The most well-known humectant is hyaluronic acid with its water-binding abilities. But did you know it can also boost collagen? And while hyaluronic acid and other humectants are considered the holy grail of hydration, they have the ability to dry out the skin when not used properly. In this episode of The Rogue Pharmacist with Benjamin Knight Fuchs, he discusses how humectants benefit the skin and how to use them properly.
Associated Skin Care Professionals (ASCP) presents The Rogue Pharmacist with Benjamin Knight Fuchs, RPh. This podcast takes an enlightening approach to supporting licensed estheticians in their pursuit to achieve results-driven skin care treatments for their clients. You can always count on us to share professional skin care education, innovative techniques, and the latest in skin science.
About Benjamin Knight Fuchs, RPh:
Benjamin Knight Fuchs is a registered pharmacist, nutritionist, and skin care chemist with 35 years of experience developing pharmacy-potent skin health products for estheticians, dermatologists, and plastic surgeons. Ben’s expert advice gives licensed estheticians the education and skin science to better support the skin care services performed in the treatment room while sharing insights to enhance clients’ at-home skin care routines.
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0:00:56.2 MS: Hello and welcome to ASCP and the Rogue pharmacist with Benjamin Knight Fuchs. In each episode, we will explore how internal and external factors can impact the skin. I'm Maggie Staszcuk, ASCP's cosmetology education manager and joining me of course is Ben Fuchs. Hi Ben.
0:01:14.1 Ben Fuchs: Hi, Maggie. Good to see you.
0:01:15.8 MS: Good to see you. So today we're talking all about humectants and one of the most well known is hyaluronic acid. So tell us what do estheticians need to know about this fantastic ingredient?
0:01:29.1 BF: So humectants or hyaluronic acid?
0:01:33.1 MS: Well, you tell me.
0:01:33.6 BF: And by the way you said that really well.
0:01:35.6 MS: Did I?
0:01:36.2 BF: Yes. Most people can't say that that smoothly. You must have practiced.
0:01:40.0 MS: I did.
0:01:40.6 BF: Hyaluronic acid.
0:01:40.9 MS: Just for this podcast.
0:01:42.3 BF: Good job. My friend calls it highly aluronic acid.
0:01:45.5 MS: It is hyaluronic acid.
0:01:47.2 BF: I think that's Kinda fun. [laughter] So first of all humectants. So humectant is something that attracts water, typically a chemical or an ingredient that's found in skincare products as we refer to in the business, but there are natural humectants in the skin. One of which, as you mentioned, is hyaluronic acid. Humectants C is a property that skincare formulators love because by using these humectant ingredients that provide humectant C water attraction, you can make products that have moisturizing properties. In fact that's one of the main mechanisms of skin moisturization.
0:02:19.3 BF: So for example, things like Glycols, propylene glycol, butylene glycol have water-attracting properties. And you'll find them in a lot of lotions and topical products. They're also by the way, very inexpensive these ingredients. So they provide a lot of bang for your buck from a formulation aspect. And also from a consumer's aspect. You don't have to pay a lot of money and you get some really interesting or helpful skincare properties. So if you see glycol, propylene glycol, butylene glycol, those are utilized typically for their humectancy.
0:02:48.4 BF: There's some other things they do too. Glycerin is another very inexpensive humectants. Glycerin provides the benefit of being naturally found in the skin. It's always nice to use ingredients in products that are naturally found in the skin. So glycerin is a humectant that you'll see in skincare products and also is found in the skin. Probably the most important of the humectants, the natural humectants that are found in the skin comprise, what is called the natural moisture factor. Have you heard that term?
0:03:17.5 MS: Oh Yeah. Heard that term quite a bit.
0:03:19.6 BF: Yeah. It's getting a lot of buzz these days. When I first heard about the natural moisture factor in pharmacy school, I was blown away and really the chemistry of the natural moisture factor is super fascinating. The more your skin cells rise from the bottom to the top, the more natural moisture factor your skin cells will naturally produce natural moisture is factor produced in skin cells as they're rising from the bottom to the top and the corneocytes, the dead cells on the surface are packed with this natural moisture factor, which utilizes this humectant effect to attract water both from the air, from the ambient humidity, as well as from the lower levels of the skin. So the more natural moisture factor you make, the more naturally moisture or hydrated your skin will be your stratum corneum will be.
