Why You Should Stick With Retinol Even If It Makes You Breakout (And What To Do About It)

by Gio
how to deal with retinol breakouts

“Wait, wasn’t retinol supposed to treat my acne?! Then why do I have more pimples than ever?!”

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.

Retinol CAN help clear up your acne. It just needs to make it worse first.

Let me explain:

Why retinol causes breakouts

Did you know your skin renew itself about every 28 days? It gets rid of old and damaged skin cells and replaces than with new, smoother cells.

Retinol speeds up this natural exfoliating process. If you have dry or normal skin, all’s good.

But if you have oily or acne-prone skin, chances are a breakout is already brewing underneath the surface of your skin. By speeding up the exfoliating process, retinol unveils it much sooner.

In another words, retinol isn’t causing the problem. It just brings to the surface now what would naturally have appeared one or two weeks later.

It’s annoying as hell but totally normal. It’s called “purging”.

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

How to deal with retinol breakouts

You have two options:

  1. Wait it out: the purging period rarely lasts more than a month.
  2. Fight it: the best weapons are salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.

Both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide exfoliate skin, getting 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 but is 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 gets inside the pores, exfoliating them from within and soothes redness and inflammation. It’s gentler than benzoyl peroxide.

Personally, I’d try salicylic acid first and, if that didn’t work, upgrade to benzoyl peroxide. 😉

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

Did retinol “make” your breakout? Share your experience in the comments below.

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MonicaP November 30, 2015 - 4:47 pm

I’ve never had a break out from retinol, but it can cause dry skin. Skin experts say that retinol is the best product for anti aging .. so I’m going to keep on using it 🙂


Gio December 1, 2015 - 3:05 pm

Monica, it really is the best. So many studies support its anti-aging properties. But it can be so harsh at first. It’s easy to think it causes more problems than it’s worth, but if you keep it, you’ll see amazing results.

Julianna Leung January 29, 2019 - 7:58 pm

I have started using ‘The Orginal Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion’ in order to get rid of my milia, however it had caused lots of pimples all around my face especially on my chin (I think acne) which has never happened before because I have always had clear skin (except from milia). I have been using this product for 2 weeks and more pimples keep on forming daily. I think I also have dry skin, any advice?

Gio February 7, 2019 - 6:10 pm

Julianna, I’m not sure why you would use a retinoid for milia? You need salicylic acid for that. Mad the switch asap. It’ll help you get rid of the pimples too.

Jane November 30, 2015 - 8:10 pm

Retinol doesn’t break out, but this silicone-heavy cream by SkinCeuticals definitely does. I used it for a while and it went to trash as it caused me clogged pores and acne (along with strong exfoliation). Switch to Retriderm or some other retinol product that is free of silicones and forget the purging myth. It is just a skin reaction to the unsuitable product.

Gio December 1, 2015 - 3:45 pm

Jane, the purging myth is no myth at all. Retinol accelerates cellular turnover and that exposes breakouts earlier than they’re supposed to appear.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there can’t be something else in the product that causes breakouts. If you’re not prone to them, and start using a retinol cream with comedogenic ingredients, that may indeed be what’s causing the problem. In that case, switching products would be a great thing.

Sorry this Skinceuticals cream didn’t work for you. It didn’t make me breakout, but it did dry my skin at first because it’s so strong. I’m glad you’ve found something else that suits your skin better.

Cristina May 19, 2016 - 11:39 am

I disagree that the whole purging proces is not a myth. I could not find a single article to suport this statement. One that is published in a serious journal and not by a biased manufacturer. I’ve done quite a bit of research on the matter and I got the impression that the ” purging” is your skin’s reaction to being confronted with a very harsh substance, one that, if not used with caution can lead to extreme dryness. The fact that it goes away after a while is more the result of your skin getting used to it than the purging being completed. It’s something that happens with other cosmetic ingredients, like aha and bha. So, if you use retinol/ tretinoin and get a lot of breakouts or your skin gets very dry and cracked, take a step back and give up on it for a while. When the skin heals, you can reintroduce it starting with lower doses and with 1-2 applications a week. In time you can increase both the percentage of retinol and the frequency of usage. Also, take into account that there is a small percentage of people who have extreme reactions to even the lowest dosages and who should avoid it altogether.

