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I’m David O'Regan and I’m a FullStack developer from Ireland.

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I’m David O'Regan and I’m a FullStack developer from Ireland.

React Refs - WTF Are They?



During a job interview today I was asked to explain the concept of refs in React and I'll admit, it threw me for a bit of a loop.

Had I heard of refs before? Sure! But did I have any idea what they actually did or what they were for? Not a breeze.

So in a effort to fix that, I'm writing this small post to talk about what they are, and when to use them.

What Are Refs

Refs provide a way to access DOM nodes or React elements created in the render method.

In a react app, the data flow is set up so parents can only interact with children via props.

To modify a child, you re-render it via new props.

However, sometimes you might need to re-render / update the child compoenent outside of this dataflow.


  • The component in question could be a instance of a React component
  • The component in question could be a DOM element

When To Use Refs

Before we start; Avoid using refs for anything that can be done declaratively.

For example, instead of exposing open() and close() methods on a Dialog component, pass an isOpen prop to it.

That said, you can use refs for;

  • Managing focus, text selection, or media playback.
  • Triggering imperative animations.
  • Integrating with third-party DOM libraries.

Seriously though, this method is a escape hatch, not a standard. Avoid refs when possible

Create A Ref

Refs are created using React.createRef() and attached to React elements via the ref attribute. Refs are commonly assigned to an instance property when a component is constructed so they can be referenced throughout the component.

class MyComponent extends React.Component {
  constructor(props) {
    this.myRef = React.createRef();

  render() {
    return <div ref={this.myRef} />;


Accessing Refs

When a ref is passed to an element in render, a reference to the node becomes accessible at the current attribute of the ref.

const node = this.myRef.current;

The value of the ref differs depending on the type of the node:

  • When the ref attribute is used on an HTML element, the ref created in the constructor with React.createRef() receives the underlying DOM element as its current property.
  • When the ref attribute is used on a custom class component, the ref object receives the mounted instance of the component as its current.
  • You may not use the ref attribute on function components because they don’t have instances.


So this is the very basic idea behind refs, hopefully you've found this as useful as I did when learning about refs.

For more information checkout the API docs here

David O'Regan

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