Anyone who’s ever thought about trying a retinoid to treat acne or improve their skin has probably heard or experienced the ‘retinoid purge.’ But what exactly is it, and how can you get over it?
A retinoid purge is the phase of skin adjustment that occurs when first starting to use a retinoid-based product.
As your skin gets used to this new active ingredient, it can react in various ways, such as increased dryness, redness, and breakouts.
And while this is pretty common, it is no less uncomfortable, which is why in this thorough guide, I will teach you everything you need to know about the retinoid purge, what causes it, why some people are more prone to it than others, and how to get over it and make your retinoid experience a more pleasant one.
Understanding The Retinoid Purge
This happens because, once applied to the skin, the active ingredient in your retinoid will travel deeper into the epidermis and bind to specific receptors involved in gene expression and cell differentiation in the nucleus of cells.
This action will change how the skin cells behave, causing immature cells to differentiate into mature ones and develop specific functions, such as collagen production for skin repair and renewal.
Additionally, retinoids encourage the skin cells to behave in a “younger” way, renewing themselves quicker and traveling to the skin’s surface faster.
However, this is when the process of purging will be kickstarted; as the skin cells start to ascend on their journey toward the skin’s surface, they will also bring out the sluggish dead skin cells that got stuck inside the pores and would’ve become pimples at different points in time, all out at the same time.
This is why a purge is described as a sudden onset of breakouts, as the skin starts to expel the microcomedones and cysts that have been clogging up the pores for a while.
The retinoid purge is sometimes referred to as “purging acne” because it can look and feel like an outbreak of acne, but it’s actually just the result of your retinoid doing its job and cleaning out the deeper layers of your skin.
The Causes and Factors Contributing to a Retinoid Purge
Not everyone will experience a retinoid purge. However, some people are more prone to it than others.
Here are some causes and factors that can contribute to a retinoid purge:
Clogged pores are one of the main causes of purging.
This is because when your pores are clogged, microcomedones that would have become pimples at different points in time start to form.
However, when you apply retinoid products to your skin, and they speed up cellular turnover, these microcomedones start to be pushed to the skin’s surface faster, leading to increased breakouts.
Bacterial overgrowth inside the pores occurs when the passage becomes clogged with oil and dead skin cells and attracts a particular strain of bacteria that prefer the airless environment and use the cellular debris as a food source that enables them to grow and proliferate.
Bacterial overgrowth will trigger the immune system into action, which in turn will cause inflammation and contribute to the formation of pimples.
Therefore, if a bacterial overgrowth is already present in the pores, a retinoid will most likely speed up the process of pimple formation, leading to what we know as a purge.
Weakened Skin Barrier
The skin barrier is the protective layer of our skin that shields it from pathogens and environmental aggressors.
Made up of lipids, proteins, and other substances, the skin barrier prevents transepidermal moisture loss, keeps our skin hydrated and supple, and maintains our pH levels in balance, which is important in preventing the overgrowth of pathogens.
However, the skin barrier can weaken due to many factors, such as harsh cleansing, over-exfoliation, and excessive use of strong retinoids.
This results in decreased lipids and immature skin cells on the skin’s surface. However, due to their inability to retain moisture as well as their inferior barrier function, the skin can become more prone to inflammation and irritation.
A weakened, inflamed, and irritated skin will react more intensely to the continued use of retinoids, which can result in a purge.
This is why one of the most important things you can do when first starting retinoids is to ensure your skin barrier is nourished and strong enough to resist irritation.
The Usage of Pore-Clogging Cosmetics
This one might be a no-brainer, but pore-clogging cosmetics clog your pores and give your retinoids something to purge, hence why those who wear heavy makeup and use clogging skincare products and have already dealt with acne before starting a retinoid have the highest chances of experiencing a purge.
Starting with a high-strength retinoid is another factor that can contribute to a purge.
This happens because the stronger the concentration of the active ingredient in your product, the more irritating it can be, weakening your skin barrier in the process and leaving it more vulnerable to inflammation.
As a result, your skin might be left susceptible to purging, so if you’re a beginner, it is best to start with the lowest strength of retinoid first and then gradually increase it once your skin has gotten used to it.
The Signs and Symptoms of a Retinoid Purge
Once your retinoid starts to work, symptoms will soon follow.
Here are some signs and symptoms that you are going through a retinoid purge:
Sudden Acne Onset
The main symptom of a purge is a sudden acne onset.
The purge usually starts only a few days or a week after incorporating a retinoid into your skincare routine, depending on your skin and the product’s strength, and this is when you will start seeing new pimples pop up on your skin almost daily.
The location of the pimples can also give it away, as purge pimples will usually pop up in unusual areas, such as the temples and areas where you might get one or two rogue spots now and again.
These are the pimples that would’ve turned up at different points in time, so getting them simultaneously is a good enough sign you are going through a purge.
Once your retinoid starts working, you will likely experience dryness in areas such as the cheeks and forehead, which means your skin barrier is beginning to react to the increased cellular turnover.
