Hyaluronic acid vs retinol: what’s the difference between these two hero ingredients?

Not sure what the difference is between hyaluronic acid vs retinol? We’re here to help...

A young woman wearing hoop earings standing against wall holds her hand up to the sun which casts a shadow of her hand on her face
(Image credit: Getty Images / Maria Maglioni / EyeEm)

Hyaluronic acid vs retinol—you've heard both words get touted about as skincare heroes. And whether you're a superuser when it comes to skincare or are starting your journey, do you actually know the difference between the two products?

When it comes to beauty buzz words, there’s nothing buzzier than retinol and hyaluronic acid (and the respective best retinol serums and best hyaluronic acid serums). But what are they, what do they actually do, and is one better than the other? 

We’ve asked skincare expert Dr. David Jack to give us the lowdown so that before you add retinol or hyaluronic acid to your arsenal, you can know which active is right for you. 

Spoiler: it may well be both!

What is retinol?

OK, be prepared to read this carefully, because you won’t be the first to get a little confused when it comes to understanding what retinol is. 

The umbrella term for Vitamin A derivatives are retinoids, and retinol is one of these derivatives. It’s the more potent of the forms that are available without a prescription and when applied to the skin, it converts into retinoic acid. "It’s the retinoic acid that works its magic on your skin cells and is the reason retinol has become a gold standard skincare ingredient", shares Jack.

What are the benefits of retinol?

There are countless benefits to using retinol. "It speeds up cell turnover—the skin's natural shedding and regenerating process - stimulates skin firming and wrinkle-busting collagen and elastin production, quells pigmentation, tightens pores, regulates oil production and even treats acne", explains Jack.  

Are there side effects of using retinol?

While all skin tones and types can use retinol, side effects vary depending on what percentage of retinol you use, and how you go about using it. 

Jack shared some retinol tips: "Dry and sensitive skin types should start a 0.3% dose, normal skin types can begin at 0.5%, while oily skin should tolerate 1% well. For extra caution start slowly, by using your retinol at night once or twice a week and build up use gradually, to avoid side effects like retinol peeling, redness, and dryness", shares Jack. 

If your skin can't handle traditional retinol, you can also try the natural alternative that's becoming a lot more popular—bakuchiol.

An image of a young woman extracting serum from a bottle as part of her skincare routine

(Image credit: Getty Images / Sergey Mironov)

What is hyaluronic acid?

"Hyaluronic acid (HA) is made from amino acids and sugar molecules and acts as a natural ‘humectant’ meaning that it draws water to itself. It can hold a thousand times its weight in water and, alongside collagen and elastin, it helps support tissue structure – resulting in smoother firmer skin", says Jack.

In the same way that collagen and elastin production decrease as we age so too does how speedily we produce our own plumping HA, which is where topical skincare comes in handy. "The make-up of synthetically produced HA is exactly the same as our own natural HA, and works in the same way drawing water to the skin", explains Jack.  

What are the benefits of hyaluronic acid?

All skin tones and types can reap the benefits of HA, namely, "its ability to increase the moisture content of the upper layers of the skin by virtue of its humectant effect. This will leave skin plump, smooth, and revitalized. And while you may think this ingredient is only beneficial for dry skin types, it’s actually a dream hydrator for acne-prone skin that doesn’t tolerate nourishing oils well. Not only that, but it also has skin repair mechanisms thanks to its antioxidant properties. So, it’s able to neutralize free radicals that cause tissue damage and in turn aging," says Jack.

What are the side effects of hyaluronic acid?

This is one of the gentlest skincare ingredients out there. It doesn’t irritate the skin, or cause breakouts and it doesn’t aggravate eczema, or rosacea either. "However, it’s important to check what other ingredients your HA-based moisturizer or serum is made up of, as other ingredients such as preservatives can cause the skin to react," says Jack.

And what of the recent grumblings? Those that claim topical HA is a superficial hydrator. That it simply draws moisture from the deeper layers of the skin depriving it of hydration while hydrating the upper layers in order to offer a glowing complexion? 

"Not true at all. It derives some water molecules from the deeper layers of the skin and some from the atmosphere. Since water diffuses into tissues from the blood this will quickly be replaced", shares Jack. 

A young woman appears to be looking into a mirror and is seen applying a skincare product

(Image credit: Getty Images / Westend61)

So when it comes to hyaluronic acid vs retinol, is one better for your skin than the other?

While hyaluronic acid works its repairing and hydrating magic on the upper layers of the skin, retinol is able to have multiple effects deeper within the skin. 

"Not only does it boost the body’s own hyaluronic acid production, but it neutralizes damage-inducing free radicals, increases cell turnover, stimulates collagen, reduces sebum production, and suppresses melanin formation. And while people with very dry skin would benefit most from hyaluronic acid everyone else, especially those with acne, should opt for retinol as it has much more potent and widespread effects on the skin", says Jack. 

The good news for your skin, but perhaps not for your bank balance, is that there is really no need to pick between the two. Retinol and hyaluronic acid interact well with one another and for dry skin types "applying a hyaluronic acid serum pre-retinol will help alleviate some of retinol’s infamous side effects," adds Jack. 

Amerley Ollennu
Amerley Ollennu

Amerley is an award-winning beauty & lifestyle journalist who has been writing for the UK’s most well-known glossies, websites and newspapers for over a decade. Known for her ability to predict the next big trend, there is really very little she won’t try for a story. From microblading and injectables, to10 step skincare plans and breathing her way to better skin, Amerley loves to share her experiences and write relatable, informative and trend-led copy for beauty novices and junkies alike.