For as long as I can remember, hydration has been my top skincare priority. I've got combination skin that skews dry, especially in the winter, so I'm known to reach for serums packed with ingredients that impart a glistening, quenched glow. As such, I'm an admitted hyaluronic acid lover.
For quite some time now, this water-attracting skincare ingredient has been one of my favorites for infusing oceanic levels of hydration into my skin. If I see the ingredient in a serum or moisturizer, I'm that much more likely to buy it. I just love the stuff, so you can imagine my chagrin to have to confront the fact that hyaluronic acid isn't the only (or even the most effective) hydrating ingredient out there. "[Hyaluronic acid] has been used forever but has really gotten buzzy this past year," says Renée Rouleau, celebrity esthetician and CEO of her namesake skincare line. "I think there is a renewed focus with skin on hydration and barrier repair, and this ingredient is just riding the trend wave online and winning the popularity contest because of this. There are other comparable and better ingredients."
Before any of you come for me in my DMs (yes, that really happens), I'm not telling anyone to chuck their HA serum in the trash. In fact, don't! "Hyaluronic acid tends to be less expensive to use in formulations, so it is hyped much more, but it has a great plumping effect due to its carrying 1000 times its weight in water," says Celeste Hilling, CEO and founder of Skin Authority. So it's not as if HA is useless (it occurs naturally in our skin for a reason), but according to both Rouleau and Hilling, it's just not the hydration be-all and end-all we've been lead to believe it is. (Marketing at its finest!)
Ahead, check out seven expert-approved ingredient substitutions to look for in serums that will leave your skin happy and hydrated. Then, keep scrolling for even more of the best hydrating serums out there—including some cult favorites you'll definitely want to try.
1. Tremella Fuciformis
You might have seen this ingredient labeled as silver ear mushroom or snow mushroom, but they're all nicknames for the same hydrating polysaccharide extracted from Chinese silver ear mushrooms. "It provides five times the hydration of hyaluronic acid," Rouleau explains. This Moon Juice Plump Jelly Serum features the ingredient alongside hyaluronic acid and definitely lives up to its name.
Rouleau describes trehalose as an antioxidant found in resurrection plants native to desert climates. "When desert plants dehydrate from lack of water, this molecule takes the place of moisture within the plant’s cells," she says. "Once water comes in contact again with the dehydrated plant, trehalose absorbs the water, filling out the plant’s dehydrated cells without damage to the internal or membrane structures, even if the plant has been dormant for centuries. It helps repair dehydrated skin and protects against future moisture loss." This ultra-hydrating serum from her own line contains the nourishing ingredient alongside the silver ear mushroom mentioned above and other vitamins and antioxidants.
This multiuse ingredient has shown up in conversations about treating acne, as some recent research has touted its wound-healing and anti-inflammatory properties. Above all, though, it's known as a serious humectant. Rouleau explains that panthenol, a provitamin B5 (our bodies naturally convert it to vitamin B5), holds hydration within the skin cells to return the skin’s moisture level to normal after experiencing dehydration or imbalance.
4. Sodium Hyaluronate
If this ingredient reads similar to hyaluronic acid to you, that's because sodium hyaluronate is basically its little sister. "It's a bioactive salt form of hyaluronic acid," Rouleau clarifies. It works just like HA in that it binds 1000 times its weight in water to the skin's surface but with a couple of very important distinctions.
"You’ll see sodium hyaluronate used more frequently in products than hyaluronic acid. This is because it has a smaller molecular size, meaning it penetrates the skin more deeply, so the skin can absorb it more efficiently," Rouleau explains. "In addition, because it’s in a salt form, sodium hyaluronate tends to be more stable and less likely to oxidize. This ingredient is excellent for repairing a damaged moisture barrier and preventing transepidermal water loss caused by overexfoliation, dry climate, or sun exposure." This famous serum from Neutrogena, known as one of the leading HA serums, actually employs sodium hyaluronate.
5. Sodium PCA
Speaking of the stability of ingredients in salt form, sodium PCA is another one Rouleau says is great at hydrating the skin. "Sodium PCA is the sodium salt form of pyroglutamic acid—also known as the amino acid proline. It's thought to be 1.5 times more effective at hydrating the skin than glycerin, also an excellent hydrating ingredient," she explains. This hydrating serum by PCA Skin (the PCA here and the PCA in the aforementioned ingredient don't mean the same thing, by the way) is deeply hydrating due to its sodium PCA, HA, and glycerin content and boosts collagen and increases firmness with fructose and wheat germ extract.
As Rouleau mentioned just moments ago and as many other skincare experts have noted along the way, glycerin is another humectant that's seriously well suited for pulling water into the skin. Hilling agrees with this, noting that the ingredient can also be used to soothe irritated skin. Glycerin and HA work in tandem to provide max moisture in this trusted drugstore option, which features Vichy's signature mineral-rich volcanic water.
You may not immediately think of antioxidants when considering hydration, but according to Hilling, you should. "Skin dryness is often a result of free radical damage caused by environmental exposure to light, pollution, or climate. Antioxidants are powerful combatants to ward against free radical damage and protect the skin’s moisture balance," she says. A few key antioxidants to look out for are vitamin C, vitamin B3, pycnogenol, green tea extract, and grape extract. To the same end, Hilling recommends staying on top of your SPF protection as well since UVA and UVB rays from the sun cause free radical damage that can manifest in dry skin. Give the Skin Authority SkinSuit ($59) a try.
More Top-Rated Hydrating Serums
This beloved serum from The Ordinary features hydration heavy hitters hyaluronic acid and vitamin B5. Hilling calls out the large size of HA molecules as one of the reasons it's not actually the best skin hydrator out there, but this formula contains a cross-linked form of hyaluronic acid that's supposed to enhance the delivery of the ingredient into the skin.
Like the cheaper counterpart we just talked about, this serum by Dr. Barbara Sturm employs some innovation to make sure the hero ingredient, HA, lives up to its full potential. It has both long-chain and short-chain HA in it to ensure its absorption into deeper layers of the skin. Additionally, antioxidant-rich purslane protects the skin cells against free radicals.
Hydration isn't the main goal this serum seeks to achieve, but it does a really great job of tackling it. While it's mainly meant to address skin firmness, texture, and tone via echinacea stem cells and alpine rose, glycerin and sodium hyaluronate make it insanely hydrating as well.
The SkinCeuticals vitamin C serum gets a lot of shine, but this hydrating gel serum is pretty fantastic as well. HA is amped up by B5 (the alcohol analog of pantothenic acid), and together, the two hero ingredients plump the skin beyond belief. Plus, it's the perfect complement to the famous C E Ferulic serum.
Though Bioderma is better known for its iconic micellar water, this serum deserves some shine, too. It helps to maintain hydration and restore radiance in the skin via hyaluronic acid, xylitol, and glycerin.