Retinol vs Hyaluronic Acid: What’s the Story?

Trying to keep up with modern skincare products and the latest celebrated ingredients can be overwhelming.

Two of the biggest names in the last decade have to be retinol and hyaluronic acid, with people often wondering whether one or both of them should be adding to their routine.

What’s the difference between retinol vs hyaluronic acid?

Hyaluronic acid is a moisturizer at its core, while retinol is focused on cell renewal. You might find results adding one of these to a skincare routine or using both of them together, but it should be done in the right order and with consideration for the other products you use.

As with any skincare solution, you need to learn all you can to see if it’s a smart fit for you and your skin before you start applying it.

We’ve compared retinol and hyaluronic acid where they matter, giving you an answer once and for all which of these can help you reach your skincare goals.

What Is Retinol?

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Retinol is classified as a retinoid and is a form of vitamin A.

This protein has become a staple ingredient in many skin care products today, predominantly those that focus on renewing and refreshing the skin, so you’ll commonly find it in moisturizers, serums, and face oils.

There are two types of related components discussed when talking about skincare: retinol and retinoid.

Retinoid is a highly concentrated form that’s can be prescribed only by a healthcare professional to treat serious cases of acne and retinol is the over-the-counter form that you find in skincare products targeted towards anti-aging and acne treatment. 

Retinol has become one of the most commonly used ingredients in skincare and it often works better when combined with other components, including hyaluronic acid and niacinamide. Read on here to find out if you can use niacinamide with retinol?

The powerful protein is packed full of antioxidants and has loads of benefits for all skin types and concerns to enjoy, which is why it’s so popular today. 

The Good

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Helps with collagen and elastin production

The addition of retinol to the skin can actually boost the production of collagen and elastin underneath it.

When you have more of these, your skin will have more elasticity and be plumper, which are both the keys to looking younger than you are.

Smooths skin tone

Anyone with issues regarding their skin tone, including unsightly dark spots, hyperpigmentation, or a look of dull or fading skin can turn to retinol for help.

As this key protein actively speeds up the cell renewal process within your body, you’ll be able to create new layers of skin and erase the old and uneven ones.

Stops aging signs

Fine lines and wrinkles are two of the biggest culprits when it comes to aging and retinol can target them specifically.

This product can target the lines to smooth them out and plump the skin around them, and people who use it regularly in the right type of skincare product notice a huge difference in the severity of their wrinkles.

The Bad

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Requires patience

Retinol isn’t the type of skincare product you can lather on at full force and expect results, and doing so will likely lead to negative side effects.

You need to be slow with retinol and apply a lighter concentration at first, building up to the desired amount and frequency over a few months. If you’re impatient when trying new skincare products, this might not be for you.

Sun sensitivity

The addition of retinol to the skin will change how it reacts with natural sunlight and UV rays.

If you’re using retinol in the morning you have to be especially careful and use a broad-spectrum SPF to prevent your skin from being damaged.

Dry skin

A common complaint when using retinol for the first time is that skin starts to dry out after just the first application.

Those with dry skin types or who are sensitive to harsher products will want to follow up with a heavy duty moisturizer that can counteract this.

Peeling skin

As a product that renews cells, it’s normal for some people to experience mild skin peeling when they start using retinol, and others may feel a mild tingling or burning.

If the thought of this makes you uncomfortable, find a gentler ingredient that your skin won’t react to.

What Is Hyaluronic Acid?

retinol vs hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is an amino sugar, or glycosaminoglycan, and is another popular skincare ingredient but also something that’s found naturally within the human body.

This acid is capable of binding up to 100 times its weight in water and is classed as a humectant because of its ability to retain and preserve moisture.

One of the reasons why hyaluronic acid has been so popular in skincare ingredients today is because of its accessibility and how well skin reacts to it.

As one of the most accessible components that’s biocompatible with the body, you can lather it onto your face each night and even though you’re making less of the compound naturally as you age, you can still get great moisture-retaining results.

The main role of hyaluronic acid is moisturization and you’ll commonly find it in products like serums or moisturizers that share the same goal.

People often mistake the ingredient for something harsh because of the ‘acid’ in its name, but the reverse is actually true, and it should be used for how nourishing it is to the skin.

The Good 

retinol vs hyaluronic acid

Heals wounds

Anyone with acne scars will be pleased to know that hyaluronic acid works on them as well.

