Surviving the Retinol Purge: What to Expect and How to Cope

Retinol is generally known for its potential anti-aging, anti-acne, skin cell renewal, and collagen-stimulating properties. However, it may lead to some side reactions on your skin, known as the 'retinol purge.' This purging can lead to red, irritated, flaky, and sensitive skin in new retinol users. Retinol purging can be easily managed by following simple adjustments in your skincare routine and by acclimatizing your skin well with this active ingredient. Read the article to learn more about retinol purging and how you can handle it.

What is a retinol purge?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative and is extensively recommended by dermatologists for acne, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and many more issues. Retinol is proposed to help unclog the pores and block inflammatory pathways on the skin, which helps improve it. However, this magic compound can come with some side effects, known as the 'retinol purge.' Retinol-induced skin flaring is one of the common side effects seen in new users.

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As the blockages from the clogged pores are pushed upward from the deeper skin layer, the skin can start flaring up. A flared phase is also known as the 'active phase' in which the skin experiences intense irritation and itching. Some people experience worsening of complexion and acne-like bumps on their faces during the flared phase.

What does retinol purging look like?

A person experiencing skin peeling with retinol can get redness, itching, breakouts, or flaky skin regardless of skin type. Studies suggest that people using a hydroalcoholic formulation of tretinoin 0.05% (prescription retinol) experienced increased skin irritation, and about 20% were reported to develop acne flaring in the initial phase of the retinol treatment.

Retinol purging

Retinol purging could also lead to breakouts, but they are different, and the treatment of retinol purging also varies from acne treatment.

Retinol purgingAcne breakout
LocationOccurs in any area of the face, irrespective of the skin type or condition.Generally occurs in oily and clogged areas of the face and arises in the same areas frequently.
DurationSubsides within 2–4 weeks.Might last longer than six weeks.
AppearanceTiny bumps that are painful to touch and come along a white or a black head.These bumps are filled with pus cells.
After effectsIt leaves the skin clear after your skin gets acclimatized and renewed well.Leaves scars and marks after subsiding.

How long does a retinol purge last?

A beginner might start getting a retinol reaction after a few weeks of use. A typical retinol purge could last two to four weeks, depending on a person's skin type.

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People with hypersensitive skin, eczema, or rosacea are not advised to use retinol without consultation from a dermatologist.

How to avoid a retinol purge

Retinol purging can be limited to some extent by following these tips:

Gradual introduction

A beginner should never start with a higher concentration or amount of retinol, thinking that it will lead to higher cell stimulation. A higher concentration of retinol can lead to retinol burn or retinol rash.

The concentration of over-the-counter retinol creams or serums generally varies between 0.25–1%. Clinical trials on humans have reported that 0.3–0.5% retinol is safe and effective for skin brightening and elasticity support. Retinol tolerance also varies from person to person; hence, there is no single concentration to start with. Moreover, if you are a beginner, you might not need to apply retinol every day and can instead use it twice or thrice a week.

When you feel that your skin has become tolerant to retinol, then you can increase its concentration and continue with that for a month or so before increasing it further.

Hydration and moisturization

Maintaining good moisturization and a hydrated body can help manage retinol side effects. A moisturizer containing hyaluronic acid or ceramides can help sustain a good skin barrier and soothe retinol-caused dryness irritation.

Water is known to play a key role in maintaining a physiological balance, and a well-hydrated body has been demonstrated to impact the skin positively and make it plump and smooth. Additionally, fruits enriched with water and antioxidants can be consumed for a healthy gut and glowing skin.

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Sunscreen use

Retinol stimulates cells deeper in the skin and makes your skin more prone to sunburns by increasing skin cell turnover (removal of older skin cells pushing new cells from below). So, protecting your skin from harmful UV radiation becomes extremely important. Make sure to use a thick layer of SPF 30+ or above to avoid sun damage.

Avoiding harsh soaps

Skin cleansing is generally done by using one of the two types of cleansers available in the market:

  • Soap-based cleansers. Considered harsh and can imbalance skin's pH, causing skin barrier disruption and dryness.
  • Synthetic detergents or syndets. Considered mild and protective of the skin's natural moisture and structure.

As the skin is already very sensitive at retinol purge, using a harsh soap-based cleanser could exacerbate the condition and make it dry and peeling. So, you should avoid using soap-based cleansers during any type of skin purging.,

Skincare routine adjustments

If you are following a skincare routine with multiple active ingredients, you must stop using them to minimize redness and irritation. Skincare products containing the following ingredients should be avoided with retinol:

Sandwich method

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The 'sandwich method' is a way by which you can create a buffer layer of your moisturizer between your face and retinol. This method will reduce the reach of retinoic acid into the skin, thereby diluting its effect.

As retinol makes your skin photosensitive, it is not advised to be used in the daytime. Additionally, retinoids can be broken down upon exposure to UV rays. Try to use retinol at nighttime and always wear sunscreen during the day to protect your skin's health from damaging sun rays and support retinol's effectiveness.

When to seek professional help

It's advisable to seek professional help if:

  • Your retinol-induced breakouts keep increasing and become painful even after a month from the start of your treatment.
  • You have any skin condition like rosacea, eczema, dermatitis, or psoriasis, or you are prone to skin allergies.
  • You are using topical corticosteroids, skincare with other active ingredients, or some prescription medicine.

Purging vs. acne breakouts look very similar, but their reasons are very different. Retinol-induced breakouts could also appear on non-acne-prone skin types due to their cell stimulation properties. Purging is a temporary skin reaction to the newly incorporated retinol and can be easily managed. Effective retinol use and following simple rules such as starting with a minimum concentration, not mixing retinol with other active ingredients, proper sun protection, moisturization, and avoiding chemical exfoliation can make your retinol journey smoother.

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