Gio May 20, 2016 - 9:42 pm

Cristina, I think we will have to agree to disagree on this one. Both retinol, AHAs and BHA can exfoliate skin and/or accelerate cellular turnover, which is why I believe the purging myth is no myth.

But, I agree, with everything else you said. Retinol is not for everyone, and if you experience any serious side effects, you should definitely stop using it.

Ita July 27, 2016 - 3:55 pm

Cell turnover and purging are two different things. Retinol, vitamin A, generates cells turnover in the dermis layer of the skin, but this has nothing to do with purging skin of acne. If anything, it would prevent the acne. If someone is breaking out, then perhaps they are wearing it during the day or not washing their face in the morning or just sensitive to the Retinol and need to use it every third night until they get used to it. Cell regeneration does not happen over night or in one day. Exfoliates would cause purging since they scrub off skin cells that expose what’s underneath.

Gio July 31, 2016 - 6:56 pm

Ita, those are definitely possibilities. I agree that it’s best to use retinol every few days at first.

Terrie Warren April 21, 2017 - 8:32 am

You are wrong. My dermatologist is well known and has published books regarding skincare. There is definitely a purging when the skin is introduced to any retinol. It is exactly what happened when I started using it years ago and when I stopped and started again. He was very clear that my skin would get worse before better. I think if you are not a dermatologist you really have no research. I have used every product out there looking for clear skin and was prescribed retin A years ago and stopped using it the first time when my skin got worse. Went back to the Dr and was told exactly the process my skin was going through and started back using it and I have never stopped because once my skin cleared up after “the purge” it has been clear and my pores have been minimized. I love it and recommend it to anyone suffering from acne. Not to mention it really has kept my wrinkles at bay.

Janessa December 1, 2015 - 2:22 am

The first retinol product I ever used was FutureDerm’s Time-Release one and I slowly built up on application frequencies. I didn’t break out but it left my skin really dry at first.

I currently just use PC’s Antioxidant Skin Recovery Super Antioxidant Serum which has some retinol in it I believe.

Gio December 1, 2015 - 3:07 pm

Janessa, I experienced the same at first. Using with a richer moisturizer did the trick for me. Since then, I’ve never looked back, and now use retinol regularly. That PC serum is one of my favourites too.

Raquel February 2, 2016 - 10:35 pm

I recently added retinol to my face routine(i just turned 27) and I wanted to be on top my skin before it’s too late, I’m prone to acne but when I started to use retinol it made me break out(small red pimples and lots of white heads)I work in the cosmetics I industry so I’m a little more vain about these things lol , I wanted to stop the retinol because of this , but should I push through and wait for it to clear up?

Gio February 3, 2016 - 7:28 am

Raquel, don’t quit! If you’re prone to acne, then this reaction is normal. Retinol is just bringing to the surface what would have appeared there anyway, just later. Instead, use a salicylic acid based exfoliant or moisturizer to deal with the breakout.

Amy March 30, 2016 - 9:10 pm

How long will the breakouts last? I know you said one month, but I’ve been using an OTC retinol for 6 weeks and keep getting zits! My skin is combination, and I usually get the odd zit before my period but it’s definitely increased after starting the retinol.

Gio April 2, 2016 - 9:19 pm

Amy, after 6 weeks, the worst should be over. Unless, there is something else in the product that causes the breakouts? Do you know if it contains any comedogenic ingredients?

Amy April 29, 2016 - 9:10 pm

Currently I’m using the Dr. Dennis Gross retinol and ferulic acid serum. Perhaps there is something in it making me break out. I’ve recently purchased the Paula’s Choice 1% retinol boost, so I think i’ll switch to that and see how I fare. thanks!

