Hyaluronic acid has been skincare’s most-hyped hydrator for years – but it’s about to get knocked off its perch by electrolytes

Thanks to the joys of face mask-wearing, stress, pollution, and over-enthusiastic, stripping skincare habits, more and more people suffer from dehydrated skin: skin that has trouble holding on to all-important, cell-plumping water. Even combination and oily skins can be dehydrated: if yours has the infuriating tendency to look oily, but feel decidedly taut and uncomfortable underneath its sheen of sebum, it needs moisture, pronto.

But no, downing pints of aqua won’t solve the problem. And as anyone who feels decidedly parched by 2pm despite wearing face cream or serum knows, a properly long-lasting moisturiser is not as easy to come by as it may seem.

Even potions with much-hyped moisture-magnet hyaluronic acid (retains 1000x its weight in water, as you’ve surely read before) are proving to come up short in the all-day hydration stakes – in some circumstances, they can even make skin drier.

Thankfully, the race has been on to cook upskin quenchers that do go the distance, and the best feature electrolytes – yes, of Lucozade sports drinks-fame. If that sounds like the latest bit of skincare pseudo-science, you may be surprised…

Irrigation station

The greatest head-scratcher for skincare formulators is to get active ingredients past the surface of the skin, whose job after all it is to protect the body from outside invaders.
Surprisingly, even water doesn’t exactly get absorbed without a fight. Particularly when your skin’s protective lipid barrier, which is supposed to trap moisture in the outer skin layers, doesn’t work very efficiently – as is the case when you have dehydrated or dry skin. It means any moisture you apply topically is quick to leach back out again and evaporate, leaving you with that tight feeling halfway through the day.

But even if moisture does get duly trapped on the surface, the struggle to quench the entirety of your skin isn’t over. Throughout your skin’s many layers lies a web of microscopic channels called ‘aquaporins’, whose job it is to evenly distribute moisture, down to the deepest depths, in order for skin to stay supple and plump.

Think of it as an in-built irrigation network through which water can flow, but it doesn’t just happen automatically. When skin is compromised by, say, stress, unhealthy living or ageing, the sprinkler system can start to falter.

“Water, alongside skin hydrating agents like hyaluronic acid and glycerine, needs help to be able to flow liberally through these channels,” says Paula Begoun of Paula’s Choice skincare. And here is where those electrolytes come in.

“Electrolytes are ingredients that, once mixed with fluids, create an electrical charge,” says Begoun. “They help hydrators (and other active ingredients swimming along) get to where they are needed, and in exactly the right amount.”

Keeping skin’s moisture levels balanced is a delicate process: you don’t want your cells gasping for water, but you don’t want them to be drowned either. Electrolytes function as the finely tuned distribution system that ensures the balance is struck just right. And it’s not just about moisture but about repair as well: skin must be well-hydrated for its regenerative processes to function properly. So electrolytes really are essential for healthy, glowing skin.

Mind your minerals

So how do you spot an electrolyte? Well, they are mainly minerals: think magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium, and more. But that doesn’t mean any mineral-rich skin cream functions as an aquaporin-boosting superhydrator.

”For electrolytes of any kind to get past skin’s surface and dissolve inside the aquaporin channels, they need to be tied to specific ‘skin-identical molecules’,” says Begoun. Examples of these Trojan horse-like agents are pyroglutamic acid (PCA), lactate, and gluconate. So, what you need to be looking for on your ingredient list are terms such as sodium PCA, potassium lactate, or copper gluconate.

That also means it’s worth casting a beady eye over products boasting ‘electrolyte-charged’ coconut water or seaweed. “They are great sources of electrolytes – when you drink or eat them,” says Begoun. “But in skincare, make sure they’re formulated with PCA or one of its brethren to get the electrolyte benefits.” That isn’t to say seaweed and algae by themselves should be discounted as a skincare ingredient: they are great pollution-absorbing and soothing agents and humectants, meaning they bind moisture to the skin’s surface for weightless, oil-free hydration. But for lasting quenching that builds long-term moisture reserves inside your skin, look no further than these electrolyte dreams.


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