all because of the ability that the low weight can penetrate the top layers of the skin.
We also found multiple studies (like this one and this one) that shared the benefits of Hyaluronic Acid applied topically paired with certain antioxidants over a 12 week trial to have helped increase hydration and decrease TEWL (trans-epidermal water loss). These results are based on usage of Hyaluronic Acid topical products formulated with ProXylane (C-Xyloside), purple rice extract, and dipotassium glycyrrhizate. Another study shows similar results with the combination of HA and glycerin. Hyaluronic Acid is also similar to many ingredients that are targets for free-radical scavengers, so it’s combination with antioxidants (like the ones found in the rooibos tea we pair our Hyaluronic Acid with in our Rose Hydrating toner) helps preserve “the integrity of dermal HA and it’s moisturizing properties.”
HOW TO GET THE BEST OUT OF HYALURONIC ACID PRODUCTS
Individual hydration retention is based on the right combination of ingredients for your personalized skin health needs along with your environment and existing amount of hyaluronan. These items can also play a huge part with how successful topical Hyaluronic Acid can be for you. That’s why we wanted to address product usage to make it easier to navigate what could work best for your individual concerns.
Humidity Levels Matters
Humidity levels are a big factor in understanding how to properly retain hydration in the skin. Why? Humectants such as Hyaluronic Acid draw in moisture from the environment in order to protect the hydration level in your skin. If you are in a humid environment, chances are you will have less trouble retaining hydration in your skin with or without the use of Hyaluronic Acid than if you are in a dry environment. Does that mean you shouldn’t use a topical HA if you are in a humid environment? You can certainly still use Hyaluronic Acid for the benefits of maintaining a good hydration level in your skin.
However, if you are in a dry environment or a dry season, there is not a lot of moisture to pull from. In order to preserve hydration in the skin, you can also benefit from using a topical Hyaluronic Acid but you want to make sure you occlude the HA with a balm or an oil-based serum. Traditionally oil-based formulas such as serums or balms help coat the skin to protect against hydration loss. This is called occlusion which is essential for healthy skin in a dry environment or season. We recommend the Rose Hydrating Toner (which contains Hyaluronic Acid), the Rose Nourishing Serum, and/or the Night Regenerative Balm.
CAN YOU BENEFIT FROM USING MULTIPLE HYALURONIC ACID PRODUCTS?
When it comes to using multiple sources of hyaluronic acid in your skincare routine, we believe in quality over quantity. The best hyaluronic acid depends on how it’s formulated. The most beneficial LMWHA to use in your skincare is that which is formulated with antioxidants and other hydrating elements. Our Rose Hydrating Toner is a perfect example of this because of the combination of antioxidant-rich rooibos tea and niacinamide with our LMWHA and aloe vera to hydrate and soothe skin.
As the research demonstrates, we can safely say that adding a topical LMWHA can certainly help support your skin’s ability to retain hydration. However, using a higher percentage or multiple products with Hyaluronic Acid won’t increase its benefits faster. Depending on your skin, the benefits of Hyaluronic Acid differ based on your consistency of use as it builds overtime.
Apoterra founder Dominique Caron shares her inspiration for adding LMWHA to the Rose Hydrating Toner; “My goal was to formulate a clean, easy-to-use hydrating product. The research demonstrates that the LMWHA at the percentage found in the rose toner is effective at increasing skin hydration. This form also makes it easy to apply (as a mist) versus a sticky serum”.
GRACEFUL AGING & PRESERVING YOUR NATURAL HYALURONIC ACID
At the end of the day, it’s important to note that regardless of hyaluronic acid’s benefits including its ability to retain hydration, plumpness, and support wound healing, our natural HA supply is not endless. Hyaluronan decreases significantly as we age which is why the plumpness and hydration of our skin tends to fade as we get older.
The reality is there are two types of aging that occur throughout our lifetime which directly impact our skin’s health. Intrinsic aging is known as our chronological aging which is the inevitable aging we face as the years go by. The second form of aging is extrinsic aging which is caused by external stressors such as excess UV exposure and lifestyle habits like smoking. (Read more about preventing extrinsic aging here).
As a result of this inevitability, we wanted to provide additional sources of support to help you best preserve your natural production of Hyaluronic Acid. We also want to preface that it’s important to discuss these sources with your primary care physician or naturopath as these resources may differ in benefits from person to person. Based on the extrinsic aging factors that can deplete your hyaluronan much more quickly, here are a few suggestions from the Apoterra team:
- Reducing overall inflammation created by UV exposure or other lifestyle factors can help your cells from degrading quickly. Repeated exposure can lead to increased inflammation with eventual loss of collagen 1 (the collagen complex responsible for wound healing), loss of hyaluronan, and increase in histamine. Wear protective sun care to prevent this type of inflammation from forming to begin with. Check out this blog post for more tips.
- Protect your skin barrier to make sure the skin’s hydration levels are not compromised. “The hydration of the skin critically depends on the HA-bound water in the dermis and in the vital area of the epidermis, while maintenance of hydration essentially depends on the stratum granulosum.”
- Drink lots of water and eat water-rich foods to stay naturally hydrated. We suggest seasonal root vegetables, bone broth, citrus fruits, and leafy greens as they provide a lot of amino acids and nutrients to help with natural hydration.
- Our hyaluronan in the dermis “is in continuity with the lymphatic and vascular systems,” which means the Hyaluronic Acid in our dermal tissues hold a big responsibility in our overall hydration. Movement to support oxygen flow and lymph flow such as yoga, walking, and intentional breathwork are great forms of support to your natural HA production.
Other supportive resources can be found here.
In conclusion, the research we found has helped us feel even more confident in our Rose Toner formulation based on the source of our Hyaluronic Acid, and its benefits in combination with other ingredients. While we can’t 100% claim that all forms of Hyaluronic Acid for topical use are best for skin, the notion that Hyaluronic Acid is safe to use topically is based on the safety trials that cosmetics labs run.
We also have a much better understanding of the confusion between the research made for topical use HA and our natural production of HA. The biggest takeaway is that each individual can have a different response based on their environment and age, so we suggest you start with taking a self-inventory of health and skincare habits first. Once you’ve established any areas that may need support, you can start slowly with one of the above mentioned steps at a time. Unfortunately there isn’t a way to bypass the HA degradation in our bodies with just the use of topical skincare. Instead, in our opinion based on our research, the combination of internal support of hyaluronan and topical application of a vetted Hyaluronic Acid product, such as our Rose Hydrating Toner, is best for long-lasting skin health.