0:04:06.9 MS: So let's digress for just a second, because oftentimes we talk in aesthetics about stimulating the natural moisture factor. How do you do that?
0:04:14.8 BF: Well, the main way is to exfoliate Which is ironic. Because a lot of times people will say, "well, my skin's dry. I don't want to exfoliate, but as it turns out, exfoliation increase in the turnover time." The movement of cells from the basal layer of the epidermis up to the top, to the stratum corneum is the way the natural moisture factor is made. And interestingly the less hydrated the skin is, the drier the skin is, the less desquamation that occurs and the less natural moisture factor that you produce. So dryness induces more dryness. And the way to get around that is to use things like alpha-hydroxy acids, or retinoids to mechanically induce exfoliation, which imitates desquamation. Does that make sense to you?
0:04:57.4 MS: Oh yeah.
0:04:57.9 BF: Okay. So you'd think, "Oh, well, I don't want to exfoliate because it's going to make my skin drier." As it turns out, that's the way to stimulate the natural moisture factor. And on the other hand, the dryer your skin is, the less desquamation you have, the less turnover you're gonna have, the less natural moisture factor you're gonna have making your skin more dry. So there's a couple interesting little mechanisms there. Also you wanna make sure that you have enough nutrition to be making the natural moisture factor.
0:05:24.0 BF: And one of the most important nutrients or amino acids specifically an amino acid called arginine, another one called glutamine, those play a very important role. And then there's a really interesting molecule called Urea, which I don't know if you've heard of and that's been used in pharmacy for many years. And that also is part of the natural moisture factor complex of molecules. Now, I don't wanna imply that the natural moisture factor is the only way that the skin maintains its hydration. There's also those lipids. Those fatty acids that are like the grout between the bricks that act as the corneocytes. You've heard of this thing They call it brick and mortar.
0:06:00.3 MS: Oh yeah.
0:06:00.4 BF: Right. The corneocytes are the bricks. And then these fatty acids provide the mortar. And they're very important also for trapping water. But the natural moisture factor plays an important humectant role. And then one of my all time favorite humectant which you'll, is also inexpensive. And you'll see in a lot of products is called Pyridinecarboxylic acid also known as PCA.
0:06:20.3 MS: Okay. PCA I've heard, I have not heard the long name though.
0:06:23.3 BF: Pyridinecarboxylic acid.
0:06:24.6 MS: Interesting.
0:06:25.1 BF: Right. And mostly it's Sodium PCA. But PCA can be complex with Potassium and zinc and other ingredients and skincare products. And sometimes you'll see Zinc PCA and Potassium PCA and various other soft forms, but typically you'll see sodium PCA. And then, another really interesting humectant that's found in the skin is lactate, or alpha hydroxy acid and lactic acid. And this is one of the reasons why I love, absolutely love alpha hydroxy acids, and I have for many years, we've talked about them in the past. And while most people think of alpha hydroxy acids as being exfoliating aids, which they are, they're also humectants. Which is really cool, because you get exfoliation plus you get humectancy, particularly with the AHA called lactic acid, which is part of the natural moisture factor. The bigger the alpha hydroxy acid, the easier it is to attract water. The word for water attraction is hygroscopic. Have you heard that, hygro with a G?
0:07:20.4 MS: I have not heard that.
0:07:21.0 BF: Hygroscopic or hygroscopicity refers to how well a molecule can hold onto water, and lactic acid is probably, I would say it's the most hygroscopic of all of the alpha hydroxy acids. So lactic acids and alpha hydroxy acids in general, are very similar, just the length of the molecule is a little bit longer in lactic acid than glycolic acid. But in general, all the alpha hydroxy acids will get you some humectant properties, they're all hygroscopic. And then, we get to the molecules that you're referring to, the chief of which is called hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is a polysaccharide, it's a long chain of sugars, although, it's not exactly a polysaccharide because it's not just sugar, it also has something in it called glucosamine.
