I love hyaluronic acid. It is probably one of my favorite skincare ingredients of all time. As a humectant, it helps to hydrate your skin by “grabbing” water from the inner layers of the skin or the air, thus plumping up your outer skin layers, which also creates a smoother and more glowing appearance. This is why your hydrating hyaluronic acid lotion, toner, or serum seems to magically make fine lines disappear within minutes. It’s a temporary effect, unless you actually get those injectable fillers from your trusty derm, but still!
Now, here is the thing: As with pretty much all skincare ingredients, no matter how beneficial they are, they don’t work for everyone. In fact, sensitivities to hyaluronic acid—especially its lower molecular weight forms, which get absorbed more readily and more deeply into the skin—are quite common. People who suffer from hyaluronic acid sensitivity experience redness, itchiness, or often the development of whiteheads, those pesky little white dots around the chin and nose area.
So, if you are one of those people who don’t do well with hyaluronic acid products, but you crave the same hyper-hydrating, skin-plumping, and smoothing properties it provides, here are five equally great hyaluronic acid alternatives for you to try out.
Sensitivities to hyaluronic acid are quite common, resulting in redness, itchiness, or often the development of whiteheads.
Good old trusty glycerin is often overlooked as a “cheap” or inelegant ingredient in skincare, but it is one of the best, most reliable humectants out there. Its water-binding abilities are similar, if not superior, to those of hyaluronic acid, and since it is a pretty cheap raw material, you can usually find pretty affordable creams and serums with glycerin as the main hydrating ingredient.
Now, the important thing with glycerin is that the concentration should not be higher than 7 percent (some sources even say as low as 5 percent), because higher concentrations can cause a product to become sticky and thus uncomfortable to apply. Thankfully, cosmetics formulators usually get it right though, and especially pharmacy brands tend to rely strongly on this trusty humectant in their hydrating formulas.
This excellent alternative to hyaluronic acid is a common ingredient in Asian skincare products. Derived from natural sugars found in oats, mushrooms (especially chaga mushrooms), certain algae species, and yeasts, beta glucans work very similar to hyaluronic acid, but with the added benefit of having skin-soothing benefits as well. Sensitive skin will thus potentially do better with these alternative humectants than with certain types of hyaluronic acid.
Not only do beta glucans boost your hydration levels, these sugar molecules can also support your skin barrier health by stimulating its natural immune response. I also find serums and toners that contain beta glucans versus hyaluronic acid to be less sticky, and they tend to create a lighter texture, which gets absorbed into skin faster.
Admittedly, urea is not the sexiest ingredient at first glance given its origin. Not to put you off this skincare star, but, well … it is basically a “waste” product, with its name hinting towards what type of human waste. But fear not—the urea found in our skincare products is artificially produced and not taken from anyone’s urine, and it is completely odorless and hygienically pure! And urea really is a fantastic ingredient especially for those suffering from not just dehydration but also dryness and flaky skin issues.
Unlike hyaluronic acid, which is purely a humectant, urea has the added benefit of also being an emollient, so it can help to smooth and soften dry, cracked skin. This is why pharmacy brands such as Avène or La-Roche Posay often add urea to their sensitive skincare ranges, especially those that also target eczema-prone, atopic skin types. Urea also happens to be one of the components of our skin’s Natural Moisturizing Factors (often shortened to NMF), a group of substances that naturally occur in the skin and help maintain its moisture levels.
We tend to forget about honey as a valuable skincare ingredient, mostly because honey-themed products rarely feature actual honey, instead mostly smelling artificially sweet without offering the true benefits of the raw ingredient. But honey is actually a natural humectant with a ton of added benefits, among them antibacterial plus anti-inflammatory properties that help soothe irritated skin and can promote wound healing.
Look for natural, organic skincare brands such as Farmacy, which has a whole range of honey-themed products that feature a blend of honey sourced from the U.S. Their wash off Honey Potion Renewing Antioxidant Hydration Mask is a cult favorite, offering deep hydration and that dewy glow we all crave after a long winter.
Snow mushroom, silver ear mushroom, or Tremella fuciformis in fancy Latin has become trendy in Asian skincare lately due to its incredible water-binding abilities, which rival that of hyaluronic acid. A sponge-like, slightly slimy, and jelly-textured fungus, snow mushroom has been a popular cooking ingredient as well as a medicinal remedy throughout China for centuries.
Just like beta glucans, snow mushroom is rich in polysaccharides, those sugar molecules which can both soothe and hydrate the skin. Polysaccharides also happen to be another kind of Natural Moisturizing Factor, so they naturally occur in our skin, just like hyaluronic acid. There is also promising evidence that Tremella fuciformis extract can potentially inhibit melanin, meaning it could be beneficial for treating hyperpigmentation, though more studies are needed to conclusively say if it truly has brightening effects. What is certain is that snow mushroom also contains high amounts of vitamin D, which helps to speed up wound healing, making it an excellent choice for a compromised skin barrier.
Are you sensitive to HA? What hyaluronic acid alternatives are your faves?