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React refs and dom references

I try to build good tools for JavaScript and React 😅
・2 min read


Sometimes you need to have access to a DOM element in React (like for focusing an input). To do so, React has a system of refs that you can use:

  • with hooks:
const MyComponent = () => {
  const inputRef = React.useRef();

  React.useEffect(() => {
  }, []);

  return <input ref={inputRef} />;
  • with classes:
class MyComponent extends React.Component {
  inputRef = React.createRef();

  componentDidMount() {

  render() {
    return <input ref={this.inputRef} />;

Render lag

What I call "render lag" is the fact that refs that are bound to DOM elements will always be 1 render late: when doing ref={inputRef}, react-dom attached the domElement once it is created and added to DOM tree. So in order for the ref to be bound to the right DOM element, a render need to occur.

Which is why, if you want to safely use refs + dom nodes, you should only access them in methods that run after the renders (useEffect / useLayoutEffect / componentDidMount / componentDidUpdate).
But you shouldn't read refs' value directly within the render itself (render method / useMemo).


Let's say we are rendering an input and then dispatching one re-render, this is what will happen:

# Initial render
ref.current == null 🚫
render() is called
ref.current <- domElement

# Effect after the initial render
ref.current == domElement ✅

## 2nd render
ref.current == domElement ❗️
render() is called
ref.current <- domElement'

# Effect after the initial render
ref.current == domElement' ✅

In most cases, domElement and domElement' are the same, but if you do something like this, it won't be the case:

const MyComponent = () => {
  const elementRef = React.useRef();
  const [state, setState] = React.useState(); 
  return (
      ? <elementA ref={elementRef} />
      : <elementB ref={elementRef} />


Refs can be a bit tricky to use but as long as we keep in mind that they should only be used in effects, it should be fine.

And if you really need to use the dom element in your render (like to trigger other effects), you may want to store it in a state:

const MyComponent = () => {
  const ref = React.useRef();
  const [element, setElement] = React.useState(null);

  // Effect without dependencies to run it at every render
  // but setElement won't trigger a re-render if the value didn't change so that's fine
  React.useEffect(() => {

  // now it is safe to use the variable `element` within the render

  return <element ref={ref} />;

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