Gio April 30, 2016 - 9:51 am

Amy, is it the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution? It’s weird, because that one doesn’t have any comedogenic ingredients. Still, switching to Paula’s serum is not a bad idea. That one is very well formulated too, and, hopefully, will be more suitable for your skin type.

Amy May 10, 2016 - 3:11 pm

Hi Gio – yes, that’s the one. So I stopped using it and replaced it with the Paula’s Choice 1% retinol booster mixed into the Paula’s Choice Resist skin hydrator. And, I have not had any big pimples since! It is strange because I know that the Dr. Dennis Gross serum is a really good product – but perhaps my skin just didn’t react well to it.

Gio May 12, 2016 - 8:54 pm

I guess that happens. Not everything works for everyone *sighs* But I’m glad you’ve found something that works now.

Logan September 21, 2016 - 12:50 am

Hi! I am using SkinMedica’s Retinol 0.5 but can’t find anywhere that says whether it’s non-comedogenic or not. Do you know?

Also, when you say to keep using it for a month, do you mean a month with everyday use? I have gotten up to every 3 nights and move on to every 2 days next week. How long do you think it’ll be for me to not break out anymore? It seems like there is one zit a week now, so frustrating.

Gio November 20, 2016 - 2:34 pm

Logan, sorry for my late reply. I usually get sent an email when someone posts a comment so I can reply quickly, but this time it didn’t happen. I’m guessing the breakout stage is over now? If not, the culprit is probably glycine soya oil, which is in the Skinmedica product.

No, not every day. Retinol should be introduced gently. Two or three nights a week and build on frequency gradually. But never during the day. It can make your skin more prone to sun damage.

Stacey May 3, 2016 - 11:55 am

Hi there,

I’ve been prescribed a retinoid product called Isotrex, previously I was using Differin for about 7 months which made my skin around 70 % clear. I wanted something stronger I guess. Well 7 weeks into this Isotrex and my skin is so bad, I have about 50 new tiny bumps on either side of neck crop up and I never break out there. My skin is blotchy and horrible.

I really am thinking about throwing in the towel because it’s awful. I was considering maybe going back to differin and using Paulas Choice 8 % AHA – do you think I should do this and stop the Isotrex? Do you think Differin can actually help? I’m just totally at loss and feel so ugly right now.

Gio May 7, 2016 - 8:47 pm

Stacey, oh no! That’s awful! I think it’s normal for your skin to take some time to adapt to the new medication, but, if your skin is still so bad after 7 weeks, I’d definitely switch back to Differin. If it worked well for you in the past, there’s no reason to assume it’d fail you now.

Alcide May 10, 2016 - 5:58 am

I just started with Retinol, it is my second day with Roc Retinol Correxion deep wrinkle night cream, I already got 3 pimples, I guess I will stop for a couple of days before the next time I apply the cream. after all it is my first time with Retinol.

Question. Is Rock Retinol correxion a good cream? or is there a better choice? this one is less than $30 and has really good reviews, thats why I bought it but I am open to other choices.

also what kind of moisturizer is good to use with the retinol cream???

Gio May 12, 2016 - 9:20 pm

Alcide, yes, it best to start small with retinol and only use it three times a week or so.

The retinol cream you are using is good, but fairly basic. if you’re open to switching, consider one of these: http://beautifulwithbrains.com/2016/04/18/best-retinol-products/

Most moisturizers will work with retinol, so go for one that suits your skin type.

Hope this helps. 🙂

Alcide May 13, 2016 - 6:33 am

Thanks for the advice, once Im more resistant to retinol, i will switch for the paulas choice serum.