0:08:09.9 BF: It actually has... It's technically not really a polysaccharide, but it's similar, in the sense that it has a sugar like molecule. It's composed of a long chain of repeating units, and these repeating units are each composed of two parts. So you have AB, AB, AB, AB, AB, AB, AB. A, in this example, is something called glucosamine, but a very interesting form of glucosamine technically N-acetyl glucosamine, or NAG. Which is similar to the glucosamine that people take for arthritis. So it's a little bit more hygroscopic or water trapping than ordinary glucosamine. And it itself NAG, N-acetyl glucosamine has some awesome, awesome properties, health properties, not just for the skin, but for inside the body. And this... The N-acetyl glucosamine in hyaluronic acid is partially responsible for hyaluronic acids tremendous, we say in biochemistry, pleiotropic benefits. When something's pleiotropic P-L-E-I-T-R-O-P-I-C, that means it has lots of benefits. So a pleiotropic molecule has tons of benefits. And hyaluronic acid is very pleiotropic, one of the main reasons is because of this N-acetyl glucosamine part of its molecule. Does that make sense, AB, AB, AB, AB?
0:09:28.4 MS: Yeah. Yeah, I follow what you're saying.
0:09:29.9 BF: Okay.
0:09:30.0 MS: What is N-acetyl? 'Cause I've heard N-acetyl cysteine.
0:09:32.5 BF: You hear it a lot, right?
0:09:34.0 MS: Yeah.
0:09:34.4 BF: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
0:09:34.8 MS: For instance.
0:09:34.9 BF: N-acetyl refers to its biochemistry... I don't know how much you wanna get into it. But N-acetyl refers to an acetyl group, we say.
0:09:43.5 MS: Okay.
0:09:43.9 BF: Let me just make a quick digress here. I always refer to chemistry as Tinkertoys. Have you heard me talk about this?
0:09:49.9 MS: I think so. Yeah.
0:09:50.7 BF: Have you played with Tinkertoys?
0:09:51.8 MS: Well...
0:09:52.0 BF: You know what I'm talking about?
0:09:52.8 MS: No. But... [laughter]
0:09:53.3 BF: Do you know what I'm talking about?
0:09:54.5 MS: No. [laughter]
0:09:54.9 BF: You don't even know what I'm talking about, do you? That's funny because...
0:09:58.5 MS: You're talking about how they connect.
0:10:00.6 BF: Yeah, there are these toys that kids play with... And I know I'm old, I'm much older than you. But... And it's funny because I assume everybody knows what Tinkertoys are, but lately I've found that you young kids don't know what the heck I'm talking about.
0:10:14.0 MS: I don't know. Try me.
0:10:15.2 BF: Okay. It's a toy that kids played with in the '60s. Colin knows what it is.
0:10:20.5 MS: Like Lincoln Logs or something?
0:10:21.7 BF: Kinda like that, except they have sticks and they have dowels and...
0:10:26.9 MS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
0:10:29.0 BF: You know what I'm talking about.
0:10:29.6 MS: I know what that is. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
0:10:30.9 BF: But kids these days don't know what Tinkertoys are, and so I can't use that model anymore in my classes. But anyway, so chemistry is like Tinkertoys.
0:10:37.8 MS: Okay.
0:10:38.0 BF: And each part of a chemical molecule is like a Tinkertoy.
0:10:43.0 MS: Yeah.
0:10:43.5 BF: And so glucosamine is a molecule, and then imagine sticking another piece onto it.
0:10:48.3 MS: Okay.
0:10:48.9 BF: That piece is called an N-acetyl.
0:10:50.8 MS: Okay.
0:10:51.0 BF: Acetyl refers to a chemical molecule, and by sticking in an acetyl group on cysteine, or by sticking an acetyl group on glucosamine, you create a molecule that's very similar, but has a little bit of extra features.