Redness & Irritation
Due to the skin becoming dry from starting a retinoid, you will also experience redness and irritation, especially after cleansing or using certain cosmetic products that might contain irritating components.
Even if some of these products never caused you any issues before, your skin is now changing and might react to them more intensely.
Flaking & Peeling
Flaking and peeling, especially around the mouth and forehead, are also common signs of a retinoid purge.
You might also notice the fingers you use to apply your retinoid are also getting dry and starting to peel, which is a good enough sign your retinoid is working.
Stinging & Burning
Due to the increased cellular turnover, you might also experience a stinging and burning sensation when applying your retinoid, which is also expected.
However, if this becomes unbearable, it should be a sign that you should make some changes in the way you’re using your retinoid or focus on nourishing your skin barrier with other skincare products.
Clearer Pores in Unaffected Areas
Another common symptom of purging is clearer pores in unaffected areas.
While some areas might be breaking out in painful cysts, others will look clear and refined as your pores are now being cleared out from the accumulated cellular debris faster.
Is Retinoid Purging Good?
Retinoid purging is a sign that your retinoid is working to clear up the clogs that would’ve become pimples at different times.
It’s certainly not a pleasant experience, but purging is usually a good sign that your skin is on its way to healing.
How to Know if It’s a Purge Or a Breakout?
The best way to know if you are purging or breaking out is to monitor the symptoms of any changes you make in your skincare routine.
If you have recently introduced a purge-inducing component such as a retinoid and your skin starts to freak out and break out in painful pimples and deeper cysts, this is a good enough sign that your skin is purging.
Another way to differentiate a purge from a regular breakout is to monitor the symptoms.
If you’re breaking out in uncommon areas, such as the temples, and the pimples or cysts appear suddenly and are deep and painful, it is more likely that you are purging.
Also, purge-induced breakouts will likely resolve themselves faster, while regular breakouts will persist longer.
How Long Does a Retinoid Purge Last?
A retinoid purge can last anywhere from four weeks up to six months, depending on what type of retinoid you are using and the state of your skin.
Milder retinoids usually induce a shorter purge, while high-strength retinoids such as tretinoin could prolong this process for up to six months.
However, don’t forget that an abnormally long purge can also mean your skin is having a harder time tolerating a stronger retinoid, which may be a sign that you should switch to a milder option.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Overcoming a Retinoid Purge
While everyone’s skin is different, and the only way to know what works best for you is to experiment, the purging stage can be a scary experience that might make you less inclined to make any changes out of fear you’ll make things worse.
Therefore, here are a few tried and tested ways to help you overcome a retinoid purge:
Start With The Mildest Retinoid Strength Available
The goal of using retinoids is to build up tolerance. This is why you always hear things like “Start using 2-3 times a week and slowly build up tolerance” or “Start with the mildest strength and slowly build up to the strongest.”
And the reason for this is simple. If you start with a high-strength retinoid, the chances of experiencing side effects are much higher since your skin wasn’t given any time to adjust and build a tolerance to the active ingredient.
And the side effects might not always be something that many people who start with a strong retinoid think they can handle because, besides discomfort, irritation, redness, peeling, flaking, and purging, high-strength retinoids that cause these side effects for a long time can lead to permanent skin conditions such as rosacea or dermatitis due to the weakening of the skin’s barrier.
This is why, even if you think you can handle some flaking, stinging, and purging, starting with the lowest strength of retinoid available is still the best way because you’re not at increased risk of long-term barrier damage that would prevent you from using retinoids in the future.
Additionally, getting used to low-strength retinoids is much easier, and, as already mentioned above, the side effects you experience when using a lower-strength retinoid will also be milder and last for a shorter time.
This will also help your skin adjust to the active ingredient, so whenever you up your retinoid strength, your skin will have an easier time tolerating it.
Don’t Rush Into Increasing Frequency and Concentration
Once you’ve gotten used to the mildest strength of retinoid available, you can slowly start increasing the frequency of use and, then, the strength of the retinoid, if needed.
For example, if you have been using a retinoid every other night for over 3-4 weeks, you may slowly increase it to every night.
However, should your skin start to show signs of discomfort, such as dryness, stinging, and redness, your skin might not be ready for that yet.
In this case, you should go back to using the retinoid every other night or even less if needed and only increase the frequency again after your skin has adjusted and the side effects have subsided.
It’s important to remember that this is not a race, and you should give your skin enough time to adjust to the retinoid before increasing the frequency or concentration.
Increasing the frequency or concentration fast won’t give you quicker results, as remember that one of the major factors that prolong a purge is irritated skin and a weakened barrier, which is precisely what an increase will cause, thus extending the purge and potentially leading to permanent conditions such as dermatitis or rosacea.
Try Different Application Methods
Different application methods, such as using your retinoid after moisturizing or between two layers of moisturizer, can also help soothe some symptoms of the purge by putting a barrier between the active ingredient and the skin and minimizing its intensity.
However, this should only be a temporary solution because the end goal with retinoids is for your skin to get used to them and tolerate them.
Constantly having to apply moisturizer first to buffer the active ingredient might be a sign that your retinoid is too strong for you.
