Whether you suffer from stubborn acne or are on a mission to prevent the onset of premature aging, chances are retinoids have made their way into your skin care routine. "Retinol is one of the best and most effective anti-aging and anti-acne ingredients available," confirms a board certified dermatologist. Dr. Harold Lancer but its use can cause side effects.
Meet the expert
- Harold Lancer, MD, is a board certified dermatologist practicing in Beverly Hills. He is the founder of Skin care Lancer.
- Alexis StephensMD, is a board certified dermatologist practicing in Coral Springs, Florida. She is the founder of Parkland Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery.
- Corey L.HartmanMD, is a board certified dermatologist practicing in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology.
"Retinoids are very effective in promoting increased cell turnover, which brings new healthy cells to the skin's surface," Lancer explains. "However, in doing so, retinoids can also cause clogging, rashes, redness and/or peeling during the initial adjustment phase."
This alarming stage is known as retinoid purging (often dubbed the "retinol uglies" thanks to its ability to seemingly aggravate the skin). Since it can be pretty shocking to see skin get worse before it gets better, we asked Lancer, along with board-certified dermatologists Alexis Stephens, MD, and Corey L. Hartman, MD, what actually happens to your skin during the retinoid purge stage. and how to overcome it.
What exactly is retinoid purging?
The word purge translates to cleanse or purification, and that's exactly what happens to your skin during the retinoid purge phase. "Retinoids work at the cellular level to normalize skin turnover," Stephens explains. "In acne, retinoids bring out whatever is clogging the pores that are hiding underneath. The combination of retinoids' ability to increase cell turnover and unclog pores with whatever is brought to the surface at the same time can lead to a temporary increase in breakouts.
In addition to the increase in whiteheads and blackheads, Hartman says new retinoid users may also experience redness, flaking and general skin irritation, "especially on the areas of the face where the skin is thinnest, such as around the nose and mouth."
As counterintuitive as it may seem, Hartman notes that seeing flare-ups while starting a new retinoid product is actually a good thing. "It means the retinol is working to turn your skin around," he says.
The other good news? The retinoid purge stage doesn't last forever. While it varies by skin type, Hartman says a typical purge lasts about four weeks. That said, Stephens says flare-ups can last up to eight weeks, which she says is equivalent to two cell cycles. "If you've been using a product for more than three months and this purging still occurs, get a more thorough evaluation because something else is going on and it's time to see a dermatologist to resolve the problem," she adds.
How to overcome the retinoid purge
One more thing
Don't let the thought of a retinol purge stop you from benefiting from this world-class ingredient. "My opinion is that with the exception of people with rosacea or overly sensitive skin, everyone should use a retinol," says Hartman. "These vitamin A derivatives are among the most studied and published ingredients in skin care. Their benefits are numerous and unparalleled and are arguably the most important step you can take for overall skin health and anti-aging after the sun protection factor. Retinols regulate cell turnover, promote effective exfoliation, prevent acne, even discoloration, control oil, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, unclog pores and much more.
In short, if you don't already have retinol in your routine, it's worth adding one to your diet, stat.