Home Skincare Retinol Vs Hyaluronic Acid

Retinol Vs Hyaluronic Acid

by Gabbi

Retinol and hyaluronic acid are two big names in the skincare game, with brands proudly adding them to cleansers, moisturizers, serums, and everything in between.

If you’re not sure what those ingredients do, you’re not alone. So many people just know that they’re “good” for skin, and not everyone has spent the time delving into the science behind these ingredients.

We think it’s time to change that! Both retinol and hyaluronic acid (also known as HA) are incredibly powerful ingredients, which means they have the potential to both improve your skin and damage it. 

It’s important to know what each ingredient does and whether you should be using them both, especially if you have sensitive skin and risk experiencing dryness and irritation from strong skincare additives.

So, how do retinol and hyaluronic acid compare? Generally speaking, hyaluronic acid is best for hydrating and moisturizing dry skin, while retinol helps reduce fine lines, acne, and discoloration. When combined together, they can lead to additional benefits. 

In this post, we will go over each ingredient, how to use them, how to choose the right one for you, and whether or not you should combine them together. If you’ve ever had questions about these two popular skincare players, keep reading!

What Is Hyaluronic Acid?

Hyaluronic acid, also called HA, is a fluid that is naturally found in the human body in areas like the eyes and joints.

It’s a clear gooey substance that acts as a moisture-filled cushion and protectant in sensitive parts of your body.

Your skin also contains natural levels of hyaluronic acid, where its main purpose is to bind to water molecules to retain moisture and keep your skin supple and hydrated. In fact, about 50% of your body’s natural hyaluronic acid resides in the skin.

With age and exposure to sunlight, your natural levels of HA in the skin start to fade, causing your skin to be drier and less plump. That’s where cosmetic HA comes in. 

Hyaluronic acid is able to hold up to 1,000 times its molecular weight in water. It penetrates the skin and binds water to skin cells, infusing all layers of the skin with the moisture it needs.

Benefits Of Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid used in skincare is one of the most potent hydrating ingredients on the market. Hyaluronic acid can deliver the moisturizing benefits your skin needs without causing irritation. It’s a common ingredient in moisturizers, cleansers, serums, and other makeup products.

Here are some of the benefits of using HA in skincare:

  • Hydrates the skin
  • Helps skin retain moisture deep below the skin barrier
  • Increases elasticity of the skin
  • Helps restore the lipid barrier of the top layer of the skin
  • Protects the skin against environmental pollutants and other damage
  • Reduces dryness, patches, and scaly skin
  • Smoothes out the texture of the skin
  • Adds a healthy glow to the complexion
  • Helps additional skincare products penetrate the skin better 

As you can see, HA has so many benefits that it’s no surprise that it gets added to a lot of products in the skincare section. It’s well-tolerated by most skin types and available without a prescription. 

Side Effects Of Hyaluronic Acid

One thing that makes HA so popular is that it rarely has side effects when used topically on the skin. Most people tolerate it pretty well. 

That being said, in some cases, side effects do exist. For example, some people are allergic to hyaluronic acid and may experience redness, itching, and irritation while using it. 

Although side effects are rare, it’s always best to do a patch test before using a new product containing hyaluronic acid. 

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid, which is a derivative of vitamin A. There are lots of different types of retinoids on the market – retinol is the most popular one because it’s available over the counter.

Other retinoids include tretinoin (only available by prescription), retinaldehyde, adapalene, and others. They all do similar things for your skin – some are just more potent than others.

But today, let’s just focus on retinol since it’s the most common type of retinoid and it’s widely available for purchase. Retinols are often added to night creams, serums, and other over-the-counter products.

Retinol and other retinoids are considered the gold standard for anti-aging and acne-fighting ingredients. 

Benefits Of Retinol 

Retinol is a popular ingredient because it does so much for the skin, targeting a wide range of issues. And it’s pretty darn good at it.

Here are some clinically-recognized benefits of retinol and other retinoids in skincare:

  • Smoothes fine lines and wrinkles
  • Prevents the development of new wrinkles
  • Exfoliates and brightens the skin
  • Regulates oil production and unclogs pores
  • Treats and prevents acne
  • Fades dark spots, acne scars, and hyperpigmentation
  • Speeds up skin cell turnover
  • Increases natural collagen production

Is it any wonder why people love retinol so much? It targets some of the most common skin concerns that people have – from aging to acne, and gives you glowing bright skin in the process.

Retinol doesn’t work overnight, however. It can take up to three months of regular use to start noticing the effects of retinol. With more potent versions of the retinoid, such as prescription-grade tretinoin, results might come faster, but not without potential side effects.

Side Effects Of Retinol 

Retinol is one of the most well-tolerated types of retinoids on the market because it’s fairly mild. But like all retinoids, it can cause some unpleasant side effects.

Here are the most common side effects of daily retinol use: 

  • Dryness
  • Irritation
  • Purging period of 2-3 weeks where your skin breaks out a lot
  • Sensitivity to sunlight and increased risk of sun damage

The best way to introduce retinol into your routine is to start by doing a patch test somewhere away from your face and seeing how your skin reacts after a few days of use.