Gio May 13, 2016 - 10:22 am

My pleasure. 🙂

James Kelsall May 25, 2016 - 2:35 pm

I had 6 weeks of treatment, including Isolaz treatment as well salicylic 20% peel while using Skinceuticals .3% retinol in between treatments, I am also on antibiotics (Lymecycline) . In between the first two treatment I used it once a week. After I upped it to 2-3 times a week. In between 4,5 & 6 I used it probably 5 times a week. After this I used nightly as suggested by my derm, a week and a half after finishing the treatment I broke out majorly. I believe the Isolaz is supposed to bring any blemishes up to the surface and salicylic peel should rid your face of any impurities etc. So surely anything that was under the surface would have been rid of already once my treatments had finished. Therefore I believe the purge is incorrect. I also started to break out in areas that I usually don’t including nose and forehead. I now haven’t used any retinol since Sunday and haven’t come up in any spots.

Gio May 28, 2016 - 8:44 pm

James, thanks for sharing your experience. It does seem like there shouldn’t have been anything else to purge. Yet, retinol is not known to cause breakouts. Mmm… Could there be anything else in the product that’s causing the problem?

James May 28, 2016 - 9:16 pm

I have no idea. The product claims not to clog pores. It’s skinceuitcals .3% retinol. Could your skin just be getting used to a product and I need to break it in a bit slower? What else could there be?

Gio May 29, 2016 - 9:47 pm

I see it has soybean oil. Maybe that’s the problem. This oil can cause breakouts. Try switching to another retinol treatment and see if it helps.

James May 29, 2016 - 8:10 pm

I’ve been given Isotrex, do you think I will experience an initial breakout as I’ve just gone to a stronger retinol?

Gio June 1, 2016 - 11:44 pm

James, I’m afraid it is a possibility.

Jan June 10, 2016 - 9:51 pm

Hi Gio. I’ve been using Skinceuticals 1.0 retinol for the past two weeks. (x1, x2 a week) I slowly worked up to it, diluting the retinol with moisturizer, etc..but my forehead is covered with tiny tiny bumps now and I’m scared to continue. I’m also combining my retinol with Drunk Elephant C firma day serum because I heard retinols work well with vitamin c. Would this be the cause of the bumps? I heard retinol shouldn’t be mixed with L-Ascorbic acid (which drunk elephant day serum has.)

Gio June 10, 2016 - 11:24 pm

Jan, I’m sorry you are experiencing these tiny bumps. I don’t think vitamin C is the problem. When used together with retinol, they make each other a little bit less effective, but they don’t give you bumps. I’d recommend you keep using the retinol for a couple more weeks to see if the bumps stop. They usually do after a month. In the meantime, use a salicylic acid based exfoliant to get rid of those you already have.

Mercy September 11, 2016 - 8:38 am

I ‘ve been using retino a 0.025 for 6 weeks now. My skin condition is getting worse day by day. Should i discontinue using it. Please guide me.

Mercy September 11, 2016 - 8:40 am

And I’m prescribed with pero bar (a benzoyl peroxide cleansing bar). What should I do now.

Gio September 18, 2016 - 11:13 am

Mercy, sorry to hear about your problem. Both retinoids and benzoyl peroxide are pretty harsh ingredients so it’s normal your skin would need some time to get used to them.

As it’s been six weeks though, I’d ask your doctor if it can prescribe you benzoyl peroxide in a serum or cream form. Bar soaps can be very harsh on their own without adding BP to them!

I’d also cut back on frequency for a while. Maybe use retino a two or three times a week rather than every day. Hope this helps.

