how to deal with retinol breakouts

Ever heard of retinol breakout? This anti-aging superstar is known to solve every kind of skin condition, from premature wrinkles to dark spots and acne. There’s only a catch: in most cases, it makes your skin worse before it makes it better. If you’re new to retinol, you may already have experienced the dreaded retinol breakout. Except, it’s not really a breakout. It’s a purge. Your face is still covered in pimples, and it looks like retinol is giving you acne instead of treating it, but it’s the first step on the road to recovery.

So, if this is happening to you right now, calm down. I know you want to throw that retinol cream in the bin, but hear me out first. Here’s everything you need to know about retinol breakout and the purging process, so you can get past it and have the clear skin you’ve always wanted:

What Is Retinol And How Does It Help Acne?

First things first, let me tell you what retinol is and why you need it in your skincare routine. Retinol is a form of Vitamin A, an antiaging superstar that both treats and prevents wrinkles and acne. In fact, researchers were studying its effects on acne when they released it made wrinkles smaller in the process, too. Lucky find, eh?

Retinol works in three ways:

  1. Antioxidant: It destroy free radicals. These nasty molecules are generated by unprotected sun exposure, pollution, and even metabolic processes like breathing. Free radicals are bad because they destroy collagen, elastin, and basically anything that keeps your skin younger-looking and firmer. Retinol neutralises them before they can wreak their damage, thus preventing wrinkles in the first place.
  2. Exfoliant: Retinol isn’t a traditional exfoliant. Instead of removing dead cells from the skin like traditional exfoliants do, it speeds up cellular turnover, (i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliating process). In other words, it tells your skin to exfoliate itself faster. By doing so, dead cells can’t accumulate on the surface of your skin and clog your pores. No clogged pores = no breakouts. Plus, the same process helps to fade away dark spots, too.
  3. Collagen-booster: Retinol also boosts the production of collagen, the protein that keeps skin firm.

Related: The Complete Guide To Retinol: What It Is, What It Does, And How To Use It

Struggling to put together a skincare routine that banishes both wrinkles and acne? Download your FREE “Best Skincare Routine For Acne + Aging Skin” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):

Breakout VS Purging: What’s The Difference?

A breakout and a purge look very similar: pimples on your face. Ugh! But they’re different – and one of them is a GOOD thing. Let me explain:

Breakout: It happens when your pores get clogged with dead cells and extra sebum and infected with bacteria. It’s usually caused by an overproduction of sebum and comedogenic skincare products. It lasts until you fix the cause (usually, by reducing the overproduction of sebum or quitting use of the offending product).

Purge: A purge happens when you use exfoliating ingredients. Exfoliates remove dead layers of skin, which in the process, brings to the surface all the crap that was lying underneath. In other words, those pimples would have appeared anyway. Purging brings everything to the surface all at once – so you can get rid of it once and for all. The purging process can last up to 6 weeks and, after that, you do get your clear skin back.

Does Retinol Causes Breakouts And Acne?

Retinol doesn’t cause breakouts or acne. It causes purging. Let me explain. Your skin renews itself about every 28 days. This is how long it takes your skin to get rid of old and damaged skin cells and replace them with new, smoother cells. Retinol speeds up this natural exfoliating process, bringing up all the gunk that was hiding underneath the surface.

“It’s not that the retinol is making you break out more—it just brings pimples that a brewing below the surface to the surface all at once,” explains board-certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD. This is good news. As annoying as a purge is, it’s just clearing up your skin. After a few weeks of pimples, you can say goodbye to acne.

Which Skin Types Are Prone To Purging?

While all skin types can experience purging, you have higher chances of getting it if you have very dry or very oily skin. “Skin on either extreme will be more likely to purge, as dry skin is more likely to get irritated and oily skin can have more clogging to clear with new products,” explains board-certified dermatologist Michele J. Farber, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group.

Here’s why. “It tends to occur to a greater degree if you have acne because there may be more oil and more blockages within the pores to begin with,” board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., says. “If you do not have acne at baseline, there still may be microscopic blockages within the pores allowing for buildup of mild levels of oil,” he continues.

