They’re both anti-aging superstar ingredients, but which one is right for your skin? What’s the difference between hyaluronic acid vs retinol? Do you need both? Can you use hyaluronic acid with retinol at the same time?
Hyaluronic acid is a glycosaminoglycan (GAG) – a type of sugar – that can hold up to 1000x its weight in water. It is found naturally throughout your body but over 50% of your total body hyaluronic acid is found in your skin.
Hyaluronic acid is one of the main components of your dermis, alongside collagen and elastin, where it increases the firmness and bounciness (elasticity) of your skin through its hydrating effects.
It’s also a key component in your skin’s natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) which help regulate water in and out of the individual skin cells in your epidermis.
As you age, your body produces less hyaluronic acid which can reduce the volume of your dermis and your epidermal skin cells as well as decreasing overall skin hydration.
Visually, this can be seen as dry, cracked, and irritated skin with less bounce and more visible fine lines, wrinkles, and pores.
Topical hyaluronic acid mimics your skin’s NMFs and acts as a humectant to draw water from your dermis into your epidermis. However, increasing hyaluronic acid within your dermis usually requires the use of fillers (HA injected directly into your dermis), or through microchannels created through treatments like microneedling.
Humectants, like hyaluronic acid, act differently depending on your environment. It excels in a humid environment as it can draw the moisture from the air around you into your skin. However, in dry climates, it can only draw water from your dermis into your epidermis and, if this water is not sealed into your skin with an occlusive (e.g. a heavier moisturizer), it can escape through your dermis and actually dehydrate your skin.
Retinol is a form of retinoid (a catch-all term for vitamin A derivatives) that converts to its active form (retinoic acid) when it penetrates your skin. It has a wide range of benefits for your skin and is often used to treat acne, hyperpigmentation, and the signs of aging.
These benefits are mainly down to its ability to increase skin cell turnover and boost collagen, as well as its potent antioxidant properties.
Unfortunately, retinoids, like retinol, are renowned for causing skin irritation – particularly when starting out.
Not only can this irritation cause people to stop using retinoids altogether, but they can also severely damage your skin barrier which may make your skin condition worse and can take months – sometimes even years – to fix.
As retinol has to convert to retinoic acid, it’s one of the gentler forms of retinoid and usually causes less irritation.
Hyaluronic Acid vs Retinol
There isn’t really much of a competition between hyaluronic acid vs retinol because they are completely different ingredients with completely different effects.
If you’re looking to increase skin hydration then hyaluronic acid is your go-to-gal. However, retinol is one of the only skincare ingredients scientifically-proven to alter your skin at a cellular level and takes the crown as the best anti-aging, anti-acne, and anti-pigmentation ingredient.
The good news is that it doesn’t really matter which ones better because you don’t have to choose between hyaluronic acid vs retinol – you can use them both!
Can You Use Hyaluronic Acid with Retinol?
Yes! You absolutely can!
In fact, it’s an excellent combination!
Because of its hydrating properties, hyaluronic acid can help reduce the irritation experienced with retinol. Plus, while retinol increases the rate that new skin cells are produced and brought to the surface of your skin, it doesn’t actually exfoliate skin (any peeling seen with retinol use is due to irritation).
In order for dead skin cells to be shed from the surface of your skin (your skin’s natural exfoliation process), the bonds between the skin cells have to be broken down. While chemical exfoliants can help speed up this process, your skin actually does a pretty good job of exfoliating itself without their help – as long as it is adequately hydrated!
This means that hyaluronic acid may actually enhance the effects of retinol by facilitating exfoliation.
In one clinical study, a cream containing retinol and hyaluronic acid significantly improved the signs of sun damage, including wrinkles, brown spots, and radiance, after 8 weeks of use. Furthermore, these results were still evident 4 weeks after ending the use of the product.
But that’s not all, this complementary relationship is actually a two-way street…
Research suggests that retinol is able to increase all three types of hyaluronic acid that are naturally present in your skin as well as increasing the production of hyaluronic acid in your dermis!
However, this was over a 52-week study period and a year is a long time to wait for hydrated skin.
Luckily, hyaluronic acid increases skin hydration almost instantly so using it alongside retinol means that you can keep your skin hydrated while it’s busy creating its own hyaluronic acid.
How To Use Hyaluronic Acid with Retinol
There are a number of different ways that you can use hyaluronic acid with retinol. The simplest of which is to use a product that combines both ingredients for you.
- La Roche Posay Retinol B3 Serum (bonus ingredient = niacinamide)
- RoC Retinol Correxion Max Daily Hydration Crème
However, it’s just as simple to layer the ingredients yourself. For example, you could use a hyaluronic acid gel moisturizer like the Neutrogena Hydroboost Water Gel followed by a retinol cream (double moisturizing is a great way to reduce the risk of skin irritation) or just use a hyaluronic acid serum followed by a retinol serum.
It doesn’t really matter which way round you use them either. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not going to make a huge difference.
However, ideally, hyaluronic acid should be used on damp skin as it draws moisture into your skin – plus, it’s often easier for ingredients to penetrate damp skin than it is for them to penetrate dry skin.
With this in mind, to reduce the risk of irritation, retinol should ideally be applied to dry skin.
So if you prefer a bit of order to your skincare routine, here’s how it may look (some retinoids are deactivated by sunlight so it’s always best to use them in the evening and the following is a suggested PM routine):
- Cleanse your face using a gentle pH-balanced cleanser
- Apply hyaluronic acid serum or moisturizer to damp skin
- Allow time to dry (serums and gel moisturizers will absorb/dry faster)
- Apply retinol serum/moisturizer
- If using a retinol serum, follow with a heavier moisturizer (preferably one with ceramides to help strengthen your skin barrier).
An added bonus of using hyaluronic acid prior to retinol is that it can also act as a buffer to help reduce skin irritation.
Summary – Can You Use Hyaluronic Acid with Retinol?
Hyaluronic acid and retinol are two popular anti-aging ingredients that play well together. Hyaluronic acid can help reduce the irritation commonly experienced with retinol and facilitate exfoliation.
Retinol can also increase the amount of hyaluronic acid that your skin naturally produces but it takes quite some time!
If you’re planning on adding retinol into your skincare routine, make sure you start slow. For example:
- Weeks 1&2 – one night a week
- Weeks 3&4 – two nights a week
- Weeks 4&5 – three nights a week
- Weeks 6&7 – four nights a week
- Weeks 8&9 – five nights a week
- Weeks 10&11 – six nights a week
- Week 12 onwards – every night
Remember that you don’t actually have to use retinol every night to see results and 1-3x a week is often enough (and probably preferable if you have sensitive skin).
Laura is a skincare addict and sunscreen enthusiast with more than 10 years of experience working in healthcare and over 5 years of experience working as a nurse. She has experience in plastic and reconstructive surgery, dermatology, and aesthetics and has received training in laser treatments. Laura is currently working in healthcare education and writes for ScienceBecomesHer in her spare time. Read More.