Retinol vs Hyaluronic Acid: What’s the Difference?

Retinol and hyaluronic acid are two popular anti-aging skincare ingredients. Both have been shown to help with wrinkles and other signs of aging, but they work very differently from each other.

Retinol vs Hyaluronic Acid: The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 and CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

So when it comes to retinol vs hyaluronic acid, what’s the difference, and which one should you use? This post on retinol vs hyaluronic acid will help you learn more about how retinol and hyaluronic acid work for the skin and which ones might be good options for your skin type.

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What is Retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A and a type of retinoid often used in anti-aging skincare products. It has been shown to help improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles, dullness, uneven skin tone, and texture.

Retinol is also known to help increase collagen production for thicker, firmer, more youthful-looking skin with improved elasticity. It also helps those pesky fine lines and wrinkles appear less visible over time.

Retinol and all retinoids are best used at night because they break down when exposed to sunlight. Your skin may also become more sensitive to sunlight when using retinol. So be sure to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher when using retinol and for a week after.

Retinol & Skin Type

While retinol is a favorite of those with aging and mature skin, it also appeals to those with oily and acne-prone skin. Retinol helps regulate sebum (oil) production and increases cell turnover, helping to unclog pores and remove dead skin cells, which can help reduce acne and breakouts. Retinol also can help fade hyperpigmentation and acne scars over time when used regularly.

Different Kinds of Retinoids

Retinoids come in different forms, and two of the most popular are retinol and tretinoin. Retinol is a milder form of retinoid that doesn’t require a prescription, while more concentrated forms like tretinoin do.

Retinol is not the strongest nor the weakest retinoid. It needs two conversions to be available in its active form (retinoic acid) in the skin. Retinol must first be converted to retinaldehyde in the skin before being converted to retinoic acid.

Retinol —>> Retinaldehyde —>> Retinoic Acid

Prescription retinoids include tretinoin, or all-trans retinoic acid, which is often referred to as “Retin-A” or simply “retinoic acid.” It is often used for its anti-aging benefits and is also used to treat acne due to its ability to increase cell turnover and anti-inflammatory properties.

Tazarotene is another prescription retinoid that is usually used to treat acne and skin conditions such as psoriasis.

Adapalene is now available over the counter in products like Differin. This study found adapalene gel 0.1% more effective and less irritating than tretinoin gel 0.025% in the treatment of acne.

With all of these benefits, there are a few drawbacks when it comes to retinol and retinoids. It’s extremely difficult to formulate retinoic acid without making the product fairly irritating.

For some, especially those with sensitive skin, retinol and retinoids are too irritating, so it’s great to know that some retinol alternatives are available that provide similar results without irritation. Bakuchiol is a retinol alternative that has been found to be as effective as retinol at improving photoaging without the unwanted side effects.

How To Use Retinol

Depending on the concentration, retinol can cause irritation, redness, flaking, and burning of the skin. It is best to start slow with retinol and gradually work your way up in concentration and frequency.

Retinol also interacts poorly with skincare actives like glycolic acid (and other alpha-hydroxy acids), salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and ascorbic acid (pure vitamin C). Since retinol doesn’t agree with everyone, be sure to test your skin’s reaction to it by patch testing before you use it on your face for the first time.

What is Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a sugar molecule that’s found naturally in our skin cells. It helps keep skin soft and plump by binding and holding onto water molecules.

Hyaluronic acid’s big selling point is that it can hold up to 1,000 times its own weight in water, making it an excellent hydrator. It’s able to prevent water loss through the skin, which helps support a healthy skin barrier.

It’s also very gentle, so it can usually be used alongside other ingredients without irritation or clogging pores.

As we get older, however, hyaluronic acid levels drop, which causes our skin to lose its elasticity and look duller than when we were younger.

Luckily, hyaluronic acid works well as a topical product on the surface of the skin. To help combat loss of moisture over time, many people turn to hyaluronic acid serum or creams to use in their skincare routine.

Hyaluronic Acid & Skin Type

Although those with normal, dry, mature, or aging skin can greatly benefit from the hydration and moisture-binding properties of hyaluronic acid, hyaluronic acid also works well for those with combination, oily and acne-prone skin since all skin needs hydration and moisture. Hyaluronic acid also generally works well for sensitive skin.

Different Kinds of Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid comes in different forms, and it can get confusing when reviewing ingredient labels. Very often, you’ll see sodium hyaluronate on skincare ingredient lists which is a salt form of hyaluronic acid. It provides the same benefits as hyaluronic acid.

There are a variety of hyaluronic acid molecule sizes and weights.

High-weight hyaluronic acid is better at hydrating the skin’s surface and helps other water-based actives penetrate the skin better.

Sometimes hyaluronic acid products are advertised as being hydrolyzed which means that it’s broken down into smaller molecules to help penetrate deeper into the skin. This is another way to describe low-weight hyaluronic acid. Low-weight hyaluronic acid is better at plumping fine lines and wrinkles and helping the skin heal, thanks to its anti-inflammatory benefits.

NOTE: You might want to avoid ultra-low weight hyaluronic acid, as some research indicates it may have a pro-inflammatory effect.

Sodium hyaluronate crosspolymer is another form of HA that cross-links hyaluronic acid to create a mesh that forms a film on the skin for extended and long-lasting hydration.

Retinol vs Hyaluronic Acid: Which is Better?

Based on research over many years, retinol provides more anti-aging benefits for the skin, so if your main concerns are wrinkles and fine lines, hyperpigmentation and dark spots, and a loss of firmness and elasticity, retinol is the better choice.