Related: Breakout Vs Purging: What’s The Difference?

How Do You Know If You’re Experiencing A Retinol Breakout Or A Retinol Purge?

I said it before and I said it again: retinol doesn’t cause a breakout. But, some retinol products do contain comedogenic ingredients that can give you a breakout. It’s possible your skin doesn’t need to purge but some other thing in the serum is giving you pimples. So, how do you know if you’re experiencing a retinol breakout or a retinol purge?

 “A purge generally happens shortly after introducing a new acne ingredient, while a new breakout may occur with stress, your cycle, or introducing a new skin-care product like makeup, serum, or overly thick moisturizer,” says Dr. Farber.

Also check the ingredient list. Only exfoliating ingredients, like retinol and exfoliating acids, give you a purge. But plenty of ingredients give you a breakouts. Check for:

  •  Natural oils (they can cause breakouts in oily skin)
  • Anything with Palmitate in the name (like Isopropyl Palmitate)
  • Anything with Myristate in the name (like Myristyl Myristate)
  • Mineral oil
  • Lanolin

If any of these are higher on the ingredient list, and the breakouts are lasting more than 6 weeks, or you never broke out from retinol before, then it’s likely you’re experiencing a breakout, not a purge.

How To Deal With A Retinol Breakout

If you’re experiencing a retinol breakout, or better said a retinol purge, you have two options. The first is simply to wait it out. Keep using retinol as always and wait for the breakout to heal on its own. It rarely takes more than one month, six weeks tops. I know, it’s no fun to see your face covered in pimples, but know it’s not forever.

The second option is to use anti-acne skincare products that can help the pimples the purge has brought to the surface disappear faster. The best actives for the job are salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and sulfur. Both salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and sulfur promote exfoliation to get rid of the dead cells that would otherwise end up in your pores and clog them up. That’s where the similarities ends. Here’s what they do differently:

  • Benzoyl peroxide: It kills the bacteria that causes acne – and bacteria don’t grow resistant to it, so you can use it for years and years. The catch? It’s very harsh and doesn’t work well with retinol. Use it in the morning only on your acne and retinol at night.
  • Salicylic acid: It’s the only exfoliant that gets inside the pores, exfoliating them from within. It also soothes redness and inflammation. It’s gentler than benzoyl peroxide, but works more slowly (it’s the slowest-working active in this list).
  • Sulfur: It has anti-bacterial properties that kill P.Acnes, the bacteria that gives you acne. Plus, it regulates oil production. No excess oil = no breakouts. It’s harsh on the skin, so use it on pimples only.

Best Picks:

  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): The cult exfoliant from the brand, it unlclogs pores and treats blackheads and acne. The texture’s a little sticky, but if you can take that, this is one of the best salicylic acid exfoliants out there. Available at Cult BeautyDermstoreNet-A-PorterPaula’s ChoiceSephora, and SpaceNK.
  • The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (£9.99): A simple, no-frills salicylic acid exfoliant for people on a budget. Available at Cult Beauty and Sephora.
  • Paula’s Choice Clear Daily Skin Clearing Treatment With 5% benzoyl peroxide ($18.00): This treatment pairs Benzoyl Peroxide with plenty of anti-inflammatory ingredients to reduce its irritating potential and treat acne faster. Available at Dermstore and Paula’s Choice
  • Proactiv Emergency Blemish Relief ($20.00): A simple, no-free acne treatment with 5% Benzoyl Peroxide to fight pimples and acne. Available at Sephora and Ulta
  • Indie Lee Banish Lotion ($21.00): It has both salicylic acid and sulfur to get rid of pimples faster. It’s drying, so use it on pimples only. Available at Beauty Bay and Credo Beauty
  • Epionce Purifying Spot Gel ($38.00): This gets rid of pimples faster than anything else I’ve ever tried. It kills P. Acnes, helps exfoliate dead skin cells, dry out blemishes, and reduce oiliness. Available at Dermstore 

Related: Benzoyl Peroxide VS Salicylic Acid: Which One Should You Choose?

