In my mind, there are different levels of skincare—kind of like a video game, if you will. The first level is, of course, the basics—all about cleansing, moisturizing, and protecting your skin (SPF, of course). Each level adds a handful of treatment options and, with those, a bevy of complications to keep in mind. The difficulty, as we know, is that the more you put on your face, the more likely something is going to go wrong.
Once you’ve passed those lower levels of skincare, it’s time to really think about the ingredients you’re using—what they do, how you react to them, and how they might react to other ingredients in your routine. For example, we know niacinamide and vitamin C are a power couple when it comes to fighting signs of aging. But what about some of our other favorite ingredients?
When it comes to skincare fame, hyaluronic acid and retinol pretty much take the cake for most iconic ingredients—so much so that even my non-skincare-obsessed boyfriend knows about them. But what happens when you use them together? Can two powerhouses work together? Or will they fight for the spotlight and wreak havoc on your face? We asked board-certified dermatologists Marina Peredo, MD, and Ranella Hirsch, MD, to help us investigate. Keep reading to learn more.
Meet the Expert
What Is Hyaluronic Acid?
While both ingredients are major players when it comes to skincare ingredients, here’s a quick refresher.
Hyaluronic acid is a hydrating ingredient that moisturizes skin, reduces the appearance of wrinkles, replenishes cell moisture, and speeds wound healing, according to Peredo. To get real scientific about it, Hirsch says hyaluronic acid is a sugar molecule that occurs naturally in the skin and helps bind water to collagen, which in turn traps it in the skin and thus increases hydration. And, as we know, hydration gives skin that dewy, glowy effect we all strive for. It’s generally safe for all skin types and has no known side effects (at least when applied topically).
What Is Retinol?
If hyaluronic acid is the popular girl who’s nice to everyone, think of retinol as her equally popular but very intimidating best friend. According to Hirsch, retinol is an antioxidant that increases cell turnover, boosts collagen production, and regulates oil production—it’s regularly lauded as a godsend for anyone looking to address texture, acne, or signs of aging. But it also comes with some serious side effects (both doctors note dryness, peeling, and irritation) and the potential for intense, prolonged purging. Hence the intimidation.
Can You Use Hyaluronic Acid and Retinol Together?
Much like the girls in our high school analogy, hyaluronic acid and retinol are a match made in heaven. Where retinol is rough, hyaluronic acid is soft; where hyaluronic acid is weak, retinol is strong. Together, they balance each other out without compromising the things that make them unique. It’s exactly what makes the combination one of the most popular across all skincare ingredients.
Benefits of Using Hyaluronic Acid and Retinol Together
Like we said, hyaluronic acid and retinol are the ultimate duo. Together, they have a sort of synergistic effect, says Peredo, making it easier to reap the benefits of retinol without suffering any of the usual dryness thanks to the moisture boost from hyaluronic acid.
As Peredo explains, hyaluronic acid helps keep retinol in check, increasing the permeability of the skin. So when combined, the two ingredients can leave your skin clearer, smoother, and more hydrated and moisturized. What more could you ask for?
Not to mention it’s a combination you might already be using: As Hirsch points out, many moisturizers contain hyaluronic acid anyway. Likewise, she says many high-quality, over-the-counter retinol products are formulated with hydrating and calming ingredients to help mitigate irritation, so there’s a chance your retinol even contains some hyaluronic acid.
Potential Side Effects
As is the case with all skincare ingredients, there’s always some sort of potential for irritation. That potential is fairly high with retinol and very low with hyaluronic acid.
So, yes, there is still a chance of irritation but it is a very, very small one—and that irritation would likely be caused not by the combination of retinol and hyaluronic acid but by the retinol itself, explains Peredo. Hirsch strongly agrees and says she’s not sure she knows of any possible side effects associated with the combination.
How to Use Hyaluronic Acid With Retinol
Like Hirsch mentioned, there’s actually a good chance you’re already using a product with hyaluronic acid in it—whether it be a moisturizer or the retinol formulation itself. You should always be using a moisturizer after retinol, so using one with hyaluronic acid can help keep your routine streamlined. If your retinol is formulated with hyaluronic acid in it, you can assume the products are formulated by a reputable brand and chemists have factored in keeping them both stable in a single preparation, she says. For oilier skin types, Hirsch recommends going with one of these two options.
Peredo suggests applying a moisturizer or hyaluronic acid in gel form around 30 minutes after applying retinol so that the treatment can dry and soak into the skin before moisturizing. For those with dry or sensitive skin, Hirsch suggests using a hyaluronic acid serum prior to retinol. Peredo agrees, pointing out that serum- and cream-based formulas can be more effective for drier skin types. Then, once the retinol has dried, both doctors suggest applying a moisturizer.
An important note: Peredo and Hirsch both make a point of emphasizing the importance of proper application methods when it comes to retinol and hyaluronic acid. Be sure to give your retinol time to dry and seep into the skin before moving on to the next steps. This, they say, will minimize irritation.
The Final Takeaway
Not only can you use hyaluronic acid and retinol together, but both doctors actually encourage you to. And they’re not alone: Few other ingredient combinations are as well-regarded as hyaluronic acid and retinol in the skincare community.
On their own, hyaluronic acid and retinol are both considered two of the most popular ingredients in anti-aging skincare products. Because hyaluronic acid draws water into the skin while retinol speeds cellular turnover, you can counteract some of retinol’s notorious drying properties while still allowing the ingredient to penetrate the outer layer of the skin. If anything, results are only better when you combine the two. So give the combo a try—you can thank me later.