They’re two of the most popular anti-aging skincare ingredients but what’s the difference between hyaluronic acid vs retinol? Which one is right for your skin? Can you use both together at the same time?
Yes, you absolutely can use them together and here’s why…
Hyaluronic acid is a glycosaminoglycan that can bind up to 1000x its weight in water. It’s naturally present all round your body but the majority of your body’s hyaluronic acid is in your skin.
Hyaluronic acid is a glycosaminoglycan (amino sugar) that can bind up to 1000x its weight in water. It’s a humectant, and a component of your skin’s natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) which means that it draws water into your skin and holds it there.
So, even though it has ‘acid’ in its name, it actually nourishes and hydrates your skin rather than exfoliating it.
As well as hydrating your skin, hyaluronic acid helps to:
- Increase skin elasticity (well-hydrated skin has more elasticity or ‘bounce’ which means that it returns to its shape when pulled or poked)
- Reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles almost instantly thanks to its hydrating effect (dehydrated skin makes fine lines and wrinkles appear much worse)
- Heal wounds by reducing inflammation and bacteria growth
It’s naturally present all round your body but the majority of your body’s hyaluronic acid is found in your skin.
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 reducing overall skin hydration. This can leave you with dry, cracked, and irritated skin that has less bounce as well as more visible fine lines and pores.
Retinol is a form of vitamin A that converts to retinoic acid (its active form) when it penetrates your skin. It helps treat a wide-range of skin conditions and is one of the only skincare ingredients that’s clinically proven to alter your skin on a cellular level.
It’s an antioxidant that increases the rate that your skin makes new skin cells and moves them to the surface of your skin in order to be shed. It also:
- Boosts collagen production
- Reduces inflammation
- Helps prevent acne scarring
- Helps unclog pores and treat acne
- Reduces pigmentation by preventing melanin production as well as getting rid of existing pigmentation by increasing skin cell turnover
- Improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Unfortunately, retinol is renowned for causing skin irritation – particularly when you first start using it. It can also damage your skin barrier if used improperly which can make a lot of skin conditions worse and take a long time to correct.
However, as it requires a few conversions to reach its active form, it’s less irritating than other retinoids (e.g. tretinoin, retinal, differin).
Hyaluronic Acid vs Retinol
The main difference between hyaluronic acid vs retinol is that hyaluronic acid is hydrating while retinol is an antioxidant that increases skin cell turnover.
However, research suggests that retinol can increase all three types of the hyaluronic acid that are naturally present in your skin – plus it can increase the production of hyaluronic acid in your dermis. However, it takes quite a long time to do so.
In contrast, hyaluronic acid mimics your skin’s NMFs and acts as a humectant to draw water from your dermis into your epidermis. Usually, hyaluronic acid is unable to penetrate your dermis without the help of microchannels created with microneedling or via injection (HA fillers).
Hyaluronic acid = quick skin hydration in your epidermis
Retinol = slow but sustained skin hydration in your dermis
The good news is that you don’t have to choose between hyaluronic acid vs retinol as they work really well when used together.
Research discovered that a cream containing retinol and hyaluronic acid improved wrinkles and age spots as well as increasing overall skin radiance after 8-weeks of use. Plus, the results lasted for 4-weeks after ending use of the cream.
Other benefits of using hyaluronic acid and retinol together include:
- Reduced irritation – hyaluronic acid can help prevent the irritation commonly experienced with retinol.
- Increased skin cell turnover – while retinol increases the rate that new skin cells are produced and transported to the surface of your skin, it doesn’t actually exfoliate your skin. However, when your skin is well hydrated, the enzymes that break down the bonds between your skin cells are able to function properly. In other words, hyaluronic acid can boost your skin’s natural exfoliation process.
- Long-term and short-term hydration – while retinol is busy increasing your skin’s natural production of hyaluronic acid, a hyaluronic acid serum can provide instant, short-term hydration.
How To Use Hyaluronic Acid vs Retinol
Hyaluronic acid is ideally used twice a day while retinol should only be used once a day and is best used at night as it can be deactivated by sunlight (although using a sunscreen on top of retinol can prevent this).
It’s also best to start slowly with retinol in order to reduce the risk of irritation. For example, by using it once for the first week, twice for the second week, and so on. Some people with particularly sensitive skin may never be able to tolerate daily use of retinol. However, research suggests that retinol is still effective when used 1-3x per week.
You don’t need to start slowly with hyaluronic acid as it’s unlikely to irritate your skin. However, hyaluronic acid should be followed with a heavier moisturizer or occlusive in order to prevent all that water it’s drawn into your epidermis escaping from the surface of your skin.
Hyaluronic acid is also better applied to damp skin as it’s easier for skincare ingredients to penetrate damp skin than it is for them to penetrate dry skin. Hyaluronic acid can also draw the water from the surface of your skin (i.e. damp skin, water from moisturizers applied on top) into your skin for maximum hydration.
In contrast, retinol should be applied to dry skin to reduce the risk of irritation.
This means that the order of application of hyaluronic acid vs retinol may look something like this:
- Leave skin damp or use a hydrating mist/toner
- Apply a hyaluronic acid serum or moisturizer
- Allow time to dry (serums and gel moisturizers with dry faster than heavier moisturizers)
- Apply retinol serum/moisturizer
- If using a retinol serum, follow with a heavier moisturizer (preferably one with ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids, in order to strengthen your skin barrier and reduce irritation)
Summary – Hyaluronic acid vs retinol
The difference between hyaluronic acid vs retinol is mainly down to how they act on your skin. Hyaluronic acid hydrates your skin while retinol increases the rate that your skin produces new skin cells. However, hyaluronic acid can increase your skin’s natural exfoliation process and retinol can increase your skin’s natural production of hyaluronic acid.
If you’re torn between using hyaluronic acid vs retinol – you can just use both! They help boost each other’s effects and hyaluronic acid can reduce the irritation commonly experienced with retinol.
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.