A skin detox at the deepest level with long-term effects. Sounds promising? The aggravating dermatological disaster retinol purge stinging your skin is more common than you think. I am seeing umpteen Instagram posts about it. After beginning your topical retinol treatment, angry breakouts —especially when you dutifully apply— are expected. Most importantly, a gain in the long run. Say what?!
Have you heard the saying some things get worse before it gets better? The star ingredient in every skincare routine —retinol, works that way. And the “worse” stage is what is commonly called retinol purge. Let’s dive in!
Causes, Duration, And Effective Strategies For Managing The Retinol Purge
You may be very well aware of retinol’s miraculous benefits for your skin. From stubborn acne breakouts and blemishes to enlarged pores and premature aging signs, retinol cures almost everything skin-related, including acne breakouts and other skin issues. Hence the stellar reputation that never fails to tempt anyone who follows a consistent skincare regimen.
Retinol is the most effective, much gentler, over-the-counter form of Retinoid used to address acne and hyperpigmentation, among all kinds of skin woes. In fact, Derms recommends retinol to clear chronic inflammatory acne. Applied to the skin, retinol is popularly known for its scientifically proven anti-aging effects as well (1). In other words, retinol is universally accepted as the gold-standard skincare ingredient.
Retinol Purge: Powering Through From The Deepest Level
If you haven’t already started using retinol in your skincare routine, the numerous benefits of retinol, including its ability to revolutionize your skincare regimen and achieve stunning skin with retinol-enhanced body lotions, shouldn’t go unnoticed. These benefits include enhanced collagen production, treated acne spots and comedones, reduced wrinkles in addition to cleared pores, and improved texture. The cumulative effect of all these ends up with softened, smoother, firmer, and even-toned skin. What more do you want from such a wonder ingredient?
Now, why would such a powerful ingredient cause retinol skin purge? To answer, you need to understand the science behind how the active ingredient retinol works on the skin. Be it damaged, acne-prone, or aging skin, the powerhouse ingredient works by accelerating the skin’s renewal process. It penetrates through the first layer of the skin, the epidermis, to the second layer, the dermis.
Primarily, retinol regulates skin cell turnover by easily getting absorbed by the skin and working towards improving function as well as appearance. Additionally, it neutralizes the free radicals that are causing oxidative damage to the skin. Not to forget, this potent active stimulates the production of collagen as well as elastin in the dermis. All of these combined give you the skin you are looking for.
However, there is a downside as well.
What Is Retinol Purge?
What exactly is retinol skin purge you may ask? Retinol purge is basically a skin reaction indicating that the retinol treatment started working its magic. A pretty common occurrence once you introduce retinol. As the word purge indicates, retinol purge cleanses the skin by triggering a chemical chain reaction to bring new, healthy cells to the skin’s surface.
It’s not just retinol that causes skin purging. Every other ingredient that speeds up cell turnover may cause skin purging. For instance, alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids, glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids. Hence, it would be wise to use one of such ingredients in your skincare routine at a time.
The purging process is not exactly a pretty phase. Now, what does a retinol skin purge look like? Let’s get into the details.
What Does Retinol Purge Look Like?
It is, without a doubt, alarming to take in how your skin reacts to a certain ingredient. Skin purging is how your skin reacts. In this case, the effect of retinol on your skin is termed retinol purge. Surely, the transitory phase is dreaded. Your skin may experience unpleasant side effects, such as an increase in breakouts, flakiness, redness or peeling, clogging, and congestion. It brings out all your hidden spots brewing on the skin to the surface simultaneously. Talk about disappointment!
How exactly does a retinol purge happen? As new skin cells start to move from the inner layers of your skin to the outer layers, retinol unearths acne, or whatever’s clogging your pores. Remember how retinol increases skin cell turnover rapidly? This helps in shedding dead skin cells much faster than normal. Unfortunately, the recovery pushes everything out and results in the aforementioned displeasing side effects. Think excess sebum, flakes, and buildups. This might also be the reason retinol purge is otherwise called retinol uglies.
