Retinol is proven to reduce signs of aging and improve acne. But it can make things worse before they get better. Retinol purging, which looks like peeling skin and new breakouts, is a common side effect of a new retinoid routine. Because retinol promotes cell turnover, it can take some time for your skin to adjust.
A retinol purge usually lasts between 2 and 4 weeks, according to Dr. Jerome Potozkin, a dermatologist and author of Botox and Beyond: Your Guide to Safe, Nonsurgical, Cosmetic Procedures. Dr. Potozkin explained to me that purging technically refers to the peeling and turnover of cellular debris when you start using a retinoid. “You can avoid this by starting with lower concentration retinols, starting out only applying 3 times per week, and using a moisturizer along with retinol,” he said.
I personally avoided retinol purging by starting with a gentle over-the-counter retinol serum from clean beauty brand Marie Veronique. I used the serum every night for 6 months before switching to a prescription strength retinoid. After making the switch, I only used the prescription-strength cream every other day for the first 2 weeks. I did experience some dry skin, but I was able to solve that by using a heavier moisturizer.
If you’re experiencing retinol purge or burn (overly dry, red, and flaky skin), Dr. Potozkin has this advice: “I recommend mild cleansers, cold compresses, and if there are any erosions or sores an ointment such as polysporin or Aquaphor Fast Healing Ointment.” That’s exactly what worked for me!
Products to Help with Retinol Purging
Marie Veronique Gentle Retinol Night Serum: This is the product I used to start my retinol journey. Credo Beauty sells a variety of clean retinol products that are more gentle than what you get with a prescription. It’s a good place to start if you’re looking for a subtle yet noticeable improvement in your overall skin appearance. It can also help ease you into a prescription retinoid, while avoiding retinol purging.
Aquaphor Healing Ointment: This ointment will quickly address any overly dry and red skin caused by powerful retinol. It is fragrance free, won’t clog your pores, and can address any retinol burn practically overnight. It gets a 2 from EWG.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer UV, SPF 30: It’s important to use sunscreen every day when you use retinol, as retinol can make you more photo sensitive. Even if you’re not experiencing retinol purge or burn, sunscreen is crucial. My favorite safe sunscreen is from La Roche-Posay. It’s gentle, gets a 2 from EWG, and works well under makeup.