Since retinols increase skin turnover, there is an adjustment period in the beginning that is known as a “purging” period. During these first few weeks, your skin is experiencing an increase in cell shedding, which can lead to clogged pores and increased breakouts. Once your skin adjusts, this should go away.

Be sure to pay close attention to your skin during this time to distinguish between purging and an allergic reaction. Purging typically looks like regular breakouts, whereas an allergy or a sensitivity to the ingredient is accompanied by itching, dryness, redness, and painful bumps.

Another really important thing to keep in mind is that retinol makes you more sensitive to UV damage. This is why we always recommend using retinol-containing products at night only.

Even if you’re not using retinol during the day, all retinol users should make sure to wear a high-SPF sunscreen (we love this one from Neutrogena) every day to protect their skin.

As you can see, while retinol is a potent and powerful tool in your beauty regimen, it can come with a cost. If you’ve never used retinoids before, it’s always best to start with a very mild version of it and introduce it to your skin slowly.

Retinol Vs Hyaluronic Acid – Which One Should You Use?

If you’re trying to choose between the two superstar ingredients, your decision should be based on what you want to accomplish for your skin.

If you’re suffering from dryness, and don’t have a lot of other skin concerns, the best choice for you is probably hyaluronic acid.

The risk of using this ingredient is minimal, and you’re unlikely to experience any side effects. You can rely on it to bring more moisture, hydration, and elasticity to your skin. If that’s all you need – HA is the right choice for you.

If you are more concerned with signs of aging, dull skin, dark spots, acne, and other types of congestion on your skin – retinol might be a better option for you. Just be gentle with your skin when you first start using it and keep an eye out for potential side effects.

Age is not a factor when choosing between these ingredients – anyone of any age can successfully use HA and retinol.

However, we see more people over the age of 30 opt for retinol simply because it can target and prevent wrinkles. That being said, HA is good for preventing signs of aging as well since well-hydrated skin is less likely to develop fine lines.

Another thing to keep in mind is that hyaluronic acid has an immediate effect on the skin, whereas retinol is more of a long-term game. So, if you have super dry skin and you want relief pronto – HA is your friend. But if you’re looking for a longer-term solution for deeper issues, retinol might be better for that.

How To Use Hyaluronic Acid In Your Skincare Routine

If you’ve decided to introduce hyaluronic acid into your skincare routine, you have a few different options. Hyaluronic acid is added to a wide range of products – from cleansers to serums and creams.

We find that HA works best when left on the skin for several hours, so instead of using a cleanser with HA, which you wash off within minutes of applying, we’d suggest using a serum or a cream that can stay on your face all day, providing you with constant hydration.

Since HA doesn’t usually cause irritation or side effects, it can be used twice a day, in the morning and evening. 

Here is a sample routine that you can use with a hyaluronic acid moisturizer:


  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  2. Apply HA-containing moisturizer
  3. Apply sunscreen


  1. Remove makeup with a makeup remover (if applicable)
  2. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  3. Apply HA-containing moisturizer

If you have a hyaluronic acid serum, here is a sample routine for you to use:


  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  2. Apply HA serum
  3. Apply moisturizer (optional: the serum might be hydrating enough for you on its own)
  4. Apply SPF


  1. Remove makeup with a makeup remover (if applicable)
  2. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  3. Apply HA serum
  4. Apply moisturizer

How To Use Retinol In Your Skincare Routine

If you’ve chosen to add a retinol product into your skincare routine, make sure to start slowly.

Here are a few rules of thumb when starting out:

  • Start by using retinol once or twice a week for the first month to make sure your skin acclimates to it
  • Only use retinol products at night
  • Always wear sunscreen during the day
  • If any irritation or allergic reaction occurs, reduce the frequency of use or cease using the product altogether
  • Don’t confuse irritation/allergy with the purging period

Retinol is best used at the end of your night routine, either in the form of a serum or a cream. Keep your skin hydrated throughout the day to reduce the risk of irritation.

Here is a sample routine for using a retinol night cream:


  1. Remove makeup with a makeup remover (if applicable)
  2. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  3. Apply the retinol night cream


  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  2. Apply moisturizer
  3. Apply sunscreen

Here is a sample routine if you’re using a retinol serum:


  1. Remove makeup with a makeup remover (if applicable)
  2. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  3. Apply the retinol serum all over your face
  4. Apply a moisturizer or night cream


  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  2. Apply moisturizer
  3. Apply sunscreen

Can You Use Retinol And Hyaluronic Acid Together?

Good news – the answer is yes! Retinol and HA can be used together in most cases, and even offer additional benefits when combined.

Together, retinol and hyaluronic acid can provide you with their individual benefits (described above) as well as: 

  • Reduced Irritation: If you’re worried about the irritation your skin might experience from using retinol, HA can help reduce and even prevent irritation.
  • Increased Exfoliation: While retinol helps increase cell turnover, HA can enhance that process by hydrating the skin and helping the enzymes break down the bonds between old skin cells, ultimately helping speed up and streamline the exfoliation.
  • Dewy And Radiant Skin: While retinol is working hard on increasing collagen production and increasing cell turnover, HA hydrates and adds elasticity to the skin. Together, they’re a powerful combo that results in dewy, youthful, and radiant skin every day.