If you are dealing with dehydrated and/or dry skin and simply need hydration and moisture, then hyaluronic acid is your best choice.

Can You Use Retinol and Hyaluronic Acid Together?

Yes, you can use retinol and hyaluronic acid together. It’s actually very common to have both retinol and hyaluronic acid in the same product or as part of the same skincare regimen.

Hyaluronic acid can actually help increase the benefits of retinol and draw moisture to the skin, which helps to hydrate the skin and replenish the skin barrier.

Using them together in the evening can also help prevent your skin from becoming over-stimulated by sunlight during the day and help retinol retain its potency.

Related Posts: Can You Use Niacinamide with Retinol?, Can You Use Niacinamide with Hyaluronic Acid?

Layering Retinol and Hyaluronic Acid

The order of retinol and hyaluronic acid application depends on a few variables like the type of product you are using and your skin type/tolerance, but you’ll usually want to apply retinol first if you are using both a retinol serum and a hyaluronic acid serum.

There are some circumstances when you might consider applying retinol after hyaluronic acid, like if you are using a hyaluronic acid serum and a retinol moisturizer. You also might want to apply retinol on top of hyaluronic acid and other skincare products if you have sensitive skin and want to dilute retinol’s potency.

Hyaluronic Acid and Retinol Picks

The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5



The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 contains low, medium, and high molecular-weight hyaluronic acid, plus a hyaluronic acid crosspolymer for extended long-lasting hydration. It also contains pro-vitamin B5 (panthenol) to help the skin retain moisture and strengthen the skin barrier.

This hyaluronic acid serum is oil-free, alcohol-free, and silicone-free to hydrate your skin without pore-clogging ingredients. It works to moisturize the surface of the skin and plumps fine lines for a smoother-looking complexion.

Cerave Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Serum



Cerave Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Serum contains CeraVe’s highest concentration of hyaluronic acid in the form of sodium hyaluronate in a formula that is non-comedogenic (it won’t clog pores) and fragrance-free. It also contains CeraVe’s proprietary three essential ceramides for additional moisture and skin barrier protection.

Panthenol soothes and provides yet even more moisturizing benefits. CeraVe’s MVE Technology continually releases active ingredients for extended 24-hour moisture.

This hyaluronic acid serum hydrates, plumps fine lines, and decreases redness to help improve your skin’s tone, texture, and moisture level for an overall healthier complexion.

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum



CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum is formulated to improve the look of post-acne marks (caused by post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) and minimize the appearance of pores. It is a gentle formula that contains encapsulated retinol to resurface skin texture.

This serum also contains multi-benefit niacinamide. Niacinamide interrupts melanin (pigment) production, which helps diminish the appearance of post-acne marks, dark spots, and uneven skin tone. The lightweight serum also improves collagen and ceramide production for smoother skin and a stronger skin barrier.

Niacinamide also has benefits for oily acne-prone skin. Niacinamide balances oil production and has even been shown to be effective at treating acne.

Licorice root extract helps brighten the skin. Three essential ceramides moisturize and support the skin barrier. MVE Technology releases moisturizing ingredients throughout the day for extended hydration.

Although the percentage of retinol is not disclosed by CeraVe, after reviewing the ingredient list, this serum does not appear to contain a high concentration of retinol. This retinol serum could be a good choice for sensitive skin and those that need a gentle yet effective skin care solution for acne and anti-aging concerns.

RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules



RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules contain pure RoC retinol to smooth the look of fine lines and wrinkles on your face. These retinol capsules firm and hydrate the skin over time with minimal irritation.

It also contains dimethylmethoxy chromanol, a bio-derived, potent antioxidant that protects skin from free radical damage from sunlight’s UV rays. Also known as Lipochroman-6, this molecule protects against both reactive oxygen species and reactive nitrogen species that age the skin.

These 100% biodegradable fragrance-free capsules are so easy to use. Just twist to open. They feel very silky on your face, thanks to the inclusion of nourishing fatty acid-rich soybean oil. The premeasured dosage makes this retinol treatment easy to use and perfect for travel.

2-in-1 Retinol and Hyaluronic Acid Products: A Perfect Pairing

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Regenerating Cream



Aging and dry skin rejoice! Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Regenerating Cream contains retinol and hyaluronic acid for a hydration and moisture boost.

This retinol moisturizer is formulated with Retinol SA (Sustained Action), which releases retinol slowly to minimize irritation. This retinol cream also contains a glucose complex to strengthen the skin barrier and sodium hyaluronate to hydrate and reduce the look of wrinkles and fine lines for smoother-looking skin after just one day.

Based on the ingredient list, there doesn’t appear to be a high concentration of retinol in this moisturizer, so this may appeal to those just starting out with retinol or those who cannot tolerate high concentrations of retinol.

If you need additional moisture or are experiencing dryness or flaky skin, you can apply a lightweight moisturizer or face oil after this retinol cream. Please note that this cream contains added fragrance.

Related Post: Drmtlgy Needle-Less Serum Review

Final Thoughts on Retinol vs Hyaluronic Acid

Retinol and hyaluronic acid are both important ingredients for a healthy, glowing complexion. They both have anti-aging benefits for the skin, making them quite popular among those looking to keep their skin looking young for as long as possible by improving skin quality and skin texture.

Use them alone or together for brighter, firmer, smoother skin with a reduction in the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.

Thanks for reading, and until next time, here’s to your good skin health!