This wonder ingredient can reduce inflammation on the skin and inhibit bacteria growth, giving your skin the chance to restore to its former glory.

Anti-aging properties

Having softer skin with fewer noticeable wrinkles means looking younger than you already do, and hyaluronic acid can do just that.

This component can plump up the skin, add moisture, and improve skin elasticity so it’s one of the best options for slowing down the signs of aging.


At its core, the biggest benefit of hyaluronic acid is that it’s moisturizing. As a humectant, it draws moisture in and holds it there, so you’re guaranteed a softer and more supple complexion.

The Bad

retinol vs hyaluronic acid

May irritate

Even though it sounds gentle, there have been reports of people experiencing side effects with hyaluronic acid, usually when it’s mixed with the wrong thing.

If you’ve never tried it before and notice signs of redness, irritation, or a rash developing, you may need to rethink how you’re using it.

Won’t erase spots

Although it does a lot for moisturization, it’s not a wonder cure that will erase dark spots and smooth your complexion.

Most people couple hyaluronic acid with another ingredient that does this to get the best results.

Draws moisture incorrectly

As a humectant, hyaluronic acid draws moisture towards it and retains it.

However, when your skin is very dry and there’s not much moisture in the air, it could be drawing this from the deeper layers of your skin instead, having an adverse effect.

How Do They Compare?

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Retinol and hyaluronic acid each bring something to a potential skincare routine.

To determine what that is and what they might have to offer you, we’ve compared their similarities and differences for a better understanding.

Their Similarities

  • Both products have become popular in skincare and are regularly used as part of an everyday treatment. You can use them either day or night, depending on your routine, and there’s no harm in everyday use.
  • Retinol and hyaluronic acid are easily accessible compounds and they’re relatively affordable ingredients. The body reacts well to them and they’re considered gentle enough for most skin types, so it’s usual to find them in most products.

Their Differences

  • Retinol targets the deeper layers of the skin and gets to work there while hyaluronic acid is focused on the upper layers of the skin. This difference can make them an effective combination if you get it right.
  • Hyaluronic acid is more about moisturizing the skin whereas retinol is about renewing it. Each has a role to play in a skincare routine but you should never use one in place of the other and expect the same results.
  • Dry skin types would benefit more from using hyaluronic acid, even though it can be used by all skin types. Everyone would do well incorporating retinol into their daily skincare routine, though.

Tips for Combining Retinol and Hyaluronic Acid

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A fully developed skincare routine should use a little of each of the best ingredients possible, but only when done in the right way.

There are great results possible when you combine retinol and hyaluronic acid but you’ll need to follow some tips on how to make sure you’re doing it right.

Get expert advice

Check with a dermatologist if you’re choosing two different products and combining them together, without being recommended by a skincare brand.

More potent concentrations of these products can be too much for some skin types to handle, especially if you’ve never used them before.

Know the right order

Always double cleanse and dry your face first, and apply a toner following this if you choose to. Start with the retinol on your face first and allow it to be absorbed fully, for around 20 minutes.

Then, you can apply the hyaluronic acid to your face, giving this time to absorb as well.

Keep it to the evening

Retinol is better left for nighttime use because it can react with UV rays. However, you can use hyaluronic acid in the morning with your other products if you wish to, and simply leave the retinol for the evenings.

Wash your hands

Always wash your hands thoroughly after applying any skincare products, but especially retinol.

If you accidentally rub this into your eye, it can burn, and you don’t want to accidentally mix it in with any of your other skincare products.

Which One Should You Use?

As two products that do something completely different and each have amazing benefits, you should never have to choose between retinol and hyaluronic acid.

The best approach is to introduce them one at a time into your skincare routine and wait to see the results, and if your skin needs it, find a smart way to incorporate both of them into the mix.

Related Questions

Finding the right combination of skincare ingredients that work for you specifically can be harder than it sounds.

The best way to get started is by learning all that you can about some of the most commonly used components in skincare today, so read on for a few FAQs that can help.

Is LHA an Exfoliant?

LHA, or beta-lipo hydroxy acid, is a derivative of salicylic acid and a popular mode of exfoliation in skincare products.

As a gentler option for exfoliation, people find it useful for sensitive skin, and it can lift dead skin cells away to reveal a cleaner and smoother surface on your face.

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