Storing values with the useRef hook

Updated 22 November 2020
·
react

React's useRef hook is used to store references to DOM elements. But did you know you can store and update values with useRef?

Storing element references with useRef

As the name suggests, useRef can store a reference to a DOM element. To do this, create the ref, and then pass it into the element:

const Component = () => {
    const ref = useRef(null);
    return <div ref={ref}> Hello world </div>;
};

With this reference, you can do lots of useful things like:

  • Grabbing an element's height and width
  • Seeing whether a scrollbar is present
  • Calling focus() on the element at a certain moment

Storing and updating values with useRef

Another use-case for useRef allows us to store values, which you can later use and change:

const Component = () => {
    const ref = useRef({
        renderCount: 0
    });

    // Increase the render count on every re-render
    ref.current.renderCount += 1;

    return <>Hello world</>;
}

To change the ref's value, you will need to change ref.current (and not ref itself!)

useRef vs useState: What's wrong with useState?

The key difference between useState and useRef is that:

  • If you update the state, your component will re-render
  • If you update the value stored in your ref, nothing will happen

If you don’t need the component to re-render (or you don't want the component to re-render), useRef may be a good candidate.

What’s the difference between useRef and using a variable?

If you tried initializing a variable like this:

const Component = () => {
    let renderCount = 0;
    renderCount += 1;

    return <>Hello world</>;
}

It would get end up getting re-initialized each time the component renders. If you use a ref, the value you store in it will persist between renders of your component.

What about if I define the variable outside of the component?

If you initialize the value outside of your component, this value will be global to all instances of Component.

So if you change the value, it will affect the value for all the other components you have rendered on your page.

let renderCount = 0;

const Component = () => {
    // If you had 10 Components on the page, they would all update the same
    // renderCount value and it would already be at 10 after one render!
    renderCount += 1;
    return <>Hello world</>;
}

useRef vs createRef

createRef is the API that React provided for refs before hooks came around:

import { createRef } from 'react';

class Component extends React.Component() {
    ref = createRef();

    render() {
        this.ref.renderCount += 1;
        return <div>Hello world</div>;
    }
}

If you're using functional components I would recommend using useRef over createRef.

How to use useRef in class components

As useRef is a hook, it will only work with functional components.

With class components, you can use the createRef() example I showed above.

You can also achieve the same thing using a class variable:

class Component extends React.Component() {
    renderCount = 0;

    render() {
        this.renderCount += 1;
        return <div>Hello world</div>;
    }
}
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