How To Use Hyaluronic Acid And Retinol Together

If you’re wondering how to combine hyaluronic acid and retinol in your routine, we’ve put together a little guide for you. 


Hyaluronic acid can be used twice a day – morning and night. Retinol, on the other hand, should only be used twice a day, and it’s best to use it at night since it doesn’t play well with sunlight.

You should also start using retinol once or twice a week to let your skin adjust to it, whereas hyaluronic acid is usually well-tolerated and can be used daily right away.

Other Products

You should be using a rich moisturizer (ideally with ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids to help replenish your skin barrier) when you’re combining retinol and hyaluronic acid in your routine. This is for two reasons.

Since hyaluronic acid works by pulling out water and moisture molecules from the environment and pulling them into your skin, you need to provide it with a source of moisture to pull from. This is where a rich moisturizer comes in handy.

The other reason you should be using a good moisturizer is that retinol can increase dryness and wear down the skin’s moisture barrier. A nourishing cream, in conjunction with hyaluronic acid, can be really helpful in preventing dryness and repairing your skin’s lipid barrier.

You can also incorporate other products into your routine, in addition to retinol and hyaluronic acids, such as vitamin C, acne cream, and others (see the contradictions section below to avoid products that don’t play well with retinol and hyaluronic acid combo).


Most of the time, we recommend applying your hyaluronic acid to damp skin to increase the amount of moisture it can absorb. Retinol, on the other hand, should be applied to dry skin.

Typically, you’ll use hyaluronic acid first, and then allow it to absorb into the skin before applying your retinol product. 

Depending on the type of retinol and hyaluronic acids you’re using, your routine might be different. A good rule of thumb is to order your skincare routine from “lightest” products to “heaviest”, finishing off with the thickest moisturizing cream.

We recommend following this general guideline:

Cleanser > Toner > Water-based serums > Oil-based serums > Spot treatments > Moisturizing cream > Sunscreen

Knowing all this can help you plan your routine when using these two products together.

Sample Routines

Here is a sample routine you might have if you’re using a hyaluronic acid serum and retinol cream:


  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  2. Apply HA serum
  3. Apply a moisturizer with sunscreen


  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  2. Apply HA serum and allow the face to dry
  3. Apply retinol cream

Here is a similar routine, but this one is best for when you’re using a HA serum and a retinol serum (notice that you’ll finish off your night routine with a rich moisturizer):


  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  2. Apply HA serum
  3. Apply a moisturizer with sunscreen


  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  2. Apply HA serum and allow the face to dry
  3. Apply retinol serum
  4. Apply rich moisturizer

In some cases, you might have a hyaluronic-acid-infused moisturizer and a retinol serum. In this case, you should switch the order and apply the serum first, followed-up by the moisturizer.

This is because the recommended order of products to use in a skincare routine is determined by the “heaviness” of the product. 

So, you want to start with the lightest products first (cleanser, toner, serum), follow up with heavier products (oil-based serums and emulsions), and always finish off with the “heaviest” product, which is typically the moisturizer.

Here is a sample routine for those of you who are using a retinol serum with a hyaluronic-acid moisturizer:


  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  2. Apply HA moisturizer
  3. Apply sunscreen


  1. Wash your face with a gentle cleanser
  2. Apply retinol serum
  3. Apply HA moisturizer


You might be wondering if there are any skincare products you should avoid while using retinol and hyaluronic acid in your routine.

Hyaluronic acid can be used with other skincare ingredients without much concern. It plays well with retinol, vitamin C, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), ceramides, and sunscreens.

Retinol can work with other ingredients, but when you’re first starting out using retinol, it’s best to avoid using other potentially irritating ingredients such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).

This is because AHAs and BHAs also contribute to the skin’s turnover rate and cause chemical exfoliation. When combined with retinol, this can contribute to dryness and irritation at first.

Retinol can be used with vitamin C, but it’s best to use them at different times of the day. So if you’re using retinol at night, you’re safe to use vitamin C during the day.

Final Thoughts

Retinol and hyaluronic acid are powerful skincare ingredients that can transform your skin whether used separately or together.

The main difference between the two is that hyaluronic acid is best for hydration, and has immediate effects, whereas retinol is best for increasing skin cell turnover (and the benefits that result from that, such as acne reduction, wrinkle reduction, and clearer skin tone), and produces long-term effects. 

When deciding which one to use, try to figure out what your skin needs more – hydration or anti-aging powers. In many cases, you might realize your skin needs both!

Luckily, using retinol and hyaluronic acid together is perfectly safe, and often recommended by dermatologists. Pairing retinol and hyaluronic acid together is easy as long as you create a routine that works for you.
Remember to only use retinol at night and to pair it with a powerful moisturizer to prevent dryness and irritation. The hyaluronic acid will help you with that. 

We hope you found this guide to be helpful in your skincare journey!

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