When should I use arrow functions with React?

When used incorrectly, arrow functions cause performance issues. But they also make writing code so much easier. So how can I use them without making my components crawl?

James K Nelson

Hi! I've been playing with JavaScript for over half my life, and am building Frontend Armory to help share what I've learned along the way!

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Yep, arrow functions are great. They do look nicer, they do take less keystrokes, and they are more fun. But there is a much better reason to use arrow functions…

Arrows prevent this bugs #

Arrow functions don’t redefine the value of this within their function body. This makes it a lot easier to predict their behavior when passed as callbacks, and prevents bugs caused by use of this within callbacks.

Here’s an example of the type of bug that arrow functions prevent. At first glance, you may expect the button’s background color to change to red when you click it. But if you actually click the button, you’ll find that nothing changes…

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So what’s gone wrong? The problem is that the handleClick method isn’t a method at all! JavaScript doesn’t actually have methods. It only has functions. And the value of this inside those functions has some funny rules. In this case, those rules cause this to be null.

Don’t believe this is null? You can check it by inserting alert(this) as the first line of handleClick().

Let’s test your understanding with a little quiz: can you explain the reason that this is null in the example? Spend a few moments figuring it out, then check your answer below.

In a JavaScript method, the value of this has nothing to do with the class on which it was defined. Instead, it depends on the object that it was called upon.

In terms of . syntax, this means that if you call obj.someMethod(), the value of this within someMethod will be obj – regardless of where someMethod was originally defined! If you just call someMethod() without using a ., this will be null.

There are two important exceptions:

  • You can force a specific value of this with a function’s call, apply and bind methods
  • If the function is an => arrow function, this is hard-wired to refer to the value of this at the location where the function was defined

None of these exceptions apply in the above example, and you don’t know how handleClick is called (because it is called within the React’s button component). As such, you have no idea what this will be!

JS Reference

My explanation of this is a bit like high school chemistry; it’s a nice idea but it may give an expert a heart attack.

If all you want to do is use React, it is probably good enough. But otherwise go read the details at MDN.

How’d you go? Don’t worry too much if you’re a little confused; this is confusing, even for the experts. But there is one important thing that you need to remember:

Once you’ve passed a method as a callback, you have no idea how it will be called, and thus no idea what this will be.

That is, unless you use an arrow function.

In an arrow function, this means the same thing within the function body as it does outside of it. Which means that if you use arrow functions within your component’s render or lifecycle methods, they can use this and this.setState with no surprises.

For example, you could fix the above example by replacing the handleClick callback with an arrow function:

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Simple, right? But if you do need help remembering the rule, just remember that arrow functions can’t touch this!

But this old-school classic doesn’t explain why you wouldn’t want to use arrow functions. So let’s continue.

Browser support #

Browser support for arrows in September 2018 is around 87%, i.e. everything except IE (pun intended - sorry!) This means that you wouldn’t want to use arrow functions if you’re writing raw JavaScript for IE. But you already know that. And you’re probably transpiling your code anyway.

Performance implications #

The biggest problem you can have with arrows is that they’re too easy to define. You may find yourself defining functions where don’t actually need them. But why would too many functions be a problem?

Function definition is… usually not that expensive #

Each time your browser executes a => statement, it needs to create a new function object. And this can be an expensive operation, depending on the circumstances.

As of September 2018, older browsers like IE and Safari can still be orders of magnitude slower at defining functions than calling existing ones. However, for modern versions of Chrome and Firefox, arrow functions are insignificant from a performance perspective. To get a feel for this, try running this benchmark over a number of different browsers.

But say you’re unlucky enough to be building a major app that needs to support older browsers. Even then, you’ll need to be defining hundreds or thousands of arrow functions per second for it to become an issue. I’ve only ever run into one such situation, which was with very large virtualized tables with event handlers on every cell.

So don’t panic about the performance cost. If your component is only rendering once or twice on a page, it won’t be a problem. And if you do start rendering enough elements to feel some lag, you can easily factor out the arrows later.

Two functions are never equal to each other #

While arrow functions can slow down a component, the bigger problem is that they can slow down child components. Which isn’t to say that they will slow down child components; they probably won’t. That is, they won’t unless those child components are optimized with PureComponent or shouldComponentUpdate.

So what’s the problem? Two identical arrow functions are not equal. You can see this for yourself in the example below, where the functions a and b are equivalent, but not equal:

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Optimizations based on PureComponent and shouldComponentUpdate work by skipping work when no props have changed. Learn more at the React docs.

If you use arrow functions within render, each call to render will create new function objects. If you then pass these functions to child elements via props, optimizations based on PureComponent or shouldComponentUpdate will fail (as the arrow function props will change on every render).

You can see this in action in the following example where the <PropChangeCounter /> component prints the number of times that each of its props have changed. Notice how constant doesn’t change, while onChange does. This is because each call to render creates a new arrow function!

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To reiterate, arrow functions do not affect performance. The problems only arise when you re-create the same arrow function on each render. Which means there is a simple fix…

Defining arrows once #

If performance is important for your component, you’ll want to define any arrow functions just once. And the obvious time to do this is when the component loads.

One way of accomplishing this would be to define all your arrow functions in the constructor. Of course, this would become unwieldy for any reasonably complex component, and wouldn’t really have any benefit over simply using Function.prototype.bind.

However, if you’re using Babel (or create-react-app) to build your source, you have another option: setting arrow functions as class fields (or arrow methods).

For example, you could fix the bug in the first example by redefining handleClick as an arrow function method:

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This gives you the best of both worlds. You get the improved performance from only defining functions once, but you still get the simple method-like syntax.

Don’t Panic #

A wise man once said that “premature optimization is the root of all evil”. He was probably exaggerating a little bit, but the point he was trying to make is a good one.

You won’t introduce any bugs by using too many arrow functions. You probably will introduce bugs but not using enough.

So to wrap things up, here are the three rules of arrow functions:

  1. If your environment supports arrow methods, you can use them for all methods.

  2. Use arrow functions within render. It’s ok. I promise.

  3. If performance becomes an issue, check whether arrow functions are causing PureComponent or shouldComponentUpdate to make unnecessary updates.