Is Hyaluronic Acid What’s Making Your Skin Dry & Tight?

User error, beware.

by Victoria Moorhouse
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hyaluronic acid dry skin

Understatement of the century: There is no shortage of skin care (and makeup… and hair care…) products on the market that feature hyaluronic acid (HA). Lauded by countless brands and experts for its hydrating, plumping benefits, it’s one of the most popular ingredients used in product development today. On top of the bevy of dedicated hyaluronic acid serums out there, you can find the ingredient in basically any type of skin care product — think moisturizers, masks, cleansers, toners, and even sunscreens — marketed to help quench your skin’s thirst and packaged with some sort of aqua blue lettering or designs.

It’s ironic, then, especially considering its reputation for being a hydration, skin-smoothing superstar, that some people believe the ingredient makes their skin drier, which doesn’t usually do any favors for reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Type in the sentiment on Reddit or TikTok and you’ll uncover plenty of anecdotes (and even posts from skin experts) supporting this claim — you may have even experienced the side effect for yourself. Turns out, depending on how you’re using hyaluronic acid and what form you’re using, it does have the potential to contribute toward dryness. Read on to learn more about the ingredient and user errors that could be behind your undesired results from board-certified dermatologists.

What Is Hyaluronic Acid?

Despite its name, HA is not an exfoliant. “A lot of people see the word ‘acid’ and get alarmed, but it’s [hyaluronic acid] not like an alpha- or beta-hydroxy acid, which are chemical exfoliants,” says Dr. Ryan Turner, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the co-founder of TRNR Skin. “Rather, it’s a sugar molecule that’s naturally produced throughout the human body, found in the tissues of your skin and eyes as well as in your joint fluid.”

On skin care packaging, hyaluronic acid may also be listed as sodium hyaluronate, potassium hyaluronate, hyaluronan, or even just HA. According to Turner, sodium hyaluronate, the salt form of hyaluronic acid, is what’s mostly found in skin and in skin care products.

Hyaluronic acid falls within the humectant category of hydrating ingredients, meaning it attracts and helps retain moisture. This hydration can assist the skin in a few different ways. “When skin is dehydrated, it looks lackluster, it feels rough, and fine lines and wrinkles are much more noticeable,” says Turner. “By pulling hydration into your skin, hyaluronic acid can help plump up the tissue, making it look more radiant, feel smooth, and make texture appear much more even.”

While hyaluronic acid is generally considered suitable for all skin types, it’s not the only hydrator worthy of your attention. Hyaluronic acid also needs to be used correctly in order to reap its benefits and help prevent adverse effects. It’s also not a miracle-worker. In fact, Dr. Shereene Idriss, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Dr. Idriss Skincare, believes there are “far better hydrating ingredients” that consumers can utilize for skin hydration. (If you follow Idriss on her social platforms, you may be aware of the expert’s opinions on the ingredient and how the beauty industry markets it. (TL;DW: She’s not a fan.)

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Can Hyaluronic Acid Cause Dryness Or Irritation?

If you think hyaluronic acid is the culprit behind your exacerbating dryness, it may be time to take a closer look at the products in your routine.

Hyaluronic acid alone isn’t a drying skin care ingredient, but using too much of the ingredient can potentially cause your skin to feel drier. According to Dr. Kiran Mian, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Hudson Dermatology and Laser Surgery, “too much HA will cause it to pull moisture from deeper in the dermis into your epidermis, leaving the deeper layers of your skin dehydrated.” Given just how obsessed the skin care industry is with hyaluronic acid, you may be using more than you realize. Mian recommends reducing the amount you use before giving up on the ingredient entirely.

Turner agrees that hyaluronic acid can potentially dry out skin further, but also notes it’s rarely reported in his experience. “In some circumstances, hyaluronic can dry out your skin further,” he says. “If your top layer of skin is dry, the hyaluronic acid may actually draw the water it’s looking for from deeper layers of skin.” How you physically apply hyaluronic acid can help prevent this (more on that below).

The molecular weight of the hyaluronic acid in your skin care products — paired with how much of it you’re using — could be a factor in dryness or irritation experienced after using the ingredient, too. "Low molecular weight HA, which brands usually tout as being better for your skin, can be pro-inflammatory, so if you are using it in too many steps of your routine it can actually cause inflammation in your skin, becoming red and irritated — only making matters worse for already dehydrated skin,” says Idriss.

Another factor that could play a part in undesired results from using hyaluronic acid? The humidity in your environment. Turner says that a dry environment could lead to hyaluronic acid pulling water from your skin.

If you’re experiencing any irritation after using hyaluronic acid, it’s best to stop using it and reach out to a board-certified dermatologist for advice.

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What is The Best Way To Use Hyaluronic Acid?

To get the best results out of a hyaluronic acid serum, Turner recommends applying it to damp skin right after cleansing, as this will “give the hyaluronic acid some water to grab on to” and prevent the ingredient from pulling water from your skin. You’ll also want to follow it up with an occlusive moisturizer to seal in that hydration and help prevent it from escaping.

“A moisturizer can help prevent the water drawn into the skin by a humectant from escaping,” explains Turner. “You need hydration from humectants and moisture courtesy of emollients like squalane, ceramides, and jojoba oil to keep the skin barrier functioning at its best.”

Remember, as Mian mentioned above, it’s recommended to avoid overusing hyaluronic acid to help prevent dryness as a side effect. In general, it doesn’t need to be in every product.

What’s more, Idriss believes a single-ingredient hyaluronic acid serum is unnecessary. “It’s the dose that makes the poison, and too much of a good thing is just that — too much of a good thing,” she says. “Given that the majority of products on the market have HA, there’s no reason to seek out how to include it in your routine, as chances are it’s probably already in there.”

What Are Hydrating Alternatives To Hyaluronic Acid?

No matter your reason for avoiding hyaluronic acid, there are plenty of other hydrating ingredients you can incorporate into your routine. Idriss believes glycerin is a better humectant option for hydrating your skin. “It forms a protective barrier on the skin's surface, preventing moisture loss and keeps the skin hydrated for longer periods.”

In addition to glycerin, aloe vera and honey are two humectants that may also be worth trying, Turner says. “These are all natural ingredients that offer varying additional benefits beyond hydration including antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.”

Mian is also a fan of heparan sulfate, an ingredient that she says has anti-inflammatory and hydrating properties.