0:11:02.0 MS: Okay.
0:11:02.4 BF: In the case of N-acetyl glucosamine, it makes the glucosamine molecule much more hygroscopic, much more water trapping. In the case of cysteine, it makes it much more bio available. So by sticking an acetyl group onto another molecule, a dowel on top of a stick, if you don't wanna use a Tinkertoy molecule... Or Tinkertoy model, you create different qualities and give the molecule different characteristics. So glucosamine is great, wonderful, but N-acetyl glucosamine, by putting that acetyl group onto the glucosamine molecule, you make it even more hygroscopic. And this hygroscopicity, this water trapping property of glucosamine or N-acetyl glucosamine makes it really powerful for healing things. When you attract water, you get a lot of healing properties. Water is the important part of the healing effect, and N-acetyl glucosamine, as it turns out is wonderful for healing the gut. And so you can use N-acetyl glucosamine internally as a way to help heal leaky gut, colitis issues, gastric issues, stomach issues. It has a nice... Like a soothing quality, a pro healing quality, and internally it's wonderful. And this accounts for a lot of the benefits of the hyaluronic acid molecule. The second part, AB, AB, AB, the B part of the hyaluronic acid molecule is something called glucorade or glucuronic acid. And glucorade or glucuronic acid is part of the body's detoxifying machinery. So glucuronate is used by the liver to detoxify various molecules, especially estrogen.
0:12:39.6 BF: And so glucuronate, delta glucuronate or delta glucuronic acid, which you can get at a, in a health food store, is great for women who are dealing with estrogenic issues, estrogenic reproductive issues, PMS, dysmenorrhea, fibroid, cysts, also to protect against estrogenic cancers, because it helps detoxify estrogen. So hyaluronic acid we'll get into that in a second here, is awesome, has great benefits on its own, but even the components of hyaluronic acid are tremendously beneficial internally, as well as externally in the form of hyaluronic acid, which is known as a really powerful humectant, probably nature, or at least the body's most important humectant. And you probably heard this, that a gram of hyaluronic acid can hold a thousand grams of water, hyaluronic acid holds a thousand times it's weight in water, which is really remarkable. I mean, if you take like speck of hyaluronic acid and you pour a quad of water on it, that Hyaluronic acid will absorb that water, and you'll get a big gooey hyaluronic acid gel matrix. So it's hyaluronic acid has been used really for a long time as a water trapping molecule, but it's also wonderful internally.
0:13:51.2 BF: It's pleiotropic, in fact as good as it is topically. And we can... We'll get in that here in a second, it's got really interesting benefits internally. In fact, it is a powerful anti-aging molecule, one of the best, and personally, I take a gram of it every day, at least a gram, sometimes two grams of it every day. And I recommend even if you're not sick to take a gram of it every day, just as an anti-aging molecule, the breakdown of hyaluronic acid is one of the hallmark signs of aging. So supplementing with hyaluronic acid, you could buy in a health food store, these days that's pretty remarkable because when I graduated pharmacy school, we talked about hyaluronic acid, but we didn't really have it available as an ingredient because it was crazy expensive, because hyaluronic acid is only found in animals. And there was no real laboratory protocols or industrial protocols for making it until very recently.
0:14:39.3 BF: I'll tell you how that happens here in a sec, so we have to get it from animals, particularly in rooster combs, is where it was found. And it would cost like a $1000 for a tiny little bit of it, like a gram would cost a 1000 or $2,000. And in the lab I worked in, I remember it was under lock and key, and we have to be very, very careful with it because it's more expensive than gold, a lot more expensive than gold. So these days it's made by fermentation, where you take a bacteria and you insert a gene into that bacteria, that gene induces the production of hyaluronic acid, and the bacteria is essentially a hyaluronic acid factory, except they have trillions of bacteria making hyaluronic acid, and then you just scrape it off the top. And so hyaluronic acid, because it's so functional and now it's so cheap, is found everywhere and you can see it on commercials and you see it in all kinds of products, and people are talking about it. If you go on YouTube, there's zillions of videos on hyaluronic acid and how to you use it, etcetera, etcetera. And it's interesting because while hyaluronic acid is incredibly important inside the body, topically, it's not all that.
