Hyaluronic acid serums are often touted as essential to any anti-aging skincare routine but is this holy-grail ingredient right for your acne-prone skin? Does hyaluronic acid help acne? Or, more importantly, does hyaluronic acid cause acne?
How Do Skincare Ingredients Cause Acne?
There are two types of acne:
- Non-inflammatory – clogged pores or ‘comedones’ (whiteheads and blackheads)
- Inflammatory – pimples or ‘papules and pustules’ (cysts and nodules are a more severe form of inflammatory acne)
Comedones are formed when dead skin cells clog your pores and trap bacteria inside. If the trapped bacteria multiplies your pore walls can become inflamed and cause the skin around it to become red and swollen (a pimple).
There are two main ways that a skincare product or ingredient may cause your skin to break out:
- By increasing the rate that you shed the skin cells from the surface of your skin (skin cell turnover) – known as ‘purging’.
- By blocking your pores and enabling the formation of comedones – a true break-out.
Does Hyaluronic Acid Cause Purging?
Skincare ingredients that increase your skin cell turnover can often lead to an initial breakout that is commonly referred to as ‘purging’.
Even when your skin is visibly clear, there are a number of ‘microcomedones’ lurking under the surface which go on to form comedones and then pimples.
By increasing your skin cell turnover, you are increasing the speed that your microcomedones develop into comedones before developing into pimples.
In other words, any pimples lurking under the surface of your skin are brought to the surface at the same time and make your acne worse before making it better.
The fact that its name contains the word ‘acid’ often misleads people into believing that hyaluronic acid is similar to other exfoliating acids like glycolic acid and salicylic acid.
However, hyaluronic acid does not increase skin cell turnover. It’s purely a hydrating skincare ingredient that helps to increase the amount of water within your skin.
If you have experienced a breakout after using a hyaluronic acid product, it is highly unlikely to be due to ‘purging’ unless the product also contains an AHA, BHA, or retinoid (e.g. retinol, retinaldehyde).
There are other ways to determine whether your skin is ‘purging’ or breaking out:
- Skin ‘purging’ only happens in areas where you would normally experience acne – e.g. if you usually only experience the odd few pimples on your chin around the time your period is due but have now developed lots of little spots on your forehead, it’s unlikely that you are experiencing purging.
- Breakouts due to ‘purging’ tend to resolve faster than normal breakouts, particularly if you keep using the product – if your breakouts are not improving after 4 to 6 weeks (around the time it takes for a full skin cell turnover), you should stop using the product.
What Is Hyaluronic Acid?
If it doesn’t exfoliate your skin like other acids, what exactly does hyaluronic acid do?
Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, which means that it attracts water into your skin. It’s incredibly effective at this and can bind up to 1000x its weight in water.
It’s also naturally present in your skin as part of the natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) in your epidermis and the extracellular matrix in your dermis.
The majority of the hyaluronic acid in your skin is found in your dermis where it helps provide your skin with elasticity, keeps it looking plump, and enables it to bounce back after performing facial expressions or being poked and pulled.
Is Hyaluronic Acid Comedogenic?
Hyaluronic acid, itself, is not considered to be comedogenic and, while comedogenicity ratings are somewhat flawed, is unlikely to cause breakouts by clogging your pores.
However, there may be other ingredients contained within the product that are comedogenic.
There are various resources you can use to check the comedogenicity rating of an ingredient, but remember that these ratings should only be used as a guide – formulation matters!
Why Does Hyaluronic Acid Cause Acne?
So, if hyaluronic acid is non-comedogenic and does not cause purging, why do some people experience breakouts when using it?
It could be down to the way that it is used.
Humectants, like hyaluronic acid, attract water into your epidermis from your dermis and/or from the atmosphere around you.
However, they can only draw water from the atmosphere if you live in a humid environment.
The NMFs that are naturally present in your epidermis regularly draw water from your dermis into your epidermis and into each of your individual skin cells.
Using a humectant mimics this natural process but to a higher degree and, if you don’t lock in that moisture with an occlusive product, the water drawn from your dermis can escape through your skin barrier.
Add in a dry environment and you may actually end up with dehydrated skin.
In fact, excessive use of humectants, like hyaluronic acid, can worsen dry skin conditions.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) explains that, when your skin becomes dry, it actually produces more oil, which can lead to breakouts.
Clinical research has also linked acne to reduced skin hydration and increased oil production.
How To Use Hyaluronic Acid
Not only does dehydrated skin due to incorrect use of hyaluronic acid lead to potential breakouts, but it can also make your skin appear less plump and a little saggy.
Don’t worry! This is reversible with adequate skin hydration.
If you live in a very humid environment then you probably don’t need to worry about hyaluronic acid dehydrating your skin. However, if you live in a dry environment, here are a few tips:
- Always apply hyaluronic acid to damp skin – for example, straight after cleansing or after the use of a facial mist/spray.
- Use a humidifier or apply in a humid bathroom (e.g. after showering) so that there is plenty of moisture in the air around you.
- Apply a moisturizer afterward to lock in moisture (the hyaluronic acid can also draw water from the moisturizer into your skin).
Does Hyaluronic Acid Help Acne?
There isn’t anything about hyaluronic acid that makes it particularly good for acne over any other hydrating skincare ingredients. In fact, glycerin is more frequently used in moisturizers targeted at acne-prone skin.
Other hydrating skincare ingredients that can double-up to help acne include:
Summary – Does Hyaluronic Acid Cause Acne?
Hyaluronic acid, itself, does not increase skin cell turnover or clog pores although there may be other ingredients included in products alongside it that do.
If you have experienced a breakout after using hyaluronic acid, it may be down to your environment and the way you are using it.