Hyaluronic acid vs retinol: the differences between these two hero ingredients

When it comes to the choice between hyaluronic acid vs retinol, which one is best for your skin? We spoke to the experts to find out exactly how each one works

CeraVe Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid serum and Sunday Riley A+ Retinoid Serum on a pastel blue, pink and lilac background
(Image credit: Future/CeraVe/Sunday Riley)

Hyaluronic acid vs retinol—you've heard of both serums being touted as skincare heroes. But what are the differences between them; and what do they both actually do? 

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 is one better than the other, and who should be using each one? Well, it turns out that while they both have strong uses in their own right, it can actually be advantageous to use them both together in your skincare routine.

We’ve asked skincare expert Dr. David Jack to give us the lowdown on hyaluronic acid vs retinol, so that before you add either to your morning or evening routine, you can discover which active is right for your skin and how to use them. Spoiler: like we said above, it may well be both!

What is retinol?

To really know what's what in the retinol vs hyaluronic acid debate, it's important to know what both actives actually do. And 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, and how it works.

The umbrella term for Vitamin A derivatives are retinoids, and retinol is one of these derivatives (read about retinol vs. retinal here if you want to know more about retinoids). 

It’s the more potent of the forms that are available without a prescription and when applied to the skin, it converts itself 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.  

According to Harvard Health, you'll need to use retinol for around six months before you start seeing any serious results—with the very best results normally seen around 12 months after you start using the product. In short, it's well worth persevering to see the benefits of retinol!

Are there side effects of using retinol?

An important consideration when it comes to deciding whether retinol or hyaluronic acid is right for you, are the common side effects. And 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. 

You can buy different percentages of retinol at lots of different beauty brands, including The Ordinary, The INKEY List, and Paula's Choice. And if you're unsure of how to start using retinol, see our guide.

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

Tips for using retinol

(Image credit: Getty - Anna Efetova / Creative)

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?

Like retinol, 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. 

"But you may be wondering, is hyaluronic acid good for acne? Well, not only is the ingredient beneficial for dry skin types, it’s actually a dream hydrator for acne-prone skin that doesn’t tolerate nourishing oils well too. 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.

So for those with acne-prone skin, we say that's one point for hyaluronic acid vs retinol!

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. So when it comes to deciding on hyaluronic acid or retinol, hyaluronic acid may be better for those with much more sensitive skin. "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 from 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 person holding the pipette over a bottle of retinol serum, on top of a marble countertop

(Image credit: Getty Images)

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

The answer to the hyaluronic acid vs retinol debate is not simple. 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 [hyaluronic acid] 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, like hyaluronic acid vs niacinamide, 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. So it's not necessarily a case of retinol or hyaluronic acid—but maybe both!

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.