Should You Stop Using Retinol When You’re Purging?

No, no, no! I understand that retinol is currently make your skin purge and those breakouts are not pretty. It can be tempted to stop using it until your skin is back to normal. But guess? Once you start using it again, the purge will start all over again. You need to let retinol remove all the gunk, so you can get your skin back – not just for a few days. For good.

Best Retinol Tips To Avoid Purging

If your skin is very congested, you won’t be able to completely avoid purging. But, there are ways to minimise it so it doesn’t get too bad:

1. Start With A Small Dose

Believe it or not, 1% is huge when it comes to retinol. If that’s how you start, expect side effects, like purging, dryness, redness, and irritation. Instead, start with a small concentration, like 0.01%. I know it feels like nothing, but it’s enough to give results and get your skin used to this active. You can slowly upgrade later on, when your skin has become used to it. Just don’t go from 0.01% to 1%! Build up concentration slowly (that means months – couple of years, not weeks!).

2. Use A Small Amount

The more isn’t the merrier when it comes to retinol. The bigger the amount you’re applying to your skin, the higher the chance you’ll irritate your skin. “So if you use a lot of a retinoid in any given application, regardless of how tolerant your skin is of the retinoid, if you use a lot of it, it’s more likely to cause irritation,” says Dr. Garshick. Stick to a pea-sized amount.

3. Don’t Use It Every Night

Retinol promotes exfoliation – and daily exfoliation can be too much for skin. This is especially true if you also use other exfoliants, like salicylic acid and glycolic acid, in your routine. When you first introduce retinol into your skincare routine, start with a couple of nights a week and slowly increase frequency to every day. Never use it on nights you use other exfoliants.

4. Don’t Forget To Moisturise

Also, moisturise well afterwards. Retinol can be drying and that can lead to problems as well: “A big mistake is people often do not moisturize when they feel that their skin is oily,” says Dr. Farber. “New acne products, they’re often drying and you’ll keep breaking out if you don’t add in a moisturizer to repair the skin barrier.” If your skin is oily, opt for a lightweight, oil-free moisturiser.

How Long Does Retinol Purging Last?

Most of the time, a purge lasts a couple of weeks, but it can go on for a month. In severe cases, you may be dealing with acne for six weeks. If, after that, you’re still experiencing a breakout, there may be something else going on. You may be using a retinol product with comedogenic ingredients, in which case you’ll keep breaking out until you switch to a different retinol serum or cream. Or your skin may be too dry and compromise to use retinol. In this case, stop using it until your skin gets back to normal and only follow a basic routine (cleanser, moisturiser, and sunscreen) until your skin has fully healed.

What Are The Best Retinol Products?

  • Paula’s Choice Resist Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum ($42.00): An anti-aging serum with 0.1% retinol. It also includes antioxidants, like Vitamin E, to prevent premature aging, and soothing ingredients to reduce irritations. Available at Paula’s Choice and Sephora.
  • Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3 Night Cream ($62.00): This cream contains only 0.3% retinol but it packs an anti-aging punch. It comes in a moisturising base, but you need to use a separate moisturiser to counteract the dryness of retinol. Available at Dermstore and Skinceuticals.
  • Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster ($52.00): This high-strength 1% retinol booster has a moisturising base and plenty of skin-soothers to counteract the irritating effects of retinol. Use it on its own for maximum effect or dilute it with moisturiser if it’s too harsh for you. Available at Cult BeautyNet-A-PorterPaula’s Choice and SpaceNK.
  • Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM ($65.00): A micro encapsulated 1.5% retinol serum in an oily, moisturising base to fight wrinkles and fade away dark spots. Available at Beauty BayCult Beauty, and Peter Thomas Roth.

The Bottom Line

Retinol doesn’t cause acne. But it does cause purging, bringing those acne breakouts to the surface sooner than they would on their own. Keep using it. The sooner you go through a purge, the sooner it’s over for good.