Elixir of Youth

Today's skincare-savvy spa clients understandstand that for long-lasting, obvious wrinkle reduction, it's important to couple trips to the spa with visits to the dermatologist. While estheticians have many powerful anti-aging tools at their disposal, few offer the same benefits as prescription topical products or injectables. That said, there is one ingredient that is found in both in-office injectables and spa services: hyaluronic acid. This potent component may be just what your clients' complexions are craving.

So what exactly is hyaluronic acid? Also known as hyaluronan, hyaluronate, or more commonly, sodium hyaluronate (which is the form often used in topically applied skincare products), it is a component of connective tissue that is found throughout the body but mainly in the joints and lower layers of the skin, and its key function is to cushion and lubricate cells. In the dermis, it's found between skin cells, where it has a protective function and is also involved in tissue repair. "Hyaluronic acid has been named as a key to youth and is a very important anti-aging ingredient," says Jeanette Graf, M.D., a Great Neck, NY-based dermatologist. This explains why it is the main ingredient in anti-aging injectables like Restylane, Perlane, and Juvederm, which help plump and add volume to the skin in order to fill in fine lines and wrinkles. Originally, the hyaluronic acid found in many skincare products, both over-the-counter and dermatologist-prescribed, was derived from animal sources—rooster combs to be specific—but most is now synthetically created.

The protein has been praised for many reasons, one of which is its potent water-retaining powers, with experts saying it's able to hold 1,000 times its weight in water. Because the powerful humectant hydrates by drawing in moisture from the environment and locking it into the skin, it's a great ingredient to use on clients with breakout-prone complexions. "When I see acneic skin that's dehydrated from overuse of stripping agents, I can safely use products with hyaluronic acid in them because it provides moisture without stimulating the sebaceous glands the way things like shea butter and nut and plant oils can," says Annet King, director of training and development for Dermalogica's International Dermal Institute. King points out that most hyaluronic acid products also have a light texture that's especially pleasing to those with oilier skin.

Hyaluronic acid's hydrating nature also makes it perfect for mature skin treatments. As we age, the body's natural storage of hyaluronan is depleted. For women moving into or going through menopause, there's even less to go around, as estrogen stimulates hyaluronan production. This is part of the reason why skin can look visibly parched and crêpey during its later years. While it's important to let clients know they shouldn't expect the same benefits from topical products that injectables are able to offer, spa treatments that use products with hyaluronic acid can leave complexions looking and feeling firmer. At Spa Gaucin at the St. Regis Resort (Dana Point, CA), guests who receive the Antioxidant Wine Therapy Facial ($175, 60 minutes) rave about how fresh and rejuvenated their skin looks. The treatment involves a cleansing enzyme exfoliation and an application of a mask that contains hyaluronic acid. "Many of our guests are seeking plumper skin with less visible lines, and they love the immediate results they see after this treatment," says spa director Valory Reed.

Beyond just keeping skin moisturized, hyaluronic acid also plays a crucial role in the health of collagen. Collagen, a protein that strengthens and supports the skin, must be bathed in this nutritious gel substance to keep it lubricated. "Collagen and hyaluronic acid really support each other and work together," says Graf. "You need hyaluronic acid in order to keep collagen supported structurally." At the Ballantyne Resort (Charlotte, NC), the Reconditioning Facial ($90, 50 minutes) incorporates a potent serum that contains hyaluronic acid as well as another known collagen-booster, vitamin C. "There is a high interest in hyaluronic acid among our baby boomer guests, which make up a large portion of our clientele, so we wanted to offer them something that could help with sun-damaged, aging skin," says Bill Toth, director at the Spa at Ballantyne Resort. In the combination serum, hyaluronic acid actually helps the skin soak in and retain the benefits of vitamin C.

Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid All-Stars
Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid All-Stars

Hyaluronic acid has also been shown to facilitate healing. Medical-grade versions of the protein are even used after some surgeries to speed up wound recovery time. Keeping hyaluronan levels balanced creates the perfect environment for the growth of new cells, making hyaluronic acid treatments especially helpful following a peel or microdermabrasion services. "You really can see it calm the redness, put moisture back into the skin, and brighten it, as well," says Catherine Knapp, R.N., owner of Catnap's Medical Aesthetic Spa (Tucson, AZ). All of the spa's chemical peel treatments are followed by a mini-facial that involves the application of a hyaluronic acid repair product. Guests are also given a repair kit of products that contain hyaluronic acid at the end of their treatment.

Hyaluronic acid is also seen as an excellent carrier agent in skincare products. It is a highly bioavailable substance that's readily accepted and absorbed by the body, giving anything that's delivered with it a better chance of benefiting the skin. The Glow Skin Spa (New York City) helps hyaluronic acid and other ingredients penetrate the skin even further by delivering them with an oxygenating complex during the Oxygenation Facial ($160, 75 minutes). "Once skin is purged of impurities through enzyme therapy and extractions, it drinks up the hyaluronic acid at a more successful rate, providing the skin with the necessary ingredient benefits that in turn allow the delicate skin to function better," says the spa's owner, Jillian Wright. When it comes down to it, all we can really ask of our skin is that it works to the best of its abilities, so we have the confidence to perform to the best of ours.