Everyone wants plump, bouncy-looking skin, and keeping your skin hydrated is key to achieving this. In this post, I’ll share my seven favorite hydrating ingredients. (Hint: there’s more out there than just the popular and buzzy hyaluronic acid!)
What Are the Benefits of Hydrating Ingredients, and Who Needs Them in Their Routine?
Using hydrating ingredients (especially in serums or toners) is a great, targeted way to deliver water into the skin. Hydrating ingredients should be used by absolutely everyone. Yes, you read that right! Everyone—even if you have oily, breakout-prone skin.
Here’s the thing: skin cells can’t survive without water. This is true regardless of your skin type or how much oil you naturally produce. Hydrating ingredients, like the ones I’ll be talking about in this post, deliver water into the skin. If your skin is dry, meaning you don’t produce much oil, you’ll want to use oil-replenishing ingredients in addition to hydrating ones.
Bottom line, everyone should be incorporating hydration into their skincare routine. Short-term, it plumps the skin, gives you a glow, and softens fine lines (who doesn’t love instant gratification?). Long-term, it keeps your cells functioning properly to support a robust moisture barrier and facilitate healthy skin aging.
The Seven Best Hydrating Ingredients for Skin
This all sounds pretty good, right? Without further ado, seven of the best ingredients for happy, hydrated skin.
1. Hyaluronic Acid
Let’s start with one of the most popular and well-known hydrating ingredients out there—hyaluronic acid.
Hyaluronic acid is something your body produces on its own to keep skin, joints, and connective tissues lubricated. It’s a humectant, meaning it can help plump and hydrate by attracting water from the air as well as from the lower layers of the skin. It then binds this water to cells in the epidermis (outer layer of skin). Hyaluronic acid can hold around 1,000 times its weight in water.
Hyaluronic acid is generally well-tolerated by all skin types, but there is a possible drawback. If you’re using it in a dry environment where there’s little moisture in the air, you run the risk of actually dehydrating your skin more. What happens is this: hyaluronic acid still draws water out of the deeper layers of your skin, but instead of balancing this by pulling water out of the air to “sandwich” the moisture, the water pulled from your skin will evaporate. This is because dry air is greedy and steals moisture anywhere it can.
Why is Hyaluronic Acid so Popular? Is It Better Than Other Ingredients?
Hyaluronic acid has been around for a long time, but it’s really gotten popular in the last few years thanks to the amount of stories like “how to get plump skin” that has been covered by both traditional media and social media. Someone just kind of latched on to hyaluronic acid as the go-to ingredient to talk about and everyone followed. Because of all its buzz and popularity, there’s this perception that hyaluronic acid is THE ingredient when it comes to hydrating your skin. While it undoubtedly does a great job, it gets a disproportionate amount of praise when the reality is there are a lot of great ingredients that provide hydration. Some of them also offer additional benefits and may be a better fit depending on what you’re looking to achieve. As always, in the end, it’s about finding what’s best for your unique skin.
2. Sodium Hyaluronate
Sodium hyaluronate is the salt form of hyaluronic acid. It acts in a way similar to hyaluronic acid and helps recharge the skin’s moisture levels (also binding up to 1,000 times its weight in water). Sodium hyaluronate is used in products more often than hyaluronic acid because of its ability to penetrate the skin more deeply. It has a smaller mole size than hyaluronic acid, so it can be absorbed more efficiently. Thanks to its salt form, it’s also less likely to oxidize meaning it’s a more stable ingredient than hyaluronic acid.
Sodium hyaluronate is great for repairing a damaged moisture barrier and preventing transepidermal water loss caused by over-exfoliation, dry climate, or sun exposure.
3. Tremella Fuciformis
Tremella fuciformis, also known as silver ear mushroom, is a hydrating polysaccharide extracted from the edible fruit of the Chinese Silver Ear Mushroom. It provides five times the hydration of Hyaluronic Acid (tremella mushroom holds 5000 times its weight in water), making it even more potent.
One of the things I love about this ingredient is that, in addition to being a super effective hydrator, it offers some amazing additional benefits. Although the mechanisms aren’t quite clear, studies have shown that Tremella fuciformis has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This makes it an exceptionally good ingredient for overall anti-aging and healing of the skin. Its immune-boosting properties are exactly why I included it in my Skin Correcting Serum.
Of all the ingredients on this list, this one is a personal favorite! Trehalose is an antioxidant found in desert “resurrection” plants. When desert plants dehydrate from lack of water, this molecule takes the place of water within the plant’s cells and acts as a stand-in. Once the dehydrated plant once again comes into contact with water, trehalose absorbs the water. It fills out the plant’s dehydrated cells without any damage to the internal or membrane structures—even if the plant has been dormant for centuries. How cool is that? Imagine harnessing this power for the good of your skin.
When used in skincare formulations, trehalose can help repair dehydrated skin and protect against future moisture loss. This helps improve moisture barrier function in both the short- and long-term. I use Trehalose in my best-selling hydrating masque for this very reason.
Panthenol is a B5 provitamin, meaning the body turns it into vitamin B5. It softens the skin and acts as both a humectant and an emollient. What does this mean? It helps skin cells attract moisture and seals that moisture in, all of which help skin cells stay hydrated. This can be really useful in returning the skin’s moisture levels back to normal and improving barrier function.
These barrier-boosting functions also make panthenol a good ingredient for promoting wound-healing.
Like hyaluronic acid, glycerin is a humectant that’s been around for a long time. It attracts moisture from the air as well as from the lower layers of the skin to deliver it to the epidermis. This helps hold water between the cells to make the skin feel moist and bouncy. One advantage glycerin has over hyaluronic acid is that it has a smaller molecule size, so it can penetrate the skin more easily. Glycerin is derived from plant oils or the fermentation of sugars, or it can be synthetically produced.
Sodium PCA is the salt form of pyroglutamic acid (an amino acid also known as proline). It occurs naturally in various plants and fruits and is usually derived from one of these sources. Sodium PCA primarily acts as a hydrator thanks to its humectant properties. It doesn’t hold as much water as hyaluronic acid, but the two are often combined in formulas for a powerful hydrating effect overall.
So there you have it, seven of my all-time favorite hydrating ingredients! Each of these ingredients is tolerated well by most skin types, and they can even be combined with one another for really effective hydration. And remember, more isn’t always better. Learn why an ingredient doesn’t need to be high up on an ingredient label to work.
Finally, if you want to improve your skin, here are twenty of the best active ingredients.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”