Hyaluronic acid vs retinol—their differences, benefits and how to use each

Hyaluronic acid vs retinol—which one would be the better anti-aging approach for your skin type? Our handy guide is here to show you.

hyaluronic acid vs retinol main image of an array of pipettes and serums
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When it comes to hyaluronic acid vs retinol, the two skincare staples are regularly used in tandem, but juxtaposed serve very different purposes. One acts as a hydrating serum to restore and seal in moisture while the other exfoliates and boosts collagen and elastin levels. 

Despite the name, hyaluronic acid isn’t actually an acid; it’s a hydrating sugar molecule. This means it’s not in direct competition with retinol, an ingredient known for its ability to exfoliate. 

However, both ingredients can fit nicely into an anti-aging skincare routine (especially the best retinol serums). As Dr. Emmanuel Loucas, director of SINY Dermatology and Water’s Edge Dermatology says, “The two products work synergistically to help your skin look its best.” 

What is hyaluronic acid and what are the benefits?

“Hyaluronic acid is a polysaccharide that is naturally found in skin and connective tissue,” explains Vanessa Thomas, cosmetic chemist and founder of Freelance Formulations. “It is an extremely adept moisturizer because it attracts and binds to water molecules.” 

Researchers have found that hyaluronic acid “exhibits outstanding nutricosmetic efficacy (opens in new tab).” In other words, it’s amazing for hydrating your skin. 

The gel-like sugar molecules lock in moisture, filling in fine lines and wrinkles for smoother, plumper skin. It stimulates collagen and skin elasticity. Overall, it’s a great hydrator that offers wonderful rejuvenating effects on the complexion.

What is retinol and what are its benefits?

“Retinols are the over-the-counter derivatives of retinoids, which are variants of vitamin A,” says Dr. Loucas. “When applied to the skin, retinol converts into retinoic acid.” This active form gets to work promoting exfoliation and collagen production. As Dr. Loucas explains, “Retinoic acid speeds up cell turnover in the skin and the regenerating process that causes the skin to become firm by increasing the production of collagen and elastin tissue.”  

As a chemical exfoliant that spurs on your skin’s natural cell turnover process, retinol is an anti-aging essential. It has a powerful ability to minimize fine lines and wrinkles, resolve uneven skin tone issues, and clear up acne. It can irritate skin, so it's important to learn how to use retinol properly, and those with sensitive skin should try the least potent form, retinyl palmitate.

Hyaluronic acid vs retinol—what are the main differences?

Hyaluronic acid and retinol are like apples and oranges; they differ substantially in terms of what they are, what they do, and how they can affect your skin.

  • Hyaluronic acid is a non-irritating ingredient that supports hydration.
  • Retinol promotes cell renewal, but it can be irritating to new users and those with sensitive skin. Highly sensitive skin types may not be able to tolerate its powerful exfoliating properties.

Who shouldn’t use these ingredients?

Retinol isn’t a good fit for certain skin conditions. As Thomas advises that retinol isn’t right for people with psoriasis, eczema, or rosacea, since it will cause additional irritation and inflammation.

“Retinol can also aggravate a dry, dehydrated skin type, as it reduces skin’s natural oil production and speeds up skin cell turnover,” says Cheryl Woodman, skincare expert at Honesty For Your Skin (opens in new tab)

Experts also recommend avoiding retinol if you get a lot of sun exposure, even if you invest in the best facial sunscreen you can afford. This is because retinol works to surface new skin cells, making your complexion more sensitive to UV damage as a result. Additionally, retinol is not a safe skincare treatment if you’re planning to get pregnant, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding. 

One the other hand, hyaluronic acid is generally suitable for all skin types:

“Unlike retinol, hyaluronic acid is typically suitable for all skin types and does not cause irritation,” says Thomas. "It can be beneficial for every type of skin, but if you live in an especially dry environment, you’ll just need to be thoughtful about how you use it."

Since it’s a humectant, Cheryl explains that “hyaluronic acid can draw hydration from skin’s deepest layers, pulling it towards the surface. If you’re not using moisturizer to lock the hydration in, your skin can become dehydrated, especially if you live in a low humidity climate.” 

When and how should you use hyaluronic acid and retinol?

If you add hyaluronic acid and retinol to your skincare lineup, you don’t always need to use them in tandem. 

A hyaluronic acid gel or serum can be applied morning or evening, but a retinol serum should only be used as part of a night skincare routine since it will increase your skin’s UV sensitivity. 

However, Dr. Loucas says both ingredients can work well together during your evening routine. “I would suggest applying the hyaluronic acid first. Wait a few minutes, then you can apply a retinol product. If your skin is drying from the retinol, you can apply a moisturizer over that,” he says.

While you’re probably safe to dive right into daily hyaluronic acid use, experts recommend taking a slow and steady start with retinol. Consistency is also key if you want your skin to experience the benefits. But, if you’re new to retinol, your first few uses will probably yield less-than-ideal results.

