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Is Retinol Purging Actually Real and How Do You Handle It?

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If you’ve just started using a retinoid product but you’ve noticed your skin is acting out, you could be experiencing what’s known as ‘retinol purging’.

It might sound like yet another far-fetched skincare myth, but according to the experts, retinol purging is a real – and relatively common – thing. Phew. 

So what is it? Why does it happen? And most importantly, should you be concerned? (The quick answer is, no.) 

With expert advice from skincare experts Dr Emmaline Ashley, Dr Patrick Davis and Robin Emtage, find out here why your skin might be misbehaving post-retinoid, whether you should stop using yours and how long you can expect these side effects to last. Hint: It’s not forever. Double phew.


Is retinol purging real?

First up, although we might hear a lot about retinol purging (AKA ‘the retinol uglies’), is it actually real?  Yes, according to the experts.

“Retinol purging is a real phenomenon that occurs in some individuals when they begin using any retinoid products,” explains Dr Ashley.

Retinoid is the umbrella term for all vitamin A derivatives (like retinol) which boost skin cell turnover and help even out the skin’s texture. It is this action that can sometimes cause retinol purging. 

“If you have acne-prone skin or have clogged pores and microcomedones [early acne] that are brewing underneath the surface, using a retinoid will bring all of these out,” Dr Ashley continues. “This will make it feel like you’re suffering a sudden surge in breakouts.”


Image – Irina/Adobe


You might think this surge is a brand-new breakout. But it’s actually a pre-existing one being brought up to the surface of the skin more quickly than usual by your cell-renewing retinoid. “Microcomedones can take up to eight weeks to surface, so your retinoid product is just speeding up that process,” says Dr Ashley.

A post-retinoid skin reaction like this is very common, but it’s normal to be thrown by it. “This purging effect, while temporary, can be concerning and uncomfortable, especially for those with sensitive skin,” Emtage says.


What are the signs of a retinol purge?

“Signs of retinol purging include an increase in whiteheads, blackheads and small pimples, often in areas where you’re prone to breakouts,” Dr Ashley says.

“Unlike typical acne, purging lesions tend to emerge and heal more rapidly. Purging is confined to areas where you already have frequent breakouts.”


Retinol purging VS a normal breakout – what’s the difference?

Easy. Dr Ashley says to check where it’s occurring. “If you are getting acne in new areas that is persistent, this may be a sign of inflammation and your skincare product is actually causing irritation leading to a breakout, and not true purging,” she explains. 

“A breakout secondary to skin irritation from a product will also see existing blemishes being made worse and not better.”

Dr Davis adds, “Be aware that purging should look like blackheads or whiteheads not red bumps or rashes.”


Image – Adobe


How long does retinol purging normally last?

Retinol purging is proof that sometimes a problem has to get worse before it gets better. And the good news is, if it’s purging, it will get better. 

“A retinol purge typically lasts approximately 4 weeks, however this can vary depending on the individual’s skin type, the concentration of retinol used and how their skin adapts to the treatment,” Dr Ashley explains.


How long after using retinol might you see it?

Whilst some people won’t notice any purging at all, others might experience it a few weeks in. “The purging typically begins within the first few weeks of starting a retinoid and can vary based on the product’s strength and the individual’s skin type,” says Dr Ashley

“I usually warn my patients that the first month can be an adjustment period but things should settle down soon after.” 


How do you treat a retinol purge?

Dr Ashley says that as long as the irritation doesn’t become severe, you can keep using your retinol while you’re purging. Just use it differently. “You may reduce the frequency of retinol application to allow your skin to adapt, start a lower concentration or even wash the product off after a few minutes,” she suggests.

“Use a gentle cleanser, hydrate your skin well with humectant moisturisers, use non-comedogenic products and don’t forget your sunscreen.” Then once you’re through the adjustment period, “you can gradually increase your retinol use to its recommended regimen,” she says.

Dr Davis agrees, “Moisturisers and sunscreens will help.”


Image – Adobe


Can you prevent retinol purging?

Emtage says using alternatives to retinol could help you to avoid purging altogether. “This shift is motivated by a growing interest in natural, less aggressive ingredients that provide similar benefits without the harsh side effects,” she explains. 

“Natural alternatives tend to be gentler, aligning with the skin’s natural processes and are less likely to cause intense reactions like purging.”

So what ingredients can we try instead? “Bakuchiol and rosehip oil are both known as natural alternative ingredients to retinol,” she says.

“Like retinol, bakuchiol stimulates collagen production helping to reduce fi

ne lines and wrinkles. It’s also effective in improving skin elasticity and firmness.” And all this without the redness or peeling aftereffects retinol sometimes provides – bonus.

“[Rosehip oil or extract] helps in skin regeneration, reduces scars and fine lines and improves overall skin texture,” she continues. “It’s gentle and can be used on most skin types, including sensitive skin.” 


The takeaway

Retinol purging is when underlying skin concerns are brought to the surface of the skin due to accelerated cell turnover from your retinoid product. But the most reassuring thing to remember is that if you experience this, it is normal and shouldn’t last longer than four weeks. 

The breakout you might experience isn’t new. It’s just been bubbling under the surface of your skin, and your retinoid is just making it come through more quickly. (Good to get these things out of the way though, right?)

During a purge, Dr Ashley says you can keep going with your retinol. However, you could lessen your use slightly, use a lower percentage or consider washing it off once it’s had a bit of time to penetrate. 

There are also natural alternatives to retinol you could try, like bakuchiol and rosehip oil that will give similar results, without the side of irritation. On the other hand, you may not experience any purging at all, in which case keep applying your retinol in the usual way and enjoy being free of the purge!


Meet the experts

Dr Emmaline Ashley is an award-winning cosmetic physician. As well as being a qualified medical doctor, she holds additional honours degrees in biology, surgery, dermatology, and aesthetics.


Dr. Patrick K. Davis is a renowned facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon delivering a highly personalised treatment experience in Beverly Hills, California.


Robin Emtage is a beauty stylist and the founder of beauty company Silktage.


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Beauty Editor

The former Beauty Editor of Glamour UK, Philippa has been a beauty and lifestyle journalist for over 16 years, picking up countless tips and tricks from makeup artists, hair stylists, dermatologists and celebrities. In that time she’s written for names like Cosmopolitan, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Grazia, Refinery 29 and Byrdie. Philippa lives in the UK with her husband, two children and their hyperactive cockapoo, Paddy.

Expertise: Makeup, hair care
Education: Oxford Brookes University

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