React useRef Hook

React useRef Hook

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In this post we?ll cover what the useRef Hook is, what we can use it for and some advice for using it.

The useRef Hook is a function that returns a mutable ref object whose .current property is initialized with the passed argument (initialValue). The returned object will persist for the full lifetime of the component.

const refContainer = useRef(initialValue);

There are two main uses of useRef that are explained in the following sections: Accessing the DOM nodes or React elements and keeping a mutable variable.

Accessing the DOM nodes or React elements

If you?ve worked with React for a while, you might be used to using refs for this purpose. Below there?s an example of the use of refs in class components:

And its equivalent using a functional component:

?Notice that with a functional component we are using useRef instead of createRef. If you create a ref using createRef in a functional component, React will create a new instance of the ref on every re-render instead of keeping it between renders.

Keeping a mutable variable

Both in class components and functional components using Hooks, we have two ways of keeping data between re-renders:

In class components

  • In the component state: Every time the state changes, the component will be re-rendered.
  • In an instance variable: The variable will persist for the full lifetime of the component. Changes in an instance variable won?t generate a re-render.

In functional components

The equivalent ways in functional components using Hooks:

  • In a state variable: useState or useReducer. Updates in state variables will cause a re-render of the component.
  • In a ref: Equivalent to instance variables in class components. Mutating the .current property won?t cause a re-render.

Below is an example of keeping a mutable variable in a ref. The component <Timer> initializes a setInterval on every re-render and needs to implement a callback to stop its interval imperatively:

Updating a ref

In the Hooks FAQ Is there something like instance variables? this is mentioned:

?Unless you?re doing lazy initialization, avoid setting refs during rendering ? this can lead to surprising behavior. Instead, typically you want to modify refs in event handlers and effects.?

Why is that? To understand it, we need to do a brief refresh of the React component lifecycle with Hooks:

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The ?Render phase? may be restarted by React so it has to be pure, it can?t have side effects.

Updating a ref value is a side effect.

All side effects should be done in the ?Layout phase? or in the ?Commit phase?; inside useLayoutEffect or the useEffect when using React Hooks.

Here is the right version of the example above:

Summing up

The useRef Hook lets us create mutable variables inside functional components. There are three main key points that you should keep in mind when using the useRef Hook:

  • A ref created with useRef will be created only when the component has been mounted and preserved for the full lifecycle.
  • Refs can be used for accessing DOM nodes or React elements, and for storing mutable variables (like with instance variables in class components).
  • Updating a ref is a side effect so it should be done only inside a useEffect (or useLayoutEffect) or inside an event handler.
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