Retinol purge may look different from person to person —depending on where you fall on the dry-oil scale. Most commonly, it could be a mix of acne, blackheads, whiteheads, cysts, papules (2), and pustules leaving your skin with uneven texture. It may look similar to your skin breaking out, but not exactly. How do you differentiate the both?
Retinol Purge VS Breakout
When using retinol or any new ingredient, it is essential you know the difference between a skin purge and a new breakout or a totally bad reaction to a new product. Skin purge is a temporary, initial flare-up of acne caused by the incorporation of new products into your skin regimen. Until your skin adjusts to the ingredient or product, skin purge stays with you. Gradually, it decreases and leaves you with clear and supple skin.
While retinol skin purge occurs in a more defined area where you frequently break out, an acne breakout happens in new areas where you don’t normally break out. It happens due to stress, excess oil production, diet, hormonal changes, and environmental factors. These can appear anywhere on the body and are larger, deeper, and way more inflamed. The timing also matters. A retinol purge may appear quickly and leave quickly. However, an acne breakout process may be slow —might take about five to eight days to come out and will stick for longer.
On the other hand, a bad reaction is when you break out after using a new product and you rarely have pimples or breakouts. This means the formulation is either too heavy or just not right for your skin type and health. An allergic reaction or sensitivity may leave your skin burning as well. If you suffer from any bad reaction, discontinue using the product right away.
When Does Retinol Purge Start?
You may expect retinol purge in the first couple of weeks, once you start using retinol-infused products. However, not everyone’s skin reacts the same way. Some might be saved from retinol skin purge. If you don’t experience any signs of retinol purge in the first couple of weeks, be thankful! You are in the clear!
How Long Does Retinol Purge Last?
As retinol purge is a natural part of using vitamin A, you can expect some sort of reaction before your skin improves. We can’t have everything easily now, can we?
The good news is that it doesn’t always stay this way. If your skin does get potentially worse, rest assured that it will get much, much better soon. How long does the retinol purge last though? Not forever, of course. Depending on the potency of the product you used, it can last from two to four weeks, no longer than six weeks. On average, it typically spans about two weeks and you may see a noticeable difference within a month of starting retinol treatment. Experts say that you should expect progress by your next skin cycle, which starts after every 28 days.
Again, the retinol purge timeline depends on the condition of your skin —individual skin sensitivity, besides the effectiveness and strength of the product. If your skin was already freaking out, it may take some time to remove all the “retinol uglies” through acne. Meaning, it can vary from person to person.
The reason why you should not worry about retinol purge is that retinol treats all of your skin woes from the root itself. Unlike other skincare ingredients. Plus, it completely zaps the skin issues, leaving a long-term outcome. Now, some escalated skin breakout doesn’t exactly sound bad, right?
In case it persists beyond a month, your skin is irritated, and you are concerned about its severity, consult your dermatologist right away. This may not be a retinol purge after all. Your skin needs a reassess and you may find a deeper, underlying issue. To avoid further complications, be sure to reevaluate your skin regimen as well.
How To Avoid Retinol Purge?
Yes, a retinol purge may sound inevitable. Even so, is there any way to avoid a retinol purge altogether? Well, maybe not completely. After all, cellular stimulation is the end goal here. But you can still minimize retinol’s effects if you use retinol safely.
How do you use retinol safely? The answer is simple. By starting retinol with a low-concentration formula and gradually building your way up to what your skin can tolerate. Retinol is already a gentler form of vitamin A derivative (*) when compared to prescription-grade retinoids that cause a bit more intense and stronger reaction. Nevertheless, always begin new ingredients slowly with a low-concentration formula.
When it comes to retinol, Derms suggests using the ease-in method. For instance, apply retinol twice a week during the first week. In the second week, apply three times. Likewise, ramp up your retinol application until your skin adapts to it and can tolerate it on a daily basis. This is how you minimize the worsening effect of retinol purge.
How To Treat Retinol Purge?
No matter how much caution you take, your skin might still be stubborn and suffer an episode of retinol purge. If then, how can you treat retinol purge? Is it easy to deal with it? Listed below are some essential tips (and a how-to guide) to keep in mind while treating retinol purge.
