The hydrating skincare ‘superhero’ or hyaluronic acid has now entered the realm of haircare.
The origin – as with many life hacks today, was a viral Tiktok trend last year. User and makeup artist, Katilyn Boyer, showed the results of trying a popular hyaluronic acid skin serum on her hair for two weeks – her strands seemed smoother and shinier. What’s more, the video racked up almost 4 million views and spurred a trend worldwide.
Does that mean you should reach for the nearest hyaluronic acid and apply it on your strands? Gulf News speaks to dermatologists and trichologists to find out.
Hyaluronic acid is already in our skin
Hydrator extraordinaire and favourite across all skin types, hyaluronic acid or HA is a humectant, a water-binding substance and can hold on to around 1000 times its weight in water. It is also known as a biopolymer – as it is already present in your skin and body’s connective tissue (like collagen).
These are the three forms used in products, often used in a mixture:
• Sodium hyaluronates (smaller molecular size)
• Sodium acetylated hyaluronate
• Hydrolysed hyaluronic acid
If it can hold so much moisture, that should be great for our hair, right? Not exactly.
Debunking the TikTok trend
“From the perspective of a trichologist and product manufacturer that deals day to day with cosmetic scientists and hair biologists, in the formulation of our products we do have a product that has hyaluronic acid in it, but it's important to differentiate a trend, a fad, a myth to factual scientific information,” says UK-based accredited trichologist, Enitan Agidee, founder of the Healthy Hair Studio, a haircare brand.
“Based on the trend that you were referring to, that product is formulated for skin, not for hair. So it will not perform in the same way as a product that had the initial mandate and blueprint for hair.”
As far as I know there are no independent studies to validate the benefits of HA in the hair. HA is not naturally found in the hair shaft, its primary function is in the skin or epidermal matrix.
Dubai-based board-certified trichologist Michael Ryan also known as the ‘Dubai Hair Doctor’ with over 17 years of experience in UK, Japan and UAE says, “As far as I know there are no independent studies to validate the benefits of HA in the hair. HA is not naturally found in the hair shaft, its primary function is in the skin or epidermal matrix.”
1. The formula is number one – only haircare!
Pun intended. “The chemicals of the products for the skin is different for the hair – both of them have HA. But the ones we apply on the skin, is specifically prepared to absorb on the skin. You cannot take a hyaluronic cream that you apply on the skin and then apply it to the hair, you have to have specific products for the hair,” says Dr Renata Costa, Dubai-based Brazilian specialist Dermatologist at First Global clinic, Abu Dhabi.
The ones we apply on the skin, is specifically prepared to absorb on the skin. You cannot take a hyaluronic cream that you apply on the skin and then apply it to the hair, you have to have specific products for the hair.
If it does make your hair feel softer, Agidee warns that it may just be a false experience of what it should be doing. Most hyaluronic acid serums are formulated with a number of ingredients, and are not ‘pure’. She says, “Because you’re not mixing one ingredient, you’re mixing 20 or more ingredients into your hair product, and what you’re mixing is something that had a design and purpose for skin.”
2. Too much moisture in your hair is actually bad for you
The main logic used behind hyaluronic acid’s hair benefits is this fact – it holds 1000 times its weight in water. Agidee debunks that for us: “When people quoted that it sounds amazing, but it's not a good thing. And the reason why it's not a good thing for hair to hold that much water because it makes the hair weak.
When people quoted that it sounds amazing, but it's not a good thing. And the reason why it's not a good thing for hair to hold that much water because it makes the hair weak.
“Holding water means the strand is swollen – and the shaft isn’t supposed to remain swollen for a very, very long time. Yes, the hair will feel soft, but what could eventually happen because is that the hair will expand too much – it will burst and it will crack. You will lose cuticles, you will have more holes and cracks in your cuticles, but nobody talks about the science of that. Which is why if it is formulated properly, you won’t have this issue. “
3. It will moisturise the hair, but only in a leave-in product
“The topical application for hyaluronic acid is good and has benefits for hair and scalp. A very important note that the hyaluronic acid absorbs and retain water – in the skin, and also in the hair. For that, we will get more hydration for the hair shaft and also the hair root and the follicles, “says Dr Anas Alsaleh, specialist dermatologist at Dubai-based Wellness by Design medical centre.
According to a 2017 study by Poland-based researchers published in the journal, Pure and Applied Chemistry, covering hair with a blend of collagen, hyaluronic acid and chitosan led to increased hair thickness and improved its mechanical properties.
Agidee adds, “It is best served in something that is left in a leave-in conditioner, leave-in moisturizer and leave-in serum. So what hyaluronic acid does is it makes something jagged (your hair shaft) filled in – it creates a film on the top, it makes it even, one layer, smooth, uniformed.”
4. There are scalp benefits, especially for dryness and dandruff
In fact, a February 2022 study by South Korea-based researchers published in the journal Acta Biomaterialia by Elsevier, that studied the effects of hyaluronic acid and minoxidil on HDP cells - hair dermal papilla that control the development of hair follicles, concluded: “HA enhanced proliferation, migration, and aggregation of HDP cell by increasing cell-cell adhesion and decreasing cell substratum.”
Also, Agidee explains that as the scalp is skin, “It should provide a healthier environment for the scalp, which then means better quality hair coming out.”
Dr Alsaleh adds, “It’s effective especially for the dry scalp – it’s hydrating the scalp and skin in the scalp, it will absorb and retain the water inside the scalp. In case someone has itchiness, dry dandruff, it will help a lot to hydrate and support the scalp.”
It’s effective especially for the dry scalp – it’s hydrating the scalp and skin in the scalp, it will absorb and retain the water inside the scalp. In case someone has itchiness, dry dandruff, it will help a lot to hydrate and support the scalp.
However, Dr Costa says, “It will not treat the scalp.”
Hyaluronic acid is already used for injectable dermal fillers in the hair and scalp, proven to increase firmness and volume of skin, according to Harvard Health. It may also provide benefits through supplements - in a 2014 study published in the international Nutrition Journal, found that ingested HA increased ‘skin moisture and improved treatment outcomes for patients with dry skin’.
Final verdict: Should I add hyaluronic acid to my hair or scalp routine?
Dr Alsaleh recommends usage – whether daily, or a few times a week, especially if you have dry and frizzy hair or a dry scalp.
“I will never say to anyone, apply hyaluronic acid because it’s just one ingredient, remember. It has to be in a formulation,” says Agidee.
She adds that its properties are similar to other film-forming ingredients like silicone, flaxseed gel, horsetail: “In fact, glycerine could have the potential to do that, it’s just not as expensive, and as prestigious or fancy, if you like, as hyaluronic acid. Both of them have a similar very similar characteristics in attracting and holding moisture.” Glycerin is also a humectant.
Dr Costa recommends using it with other, more occlusive ingredients to lock in moisture. She says, “To treat the hair shaft, the injections of HA should be combined with topical products that contains not only HA but also keratin, elastin, glycerin, seed butter and many others ingredients that will moisturize the hair shaft.”
So, if you’re adding a leave-in hyaluronic haircare product to your routine for the scalp and hair benefits, apply it directly onto the strands or scalp when wet. Agidee says:
“Apply it on the hair before it is dried out, is the tip I would give. Because if the hair is dried out, and you apply it, it is too late -- if you think of mud, when mud is moist and hydrated, versus when mud has been exposed to the sun to the wind, and somewhere the mud has dried out. It forms a crack, right? So the cuticle’s already cracked. The hair is already damaged, what you're trying to now do is prevent it from getting damaged even further.
The better approach is – before the cracks happen, apply your leave-in.”