0:15:42.7 MS: Really. Okay, that's interesting.
0:15:43.6 BF: It's got... It's an interesting hygroscopic ingredient, it will absorb water, and it will soften the stratum corneum and you'll get some nice... What we say plasticizing effects on the stratum corneum, but it's not like gonna change your life, hyaluronic acid. It has some nice effects that is true, but it's not going to cause any... It's not gonna stimulate growth. For example, it's not gonna have real anti-aging effects in a topical product, they can inject it, and if you inject hyaluronic acid, you get some filling benefits or you can get some stimulatory benefits. And that's used in the joints for treating arthritis and for treating joint disease. The joints are one of the main places where you'll find hyaluronic acid, I'm not saying it's a bad ingredient, it's not, but it's just, it's overrated in a lot of ways, it does have some benefits, in the skin, it's produced in the connected tissue in the skin, in the dermis. And as I say, degradation of hyaluronic acid is one of the signs of aging. So sometimes people will say, "Ah, well, then I should put it on my skin and it'll improve my hyaluronic acid." That doesn't necessarily work, but topically or on the stratum corneum on the surface, you can get some plasticizing effects and it feels good on the skin, has a nice feel on the skin. You may have heard of the different molecular weights of hyaluronic acid, have you heard of this?
0:16:57.3 MS: Mm-hmm, yeah.
0:16:58.5 BF: So those refer to the chain length, remember I was saying hyaluronic acid is a chain, AB, AB, AB. Well, it turns out that your body can cleave that long chain, and create different sizes of hyaluronic acid. So your cells will make... And by the way, hyaluronic acid is made in the connected tissue in the dermis, and it's also made in the epidermis. So keratinocytes will also make hyaluronic acid, in addition to the fibroblast and the epidermis, as well as the dermis contains hyaluronic acid.
0:17:29.6 BF: And this is something a lot of people don't realize because most people think of hyaluronic acid as being a dermal ingredient, a connective tissue ingredient, which it is, but it's also found in the epidermis. And there are enzymes in the skin that will cleave that hyaluronic acid to create different sizes, and these different sizes are referred to as molecular weights. They weigh them, so you have low molecular weight, hyaluronic acid, which has different characteristics than high molecular weight, hyaluronic acid. For a long time, most hyaluronic acid that you found in skincare products was high molecular weight, and that's the more natural form in the sense that that's the kind... I don't want to say natural. That's the more native form, that's the kind of that the cells produce, then enzymes will cleave that hyaluronic acid molecular weight, hyaluronic acid into shorter, shorter chunks low molecular weight. High molecular weight is the kind that really absorbs water, it's the kind that forms a film on the surface of the skin, and that's the kind you'll find in most skincare products. However, these days, skincare companies are always looking for something new, you'll find either low molecular weight hyaluronic acid, which is smaller and shorter or lighter and shorter. And so it will penetrate a little bit more effectively.
0:18:41.7 BF: And so some skincare companies are now saying, well, we use low molecular weight, or now you'll have high Hyaluronic acid products at different sizes, different molecular weights in their product. The high molecular weights is gonna do most of the heavy lifting in a skincare product. The low molecular weight will penetrate a little bit deeper, but the low molecular weight tends to be pro-inflammatory. And the high molecular weight is anti-inflammatory. In fact, there's, you know, some kind of misinformation out there about Hyaluronic acid and cancer, because it's known that cancer cells will utilize Hyaluronic acid as part of their growth process. So some people say, well, Hyaluronic acid may cause cancer. That's not true at all.