“Retinol will likely cause your skin to go through a process called ‘retinization’ where the skin becomes dry, red, flaky, and irritated,” says Gabrielle Richens, skincare coach and founder of The Rich Skin Club (opens in new tab). “This can be avoided by starting off slow. applying retinol every other night, and working your way up to see how your skin reacts. Applying a hyaluronic acid serum after retinol can help ease these side effects.” 

Once you get past the so-called “retinol uglies,” your skin will be better-adjusted to more regular use. If you’re not sure if retinol is right for you, or if the side effects you’re experiencing are normal, consult a dermatologist.

What should you never use with these ingredients?

“Products to consider avoiding in conjunction with retinols include astringents, toners, benzoyl peroxides, and vitamin C,” says Dr. Loucas.

You’ll also want to steer clear of exfoliating acids in the alpha hydroxy acid and beta hydroxy acid (AHA and BHA) families, including glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid.

In general, loading up on active ingredients or ramping up quickly with too-high concentrations can cause more harm than good. “The biggest mistake I see with first-time users is their enthusiasm to look younger quick! That never works out well,” Dr. Loucas adds.

As Gabrielle explains, “Too many actives will overstimulate the skin and cause irritation. It’s best to use these products on different days, or even a couple of days apart if your skin feels sensitive.” 

There’s not much to worry about with hyaluronic acid, though. “Hyaluronic acid can be applied with most other ingredients,” Thomas says. 

Brilliant hyaluronic acid and retinol products, according to our beauty editor

Hyaluronic acid

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The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 Lightweight Serum | RRP: $7/£6

Quite frankly the quintessential HA product to start anyone off, this no-nonsense formula from The Ordinary feels superlight and watery on skin, making it an all-year-round next step after toner and before moisturizer. For extra dry times of the year, we like mixing a drop or two to our best foundations (opens in new tab) for an added hydration boost.


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Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum | RRP: $48/£40

Literally a tall drink of water for thirsty, dehydrated skin (yes, oily skin types included), this vegan hydrating serum also boasts of pineapple ceramide to boost brightness and improve tone and provitamin B5 in addition to HA.


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Clinique Moisture Surge Intense | RRP: $25/£25

Tested on real women in Siberia (!) in the winter (!!) with glowing reviews, this oil-free gel-cream offers, as the name suggests, a potent shot of hydration and nourishment to dry, very dry, and combination skin for up to three days. Lipids also improve skin barrier (opens in new tab) strength. 


Retinol

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The Inkey List Retinol Eye Cream | RRP: $10/£10

Straightforward and effective: that's how we like our eye creams, and that's exactly what you get from this winner from The Inkey List. Dab on your undereye area in the evening for best results.


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Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer | RRP: $29/£21

Olay's super popular retinol night cream is an accessible entry point into the world of evening retinol care. Fragrance and dye-free, this luxe-feeling yet non-greasy cream promises full 24-hour hydration and skin transformation—that is, an improvement on skincare's entire nine yards, i.e. fine lines and wrinkles, roughness, dullness, elasticity, hyperpigmentation, dark spots, and pores—within 28 days.


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Sunday Riley Luna Retinol Sleeping Night Oil | RRP: $55/£45

Redefine beauty sleep with this gentle, paraben- and sulfate-free night oil that, in addition to retinol esters, also includes blue tansy and chamomile to calm skin and chia and blackberry seed oil to minimize fine lines. Perfect for newbies and veterans alike (and we love the dreamy, storybook packaging, too). 


Hyaluronic acid and Retinol in one

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Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Regenerating Cream | RRP: $34/£25

Free of parabens, mineral oil, and dyes, this retinol/HA cream comes highly recommended by dermatologists for its ability to improve the look of deep lines, crows feet, and dark spots, and increase skin elasticity, radiance, and plumpness on the face and neck.

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Murad Resurgence Retinol Youth Renewing Serum | RRP: $89/£75

Find an improvement in everything from dark circles to rough texture to fine lines and wrinkles in as little as two weeks with continued use of this beloved retinol serum. Added hyaluronic acid also hydrates and plumps, while minimizing dryness.


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RoC Retinol Correxion Max Daily Hydration Crème | RRP: $25/£26

Never the 'twain shall meet? Not anymore! Minimalists and one-stop-shoppers, rejoice: this award-winning day cream from retinol powerhouse RoC also includes hyaluronic acid in its intensive anti-wrinkle formula: It hydrates and replenishes as it facilitates cell turnover, giving you visible line improvements in as little as a week.


woman&home thanks Vanessa Thomas of Freelance Formulations (opens in new tab), Dr. Emmanuel Loucas of SINY Dermatology (opens in new tab) and Water’s Edge Dermatology, Cheryl Woodman of Honesty For Your Skin (opens in new tab), and Gabrielle Richens of The Rich Skin Club (opens in new tab) for their time and expertise.

A lifelong creative writer and beautyphile, Eunice Lucero-Lee graduated from De La Salle University in 2002 and was hired a year later to front all beauty coverage for Pink Magazine. A beauty, astrology, and pop culture obsessive and insider for over 18 years, Eunice is an internationally published editor (and now certified astrologer) whose work has been featured in publications such as Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and The Numinous, among many others.