Focus on Nourishing Your Skin Barrier
While retinoid works to clear up the clogs in your skin, get rid of acne, fade hyperpigmentation, even out uneven skin tone, refine texture, and minimize the appearance of lines and wrinkles, the only thing you should focus on is nourishing your skin barrier.
Retinoids can trigger various changes in cellular processes that initially make the skin more sensitive and vulnerable, so it’s essential to nourish your barrier with protective ingredients like ceramides, omega fatty acids, antioxidants, and humectants to minimize side effects and help your skin get used to the active ingredient.
Monitor The Longevity of Your Symptoms
A retinoid purge can last anywhere from four weeks up to six months, depending on the product you are using, your skin’s ability to adjust to it, how you’re using it, etc.
However, it’s not uncommon for purging or more severe side effects to persist past this time, and while giving your skin enough time to adjust is essential, it’s also necessary to understand when this particular retinoid is just not working out for you.
If your skin is still in discomfort or purging with no sight of improvement after three to six months of use, it might be time to switch products and look for other options that might work better for you.
While some purging is expected and even a good sign that your retinoid is working, it’s also important to remember that you don’t have to suffer through something that isn’t going away or making your skin better and that the right product is out there for you; you just have to find it.
Cut Out Comedogenic Cosmetic Products
While your skin is freaking out from introducing a retinoid, this is a fantastic time to give it a break from makeup and multiple skincare steps and focus solely on nourishing your skin barrier and using the basics that will help you do so.
Therefore, this is also a great time to go over your beauty products and try to spot potentially comedogenic ingredients that might’ve clogged your pores and have not only led to acne in the first place but are continuing to give your retinoid something to purge and are keeping you in that loop for a prolonged time.
Try to cut out as many possible comedogenic ingredients as possible, including foundations, primers, powders, etc., and see if that helps you get out of the purge cycle faster.
Patience and Consistency
Finally, try to understand that a retinoid purge is a temporary setback on your journey to clearer skin and that patience and consistency are key factors contributing to an easier transition and quicker results.
If the retinoid you’re using is right for you, your skin will eventually get used to it, and the purging cycle will stop, and all that’s left is for you to reap the rewards of using a retinoid.
Skincare Routine Adjustments During a Retinoid Purge
While experiencing a retinoid purge, everything in your skincare routine should be about your skin barrier.
A weak skin barrier = longer and more intense purging. A strong and healthy skin barrier = faster healing.
Therefore, here are some routine adjustments you need to make during a retinoid purge to ensure your skin can heal and go over this uncomfortable phase more quicker:
Use a Gentle Cleanser
A gentle cleanser that doesn’t strip the skin of its natural oils and lipids is a must during a purge.
Look for cleansers designed for dry, sensitive skin and containing moisturizing ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, or ceramides to help keep moisture in while cleansing your face.
Avoid all forms of exfoliation while your skin is purging and getting used to retinoids.
This includes chemical exfoliation, which consists of products containing alpha or beta exfoliating acids, and manual exfoliation, such as scrubs, rubbing your face dry with a towel after cleansing, etc.
Exfoliation will continue to remove the dead skin cells off the skin’s surface while a retinoid will keep sending young and immature cells that aren’t quite ready to take over yet, thus prolonging the purge cycle and exacerbating irritation, redness, dryness, and flaking.
Up Your Hydration
If your skin can tolerate it, add a hydrating toner or a serum into your routine, as this layer of hydration will help strengthen its barrier.
However, the best way to incorporate a hydrating toner or serum into your skincare routine while also using retinoids is to use the hydrating products in your morning routine.
This is because hydrating products like toners and serums work best when applied to damp skin and must be followed up with a moisturizer to lock in hydration before they fully dry out.
But the issue with using them before applying your retinoid is that you would have to apply your retinoid while your skin is still damp from the hydrating product, which can make its effect more intense and lead to irritation.
Therefore, the best way to add that extra hydration without potentially exacerbating the side effects is to use the hydrating products in your morning routine and only use your retinoid on clean, dry skin at night to avoid irritation.
Use a Ceramide Moisturizer
A ceramide moisturizer is crucial to incorporate into your skincare routine during a retinoid purge.
Ceramides are lipids that make up 50% of the skin’s natural moisturizing factor (NMF) and include cholesterol, fatty acids, and ceramide molecules.
These lipids act as protective barriers against external aggressors such as free radicals, bacteria, and other environmental damage.
Ceramide moisturizers are designed to replenish the skin’s natural ceramides and strengthen its barrier, thus helping it heal faster and get over a retinoid purge and other side effects quicker.
Retinoids can make your skin more sensitive to the sun due to increasing the cell-turnover rate, which can lead to a higher risk of sunburns, dark spots, and other damage that will end up making your skin worse in the long run.
Therefore, apply a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or higher daily to ensure your skin is protected and on the right path to healing.
My name is Simone and I am a certified skin specialist. I created this website to teach my readers how to take great care of their skin and I also like to occasionally share my honest opinions on skincare products I’ve tried. You can learn more about me here.
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