0:19:23.3 MS: But because Hyaluronic acid is involved in cell growth and cell division. In fact, it triggers cell growth and cell division, particularly the low molecular weight form. There's some thinking that it may be involved in cancer, but that's very unlikely. More likely it can have some pro-inflammatory effects, although I'm pretty sure they use the low and I don't want to be... Don't quote me on this, but I'm pretty sure it's the low molecular weight that they use for the injectable form of Hyaluronic acid. And that's really where Hyaluronic acid has its most prominent benefits in dermatology, is not as top... Not in a topical product, that's more for skincare for estheticians, but for doctors or plastic surgeons or people who use injections, the fillers are really where you'll find Hyaluronic acid like Juvederm ____.
0:20:11.9 MS: These different molecular weights, does that impact its ability to absorb or hold moisture?
0:20:17.2 BF: Yeah. Yeah the high molecular weights, it's a bigger molecule. So you're gonna have more spaces for water to get trapped. And that's the kind that has the most water trapping and what we say in the business film-forming, have you heard of that term?
0:20:29.7 MS: Yeah.
0:20:30.0 BF: It will form a film on the surface of the skin. So it has a tightening effect and you'll find it in eye products and tightening kinds of products. It's a little pricey for a film-former, but because it has these pleiotropic benefits, it's softens the skin, moisturizes the skin. It is a nice... You'll find it on eye creams and tightening types of products. Speaking of the eyes, the eyes are actually one of the main places where you'll find Hyaluronic acid in the body. Your eyes are really loaded. In fact, I think the eyes, eyeballs are mostly Hyaluronic acid, wherever the body needs to trap water. Wherever there has to be a lot of moisture, you'll find Hyaluronic acid because it's such a wonderful hygroscopic molecule. If you squeeze your earlobe you kind of feel it... Or the tip of your nose, you kind of feel how it's spongy. A lot of that is Hyaluronic acid. A lot of the portion of cartilage or a large... Hyaluronic acid is a major constituent of cartilage is what I'm trying to say.
0:21:24.9 MS: Does hyaluronic acid or humectants in general ever have the ability to dry the skin? Like for instance, here in Colorado where there's no moisture in there it has nothing to pull from except...
0:21:35.2 BF: Yes.
0:21:35.7 MS: From the body itself.
0:21:35.8 BF: You know that's a really interesting question. 'Cause a lot of people will say, "Oh, I used that Hyaluronic acid product and it actually dried my skin." Well, it's not so much that it dries your skin. Hyaluronic acid can theoretically pull moisture out from the bottom. 'Cause remember humectants will pull moisture. So Hyaluronic acid as well as glycerin, propylene, Glyco-urea. They may pull more water out of the bottom if there's not a lot of water on the top. In other words, if there's not a lot of ambience humidity water, so they're not pulling, it's not pulling moisture at the top, it'll pull moisture outta of the bottom. And so it may induce a little bit of dryness in that respect, but what most people are thinking of dryness when they apply either Hyaluronic acid or another humectant is a tightening effect. And that sometimes gets misconstrued as dryness, that tight feeling. But it's not gonna actually cause you to lose water, except for maybe a little bit of water that gets pulled out from the bottom. If there's no ambient water, ambient humidity moisture for it to pull it out from the top. So I wouldn't worry about it causing dryness, but you can... It can cause a tightening effect which can be perceived as dryness.
0:22:41.6 MS: Would you ever not combine something like Hyaluronic acid with other ingredients like don't combine with retinol for instance.
0:22:49.0 BF: Yeah. It's basically a no, it has a stimulating effect on wound healing. So it's great on wounds Hyaluronic acid. Infact, it's used in wound healing gels, because it can help stimulate the healing process, particularly low molecular weight, which is pro-inflammatory, which means it starts the healing process. But no, I, I, you can pre... That's one of the, one of its features that you can really mix it with a lot of other ingredients because it doesn't really interfere with chemistry that much. It doesn't really have a, it doesn't really have a chemical profile. It does have a active biochemical profile, but it doesn't have an active cosmetic chemical profile.
0:23:23.5 MS: That wraps our show for today. But if you just can't get enough of Ben Fuchs and the rogue pharmacist, you can listen to his syndicated radio program at brightsideben.com. For more information on this episode, or for ways to connect with Ben Fuchs or to learn more about ASCP, check out the show notes.Page Break