The Surprising Secret to More Hydrated Skin and Healthier Joints
Published on October 11, 2021
Last updated October 15, 2021
By Steph Eckelkamp
If you’re even remotely interested in skincare, chances are you’ve heard about hyaluronic acid (HA) — an ingredient that seems to be popping up in just about every new face cream and serum on the market, thanks to its ability to boost your skin’s hydration and suppleness.
But it turns out that hyaluronic acid is more than just a topical beautifier: This compound, which is a naturally-occurring component of our own skin and joint fluid, is starting to appear in oral hyaluronic acid supplements, too. Emerging research suggests that these supplements may have unique benefits for your appearance and health.
We’ve broken down what exactly hyaluronic acid does for your skin and body, how to maintain healthy levels with simple diet and lifestyle changes, and the perks of supplementation.
What is hyaluronic acid?
Hyaluronic acid (sometimes referred to as “hyaluronan”) is a clear, viscous, somewhat gooey substance naturally produced by the human body. It’s a type of molecule called a glycosaminoglycan (say that five times fast), and it’s predominantly found in the skin, eyes, synovial fluid of the joints, and the articular cartilage of joints. Hyaluronic acid plays a key role in cushioning and lubricating these areas of the body — like helping your joints glide smoothly past one another.
About 50% of the human body’s total hyaluronic acid content is found in the skin, where it functions as a humectant and has the unique ability to bind up to 1,000 times its weight in water to your skin tissue, boosting skin’s moisture levels and helping it maintain its resiliency and firm, youthful appearance. However, hyaluronic acid levels naturally decline with age, as well as due to environmental and dietary factors, which leads to declining moisture levels and the more visible appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
What depletes or destroys hyaluronic acid in the body?
There’s a fairly high turnover rate of hyaluronic acid in the skin. Over the course of 24 hours, 30-50% is broken down by certain enzymes and then replenished by other enzymes. Over time, however, this balance gets thrown out of whack, and while the amount of degrading enzymes stays about the same, the number of HA-creating enzymes diminishes. This leads to a gradual loss of hyaluronic acid in the skin as you get older. (A similar loss of hyaluronic acid occurs in other areas of the body as well.) So, to a certain extent, everyone will naturally lose some hyaluronic acid over time.
But there are also outside forces that can accelerate the loss of hyaluronic acid. These are all factors that contribute to your body’s generation of free radicals, and some of them are more or less controllable. They include exposure to pollution, tobacco smoke, industrial chemicals, excessive refined carb and sugar consumption — particularly in the absence of nutritious, antioxidant-rich foods — and sun exposure.
Too much sun exposure — or exposure to UV light from tanning beds — is one of the biggest generators of free radicals in the skin, and it’s been found to significantly deplete the skin’s hyaluronic acid levels, in addition to impairing proper collagen formation. In one Experimental Dermatology study that compared photo-exposed skin (i.e., skin exposed to UV-light) to protected skin, the photo-exposed skin had a higher concentration of degraded hyaluronic acid, a decrease in the number of HA-forming enzymes, and an increase in HA-degrading enzymes.
Can you restore your body’s hyaluronic acid levels?
While some hyaluronic acid depletion is natural and unavoidable, it’s possible to make healthy changes that may counteract some of its degradation and replenish your stores. Here’s what you can try:
- Try a hyaluronic acid supplement to increase your body’s own production of hyaluronic acid and increase levels in the skin and throughout the body.
- Reduce sun exposure, wear a hat or protective clothing, or use a broad-spectrum sunscreen to reduce UV-induced sun damage.
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet rich in colorful, antioxidant-rich whole foods, which help neutralize free radicals and counteract their damage. Minerals such as zinc and magnesium, the compound naringenin present in citrus fruits, and the phytoestrogens in soy foods like edamame all appear to aid in the body’s production of hyaluronic acid.
- Reduce exposure to toxins (when possible) by using cleaner personal care and cleaning products, or by using them in a well-ventilated space.
- Reduce exposure to pollutants by using an indoor air filter, loading up on houseplants, or limiting outdoor activity on poor air quality days.
Wondering about hyaluronic acid topicals? These can be great for moisturizing and subtly plumping the face, but they don’t boost your body’s own hyaluronic acid production. Topical products boost skin hydration by pulling moisture into the top layer of your skin from other sources. This is why it’s so important to always apply hyaluronic acid onto damp skin, otherwise it will pull moisture from your skin’s deeper layers, which ultimately has a dehydrating effect.
The benefits of supplemental hyaluronic acid
While topical hyaluronic acid serums and creams have been found to result in significantly more hydrated, elastic, and smooth skin with a decrease in wrinkle depth after a few weeks of use, they aren’t able to increase your body’s natural stores of hyaluronic acid. That means results will only occur on the skin in the immediate area of application. To potentially increase your own hyaluronic acid synthesis and experience widespread benefits, it may be smarter to consider a supplement.
While the research on hyaluronic supplements is still in early days — and so far, consists of mostly small studies, many of which are funded by supplement companies — the results look relatively promising and safe at doses ranging between 80 mg and 200 mg per day. Several studies suggest that the body is able to absorb hyaluronic acid through the digestive tract and that it may benefit health in two key ways: Skin hydration and appearance, and joint health.
In a recent study, people with chronically dry and rough skin who took 240 mg of hyaluronic acid per day experienced a significant improvement in skin moisture and reduced dryness. According to the study’s authors, ingested hyaluronic acid contributes to the increased synthesis of hyaluronic acid in the body and promotes the proliferation of fibroblasts, which are cells that secrete collagen — another crucial component of connective tissue that contribute to skin’s firmness and elasticity.
In another study published in the journal Clinical Cosmetic & Investigational Dermatology, participants with “crow’s feet” wrinkles received either 120 mg of oral hyaluronic acid per day or a placebo for 12 weeks. By the end of this period, the hyaluronic acid group experienced significantly diminished wrinkles, and increased skin luster and suppleness.
And when it comes to joint health, a study published in BMC Nutrition Journal found that patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who took 80 mg of hyaluronic acid for 8 weeks experienced greater improvements in joint pain, stiffness, and physical function compared to a placebo group. Similar findings were made in a The Scientific World Journal study, which found that hyaluronic acid supplementation of 200 mg per day for 12 months — coupled with quadricep strengthening exercises — helped reduce osteoarthritis knee pain.
Bottom line: Hyaluronic acid is a crucial component of our connective tissues
This includes our skin, collagen, and synovial joint fluid — helping keep skin plump and moisturized and joints gliding smoothly. While hyaluronic acid production declines due to factors such as age, excessive sun exposure, a poor diet, and pollutants, you can help counteract this loss by adopting healthy lifestyle habits and taking a hyaluronic acid supplement, some of which are combined with other ingredients that support skin or joint health. Topical hyaluronic acid serums and creams can also provide skin with a moisture boost and subtle plumping effect, but they don’t boost your body’s own hyaluronic acid production like supplements do.