What to Know About Retinol Purging

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As we get older, the rate at which our skin cells turnover naturally slows down, along with our metabolism, collagen production and other vital processes that make aging not so fun. Retinol, which is derived from vitamin A, is praised by dermatologists and other skin experts for its ability to speed up this cell turnover for healthier, more youthful-looking skin. However, with this increase in skin “shedding,” it can cause something called purging to occur, which also is not so fun. Here’s what it entails and how you can manage it.

Why Retinol Causes Skin to Purge

According to celebrity aesthetician Joshua Ross of SkinLab, it is common for the skin to purge when introducing a retinol because the increased cell turnover is rapidly bringing breakouts to the surface in an effort to rid them from the skin. “It is important to note that these breakouts would have happened either way, just at a slower pace,” he explains.

By encouraging your body to produce new skin cells faster, old, dead skin cells are pushed up and off of the outer layer of the skin, adds SkinSpirit aesthetic nurse practitioner Melanie Frye, DNP, APRN, FNP-C. “This is what causes the dry, flaky effect you get when you use retinol, and this same process can push up ‘skin trash’ or oil and debris that may be hiding under the surface. As this debris comes to the surface of the skin, you may experience a temporary increase in breakouts, or a ‘purge’ of this debris, which is very normal. People with oily skin tend to be more prone to purging, whereas people with dry skin may experience more flaking and irritation.”

What does purging look and feel like?

“The congestion comes to the surface of the skin, so purging may appear as whiteheads and blackheads, as well as red bumps, cysts and pustules,” explains New York dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, noting that it’s important not to pick at or pop the pimples, as this can make the purging worse and lead to scarring. Frye adds that because the skin may often be red and irritated as well, it may be difficult to tell the difference between a purge and a normal breakout. “A purge will occur shortly after you begin using retinol, but a breakout in a new area or that occurs during your cycle, with stress or after beginning a new non-retinol skin-care product, may not be purging,” she says. “These breakouts should be treated differently than purging.”

If your purging is accompanied by irritation like redness, peeling and tender skin, Ross suggests reducing to the lowest percentage of retinol, such as 0.025 and alternating using it every other night. “If after 30 days you are not seeing a reduction in sensitivities, then you may want to discontinue using retinol altogether.”

Which products should you use to calm and/or reduce the purging?

Frye recommends using a light, oil-free moisturizer. “Retinol can be very drying to the skin, so moisturizer can counterbalance the dryness and soothe any irritation from the product,” she says. “Additionally, using a gentle, non-exfoliating cleanser can help soothe the skin. And always incorporate a good physical sunblock in order to protect purging skin from the negative impacts of sun exposure.” Some brands pair their retinol products with a complementary moisturizer to take the guesswork out of the process and keep skin happy. We like Mary Kay’s Clinical Solutions Retinol 0.5 Set ($120), a nighttime serum and a calming facial milk that comes with clear-cut directions for how to build up your usage over the course of nine weeks and beyond.

“It can also help to look for a nourishing moisturizer that is non-comedogenic, meaning it won’t clog your pores,” advises La Jolla, CA dermatologist Azadeh Shirazi, MD. “My favorite is Intense Recovery Complex, which I put all of my patients who are starting retinoids or exfoliants on because it has a light hydrating texture formulated to support and repair the skin barrier. Ceramides, phytosphingosine lipids, and glycerin strengthen the skin barrier and hydrate the skin while allantoin calms skin inflammation. Cactus and yeast extract down-regulate inflammatory markers to calm the skin and reduce stinging.” 

Some of Dr. Garshick’s favorites for skin-calming and barrier repair include Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser and La Roche-Posay Double Repair Moisturizer. “If your skin feels particularly sensitive, it can help to use a micellar water, such as Simple Skincare Micellar Water, or a calming serum like Vichy Mineral 89 Prebiotic Recovery and Defense Concentrate.”

How long does skin purging last after using retinol?

According to Frye, skin purging from retinol usually lasts two weeks, but in some cases, it can last up to six weeks. “Skin cycles last 28 to 30 days, so sometimes it takes a full skin cycle for you to adjust to retinol,” she explains, noting that you should see a licensed aesthetician or dermatologist if the issue persists longer than that or becomes troublesome in other ways. “If you continue to use the products, your skin will begin to improve. The newly stimulated skin cell turnover yields improvements in reducing future breakouts, wrinkle and texture improvement, and improvement in pigmentation from previous breakouts and sun exposure.” 

Dr. Garshick adds, “When incorporating any new skin-care product, it is best to wait two to three months to see results, as it can take time for your skin to get adjusted to the product and for the benefits to appear.”

Is there any way to avoid purging entirely?

Not entirely, but Dr. Garshick says easing into your retinol can help reduce purging. “Because purging is normal, it is not completely avoidable. That said, whenever you’re introducing a retinoid into your routine, it is best to start low and slow, starting at a low concentration and only a few times per week, and slowly increasing the frequency as tolerated.” 

Dr. Shirazi suggests starting with no more than a pea-size amount of retinol for your full face. “You can also use moisturizers before and after applying retinol, which is called the sandwich method, to reduce its intensity.”

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