Retinol has become the gold standard for treating all sorts of skin conditions, from acne to signs of aging, but there’s a catch: In most cases, it makes things worse. worse before I make them better. Chances are, if you’ve ever started a new retinoid regimen, you’re all too familiar with what beauty professionals affectionately call “ugly retinol,” aka skin purging.
Retinol flushing, which usually results in a wave of new pimples along with peeling skin, is a common side effect of any new retinoid routine, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Below, derms explain everything you need to know and how to get over it without throwing away your retinol forever.
What is skin cleansing?
Retinol’s claim to fame is that it promotes cell turnover, which means it brings new, healthy cells to the skin’s surface to replace old, dead ones. But in the process, what’s more it brings out all sorts of other things that are hiding under the skin, which can lead to sudden breakouts. “Skin purging occurs when new ingredients, like retinol, promote increased cell turnover, leading to clogging and worsening breakouts. This is particularly the case when oil and debris that are trapped deeper beneath the skin come to the surface,” explains the board-certified dermatologist. Michele J. Farber, MD, of the Schweiger Dermatology Group.
So, for example, if you only had one or two pimples when you started your retinoid, after continued, consistent use, that number can go up before eventually going down forever. “It’s not that the retinol is making you break out more, it’s just bringing the pimples that are brewing below the surface to the surface all at once,” explains board-certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD.
All skin types are prone to purging, but it can look different depending on where you are on the oily-dry skin spectrum. “Skin on either end will be more likely to purge, as dry skin is more likely to become irritated and oily skin may have more blockages to remove with new products,” says Dr. Farber.
While retinol definitely gets a bad rap when it comes to skin cleansing, it’s not the only culprit. “Any ingredient that causes cell turnover can cause a purge, and that includes exfoliating acids like alpha and beta hydroxy acids,” says Dr. Farber. Think: glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids, all of which are common ingredients in acne treatments. To understand where your purge is coming from, be sure to only add one of these types of actives to your routine at a time.
How do you know if your skin is purging, breaking out, or having a reaction?
No matter what ingredient is behind your purge, the process tends to look the same. Think redness, new pimples, blackheads, and small bumps. According to Dr. Farber, it usually occurs in areas where it is Already experiencing a rupture below the surface. That said, it’s important to differentiate between a purge and an unrelated new breakout. “Typically, a purge occurs soon after introducing a new acne ingredient, while a new breakout can occur with stress, cycling, or the introduction of a new skincare product like makeup, serum, or too thick moisturizer,” says Dr. Farber. If it’s in new areas, it’s more likely to be a new outbreak, which means you’ll need to treat it differently.
And if it’s rarely pimples, but they suddenly flare up after introducing a new product, you may not actually be purging at all. Aside from cell turnover, it could mean that the product’s formulation just isn’t right for your skin. “If you get a breakout after using a product and you don’t normally have acne-prone skin, then it may indicate the product is too heavy for your skin,” says board-certified dermatologist Jennifer Chwalek, MD, of Union Square. Laser. Dermatology. She suggests checking the ingredient list to see if it contains things like mineral oil, coconut oil, silicones, or lanolin, which could be clogging your pores while the retinol tries to clean them out.
It’s also important to understand the difference between a “purge” and a full-blown reaction, which will leave your skin red, burning, and flaky. “If you have any skin reaction, you should discontinue all your skin care products and use only a gentle, fragrance-free cleanser and moisturizer,” says Dr. Chwelak. “Once the irritation or breakout is gone and your skin back to baseline, you can restart your products slowly, one at a time over the course of a few weeks.”
How to deal with skin cleansing
While purging may be unavoidable, it doesn’t mean you’re totally stuck. First things first, be sure to start slowly when introducing retinol into your routine: use a low-concentration formula once a week to get your skin used to it, and over time you can ramp things up to more frequent applications. Also, be sure to moisturize. “A big misconception is that people often don’t moisturize when they feel like their skin is oily,” says Dr. Farber. “New acne products are often drying and will continue to break out if you don’t add a moisturizer to repair the skin barrier.” She suggests using a light, oil-free moisturizer to keep things balanced.
If the irritation is unbearable, there are a few other tricks you can employ to make your retinol more tolerable. “Mix it with moisturizer, put it on and wash it off, or lower the concentration of retinol,” says Dr. Rabach. Other dermatologists are fans of the “retinol sandwich” method, which involves putting on moisturizer before Y after your retinoid for an extra layer of protection for your skin.
How long does the retinol purge last?
While sudden outbreaks of a product intended for struggle breakouts can feel like a big betrayal, it’s worth noting that it won’t last forever. According to Dr. Rabach, you should be clear after a week or two (and keep in mind that it usually takes two to three months for any new acne treatment to really start working its magic). That said, if he’s still feeling irritation or clogging after three to four weeks, it may be time to talk to a dermatologist to re-evaluate his regimen. That’s because if your skin has become too irritated, it won’t be able to recover and therefore adjust your new retinol if you keep slathering it on. “The challenge of applying an active ingredient when the skin is already compromised is that you’ll end up in this cycle where it becomes less and less easy to tolerate,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York. City.
General Retinol Tips to Keep in Mind as You Adjust
1. Stick to a pea-sized amount
You never want to use too much retinol, but especially at first. It’s a waste of product and can also make it more irritating than it needs to be.
“There is a relationship between how much product is applied to the skin and how potentially irritating it is,” says Dr. Garshick. “So if you use a lot of retinoid in a given application, regardless of how tolerant your skin is to retinoid, if you use a lot, it’s more likely to cause irritation.”
2. Adapt your use to your environment and habits
Retinol is generally safe to use 365 days a year, but depending on your skin, environment, and habits, you may need to change your use throughout the year.
“Even if you’ve been taking a retinoid for, say, years, and generally tolerate it well, if you go on a trip and find that the change of environment makes your skin a little drier, you may have red, dry, or itchy,” says Dr. Garshick. “It’s best to skip a day or two to allow the skin to recover and then start over.”
Even if you’re in your normal environment, the change of seasons can make your skin more sensitive, whether it’s cold air drying, increased sun exposure, or laser treatment that make your skin more sensitive . Listen to your skin and adjust your routine when necessary.
3. Take your time
While it takes a few weeks to get over the purge, it will take a few more weeks to notice any benefit to your skin. If your skin tolerates it, keep it for about two months to see if it’s making a difference.
“Retinoids work by binding to and activating receptors in the skin called retinoic acid receptors which then affect how the skin behaves,” says Caren Campbell, MD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Napa and San Fransico, California. “It takes time for these changes to kick in and affect the way the skin behaves, which is why retinoids take an average of six weeks to work for acne and over six months for anti-aging.”
4. Remember not to have use retinol
Retinol is a great ingredient, but if you’ve been trying it for more than three weeks, you’re using a low concentration, and you still feel irritated, it may not be for you and that’s okay.
“If you put something in and find that your skin immediately burns or itches, or the next day you experience redness, dryness, or flaking, or you just feel like your skin is developing some kind of reaction, it may seem like you’re probably not for that ingredient” says Dr. Garshick. “Not all ingredients have to be used on all skin types.”
3 Retinol Serums to Try
Do you have more questions about retinol? Let board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD answer them for you:
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