One of the most common questions I get asked on my Instagram account is whether it is ok to layer certain skincare ingredients and, if so, what’s the best way to do it. For example, should you use hyaluronic acid before or after retinol?
The short answer is that it depends mainly on what type of products you’re using.
However, here’s the longer answer…
In order to understand whether you should use hyaluronic acid before or after retinol, it’s important to understand what each ingredient is, what it does, and how it’s best used.
Hyaluronic acid is a glycosaminoglycan (GAG) – a type of sugar – that can hold up to 1000x its weight in water. It’s found naturally all throughout your body but over 50% of your body’s HA is found in your skin.
It’s one of the main components of your dermis (the deeper layer of your skin), alongside collagen and elastin. Here, it helps increase the firmness and elasticity of your skin via its hydrating effects.
Hyaluronic acid is also present in your skin’s natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) which are your skin’s natural humectants that help regulate water in and out of the 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 and wrinkles.
When you apply hyaluronic acid to your skin, it acts as a humectant to draw water from your dermis into your epidermis. Humectants act differently depending on your environment. In humid environments, humectants can draw the moisture from the air around you into your skin but in dry climates they’re only able to draw water from your dermis.
Which is why it’s recommended to apply hyaluronic acid to damp skin and follow with an occlusive ingredient to prevent that water from escaping through your epidermis and dehydrating your skin.
Retinol is part of a group of vitamin A derivatives called retinoids that have to convert to their active form of retinoic acid when they enter your skin. They can help treat a wide-range of skin conditions, including acne, hyperpigmentation, and the signs of aging.
These benefits are mainly down to retinol’s ability to increase cellular turnover (the rate that your skin produces new skin cells), boost collagen production, as well as its antioxidant properties.
Unfortunately, retinoids, like retinol, are renowned for causing skin irritation, particularly when you first start using them.
Not only can this irritation cause people to stop using retinoids altogether, it can damage your skin barrier which might make your skin condition worse.
As retinol has to go through a few conversions to get to retinoic acid, it’s one of the more gentler forms of retinoids and usually causes less irritation.
Can You Use Hyaluronic Acid and Retinol Together?
Absolutely! In fact, it’s an excellent combination.
Hyaluronic acid’s hydrating properties mean that it can help reduce the irritation that’s commonly 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 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 the hyaluronic acid that is 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.
So, should you use hyaluronic acid before or after retinol?
Should You Use Hyaluronic Acid Before Or After Retinol?
Ideally, hyaluronic acid should be applied to damp skin as it can help draw that moisture into your skin. Plus, it’s easier for skincare ingredients to penetrate your skin when it’s damp which means increased effectiveness!
However, increasing the effectiveness of a skincare ingredient also increases the risk of experiencing irritation – which is why it’s better to apply retinol to dry skin.
Here’s the best way layer hyaluronic acid and retinol:
- 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).
In most cases, it’s better to apply hyaluronic acid before retinol rather than afterwards. An added bonus of using hyaluronic acid and retinol this way is that the hyaluronic acid can also act as a buffer to help reduce skin irritation.
However, there are other ways that you can layer hyaluronic acid with retinol.
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.
And of course, The simplest way to layer hyaluronic acid and retinol 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
Summary – Should You Use Hyaluronic Acid Before Or After Retinol?
Overall, the best way to layer the two ingredients is to use hyaluronic acid before retinol – ideally by applying hyaluronic acid to damp skin and then waiting for your skin to dry before applying retinol.