1. Start Slow And Take Your Time
You may be in a hurry to clear your skin and flaunt a healthy complexion. Hold your horses down though. It is routinely recommended to start slow with a low-concentrated retinol product and wait. Until your skin adapts to the feel of topical retinol, wait and allow your skin to heal. Follow the aforementioned ease-in method and you have a chance to minimize the effects of retinol purge. You don’t want to overburden your skin with this overachiever vitamin A derivative.
2. Never Use Too Much Retinol
Always stick to a pea-sized amount of retinol products for your full face. Too much of a good thing is not helpful, right? Likewise, slathering your skin with a thick coat of retinol (just because it is good) will only bring harm. It is not only a waste of product but also triggers inflammation and dryness. Especially if you are a beginner. No matter the reason you are using it —for acne treatment or aging signs prevention, apply a little bit every time. Regardless of how tolerant your skin is of the retinol, applying lots of it will only irritate your skin. Besides, overusing any clinical-grade products causes more damage and may unfortunately prevent them from working their best.
3. Adjust Your Routine When Needed
When you add retinol to your skincare regimen, be wary of the seasons of the year. Generally speaking, retinol is safe all the time. But depending on your skin and seasons changing, you may need to make changes in your routine. For instance, your retinol-applied skin may feel too dry and red during the winter, especially if you have dry skin. Or if you travel to a place where the weather makes your skin dry. In that case, allow a couple of days to skip and let your skin relax and recover.
4. Consider Sunscreen As Your Buddy
While retinol application may be exceptionally good for your skin, we cannot ignore the fact that it makes your skin more susceptible to harmful UV rays. The reason retinol makes the skin sensitive to the sun is that it speeds up the skin cell’s life cycle. So, you have to protect your skin with an SPF of 30 or higher (after moisturizing). Remember to reapply sunscreen every two hours as well. Might I add that sunscreen reduces the risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation —a common side effect of skin purging?
5. Moisturize And Stay Hydrated
In order to counteract the drying effects of retinol purge, keep your skin hydrated and moisturized. You may use gentle, non-comedogenic moisturizers with glycerin, hyaluronic acid, or ceramides as main ingredients. One method you can use while moisturizing is “sandwich retinol” —a layer of moisturizer under and over your retinol. This way, you can create a protective barrier between your skin and retinol. You can apply retinol straight post-purge.
6. Keep Your Skincare Routine Plain
When your skin is adjusting to retinol, allow all your other products, especially harsh exfoliating ones, to take a backseat. Using multiple skincare products daily together with retinol may cause inflammation. Only in the beginning though. If you are adding new actives along with retinol, be cautious. Let retinol shine at the moment, every other product can follow once the purging settles down.
7. Use Retinol On Alternative Nights
To avoid diving in full force, use retinol every other night and give your skin a break. Experts recommend dropping the usage to two to three times a week in the beginning.
8. Don’t Pick At Your Acne
Picking at your acne results in a prolonged retinol purge period and, even worse, leads to permanent scarring on the skin. Resist all you can, you will have clear and smooth skin waiting on the other side of the retinol skin purge!
9. Don’t Quit Retinol Too Quickly
Once retinol purging appears, it is easy to think “I will just discontinue using retinol!” Please don’t. Remember that it is a temporary side effect and you will stop the progress you have made so far if you discontinue in the middle. Give it a couple of weeks. If you are experiencing severe levels of burning or peeling, contact your dermatologist immediately.
Although you cannot intentionally avoid it, these tips will most definitely help you in the dreadful stage known as the retinol purge.
If you don’t have retinol in your regimen, it’s time to add it, stat. Retinol may not be for those with rosacea and eczema. But it is the gold-star ingredient with a great rap sheet for reversing skin damage and preventing aging signs. As the most studied skincare ingredient, it promises the result you are looking for. Not instantly, which is the only drawback. If you have enough patience and stay consistent, you will be exposed to fresher, clearer skin in no time. Bid goodbye to the purged layers!
Retinol purging can last from two to six weeks, not longer than that, depending on the skin type and condition.
Ultimately, yes. Retinol purging is considered a positive signal your body is giving you.