Ever since hyaluronic acid became a mainstream beauty and skincare ingredient, it seems like it’s everywhere and in everything. Beauty giants formulate it into creams and serums, aestheticians load it up on the skin post-facial, and even supplements promise to increase hydration and moisture levels within the skin. Sure, hyaluronic acid, which holds 1,000 times its weight in water, offers a multitude of skin benefits. But does the topical version provide the same plumping-power benefits as its tried-and-true counterpart, the hyaluronic acid injectable? We investigate to find out.
What is hyaluronic acid?
Perhaps one of the most popular skincare ingredients, hyaluronic acid is a go-to for creating perfectly plump, well-hydrated skin. A moisture-retaining substance (a.k.a. a humectant), hyaluronic acid is a naturally-occurring sugar in connective tissue, the skin, and the eyes. HA, as it’s often referred to, binds to water and locks in moisture for a plumping effect. Unfortunately, like other substances within the body, namely collagen and elastin, hyaluronic acid levels begin to decline with age and environmental exposure, leaving the skin less plump. That’s why everyone clamors to get the plumper into their skin in one way or another—either by injecting it (professionally) or applying it topically to the skin.
Hyaluronic acid is available as injectable fillers, like Juvéderm and Restylane, in over-the-counter topical skincare products, and even supplements. However, as the body ages, the natural levels of hyaluronic acid start to decline, causing changes to the degree of hydration, volume, and healthy fullness of the skin.
Injecting it vs applying it
Chances are, you’ve seen handfuls of skincare products touting the benefits of hyaluronic acid and all it can do to promote younger-looking skin. But does using the ingredient topically hold as much weight—or any at all—compared to injections of hyaluronic acid dermal fillers?
Injecting an area of the face with a hyaluronic acid filler has more dramatic results and a faster onset of action than rubbing a small amount of a product with hyaluronic acid as one of many ingredients onto the skin. This is because hyaluronic acid appears differently in dermal fillers—it’s cross-linked, meaning it provides a longer-lasting result. In addition, injections quickly add volume to deficient areas by drawing water to the area for a plumping effect. Using professional dermal fillers in volume-deficient areas, like the lips or cheeks, creates a plumping and filling effect instantaneously. That’s why they are a go-to for filling in lines and wrinkles and creating better-defined features. Plus, precisely placing hyaluronic acid gel (which injectables are made of) creates long-lasting results since the product stays where it is put until it breaks down.
Unfortunately, skincare products don’t have that same effect regardless of how effective their marketing is.
Here’s the thing with skincare products containing hyaluronic acid: they need to have the proper molecular weight for the molecule to absorb correctly. That’s why many products tout that they include several different types and weights of hyaluronic acid. For example, creams and serums that contain low molecular weight HA can absorb deeper into the skin for more of a firming effect, while those with a heavier or higher weight sit on the skin’s surface and make it look and feel softer. No topical product reaches the deeper layers of skin like an injection can, and therefore, the plumping power of an injectable rivals a product any day of the week. Hyaluronic acid-based skincare products may temporarily make the skin look better and add moisture. Still, they’ll do little, if anything, in terms of adding volume, and they definitely won’t provide long-lasting results.
When fillers go wrong
In the world of fillers, there comes the time when patients need or want their filler reversed. Whatever the reason is—filler reversal ranges from extreme swelling to excessive product placement to uneven and asymmetrical results and even the formation of lumps and bumps—most dermatologists and plastic surgeons are relegated to using an injectable substance known as hyaluronidase. While highly effective for this exact purpose, hyaluronidase is an enzyme that acts as a dissolver for hyaluronic acid fillers.
The only way to appropriately dissolve unwanted dermal fillers is by injecting the treated area with the injectable version of hyaluronidase, which some patients say burns or stings upon injection. But rumor has it that some injectors use injectable hyaluronidase (by taking it out of the vial) and apply it topically on the skin, which is not scientifically proven to melt away fillers nor infiltrate the skin deep enough to make a noticeable difference–or any difference for that matter. The thought is that using hyaluronidase directly on the skin instead of injecting it does not cause any trauma to the area. However, it’s believed that injecting hyaluronidase may, in some cases, lead to dehydration in the area and potential skin laxity.
However, a new product dissolves unwanted filler using a topical version of hyaluronidase and botanical ingredients. SoftFil Cosmetics recently created Topilase, which is purportedly a more natural alternative to the traditional injectable hyaluronidase. Without using a syringe, the treatment, which employs a mix of lipase, protease, and hyaluronidase along with natural ingredients like aloe vera and lavender, is to “safely shape and reduce the unwanted presence of hyaluronic acid to adjust the skin’s ideal hyaluronic acid level” according to the brand’s website. By adjusting the amount of hyaluronic acid in the skin, the skin restores a more natural appearance.
The bottom line: If you’re looking for surface hydration and an added dose of moisture, then hyaluronic acid creams, serums, and such are the way to go. But if you want to smooth out wrinkles and folds and restore lost volume and facial contours, hyaluronic acid injections are the only way to achieve that.