Emily September 15, 2016 - 6:35 pm

Hi! Your so sweet a seeing everyone’s comments! I love that. Thank you!
So I am 29. I had a perfect regimen for my face. I have oily combination skin. More oily. So I used to use all drug store products. A very simple wash, a toner with salicylic acid, a tiny drop of benzoyl peroxide added to my lotion (with salicylic acid) and a DDF serum (super expensive but my first ever serum) and my skin was perfect. The occasional pimple here and there at that time of month. Then I switched my products. I switched to Murad, drunk elephant and a few others from Sephora. My skin broke out soooooo bad! So I returned it all and went and got a facial. They gave me all Sanitas products. The regular skin trial. It was horrible! Broke me out even more! So I just said screw it and went back to my nightly routine that I mentioned before and mornings I just washed, toner, lotion and serum (no benzoyl peroxide) and added retinol just as a spot treatment and my skin is still horrible! I just bought all the lines from Paula’s choice. Not even kidding, I spent over $400 dollars last night on the products. I wanted to still do the resting days so I bought the big clear acne kit and the big skin balancing kit and then the a ton of extra products like the c15 super booster, another serum, and another hydrator. Sooo…now I’m just hoping for the best. I also bought a spin brush from vanity planet and here’s the big kicker…I barely ever wear liquid make up! I never needed it before so now I’m looking into getting some but I’m not trying to make my face worse. Any advice!!? 🙁 I’m so frustrated. You want to take a girls sanity, give her acne and she has no idea what’s happening.
Sorry this is long! Again, thank you!

Gio September 17, 2016 - 9:39 pm

Emily, oh no! So sorry to hear about your problem. It’s obvious that your skin doesn’t like the changes you made, but you tried so many different products in such a short space of time, it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly is causing the problem.

What I would do is go back to your original routine, including benzoyl peroxide. If retinol doesn’t work as a spot treatment, then benzoyl peroxide is a good alternative. And from your comment, it seems your skin was fine while you were using it, right? So, that’s definitely something I’d go back to.

Then, if you want to introduce new products into your skincare routine, do it one at a time. That way, if your skin reacts badly, you’ll know what to avoid. Make sure that whatever product you try doesn’t contain these comedogenic ingredients or you’ll get even more pimples: http://beautifulwithbrains.com/2009/06/10/what-ingredients-are-comedogenic/

The first thing though is to deal with acne so definitely salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide as you were doing in the beginning. If that doesn’t work anymore, try either tea tree oil (pure) or sulfur. Hope this helps.

Emily September 15, 2016 - 6:38 pm

I meant to say you are so sweet for answering everyone’s comments not a seeing lol spelling error.

Gio September 17, 2016 - 9:41 pm

Emily, no worries. And it’s a pleasure!

Kendra April 10, 2017 - 3:37 pm

Have you looked much into the Ordinarys Retonoid 2%?
I’ve been using it for about 5 weeks (every 2-3 days) and have very red, deep cystic acne on my forehead. I’m not sure if it’s the product or the purge and if I should keep going. I talk to people all day in my job andn so self conscious.

Gio April 10, 2017 - 6:54 pm

Kendra, yes, I love the serum: http://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/the-ordinary-advanced-retinoid-serum/

But then, I don’t have acne. Retinol can help treat acne, but not the red and inflamed kind (http://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/the-complete-guide-to-retinol/) so it may indeed be the serum that’s making your skin act up like that.

Tasha May 4, 2017 - 9:40 pm

I’m so glad you posted about The Ordinary Retinoid 2%!

I started using it daily about 2 weeks ago (whoops.. didn’t know that I should build up gradually) and have broken out in deep, red, painful spots on my chin and forehead that seem to continuously spread and fill up with sebum. I use a 7% glycolic acid toner in the evening and salicylic acid (both also The Ordinary) in the morning, and although my skin is smooth and dewey (except for where the blemishes are), neither of these products have held the spots at bay. I actually came online tonight to investigate, and read on The Ordinary site that the retinoid 2% can cause temporary acne. My research then led me here.

I think I’ll stop the retinoid for now, just so I can ascertain if it is definitely that which is causing the spots. I can ten try reintroducing gradually.

Do you think mixing it in with a moisturiser so that it’s less concentrated might help?

Thanks for your advice!

Gio May 5, 2017 - 6:48 pm

Hi Tasha, yes, that’s probably it. Retinol is a powerful ingredient, which means it can be unpredictable. Stop using it until the breakouts go away and then reintroduce it slowly. I think it’s gentle enough to be used daily but only after your skin has become used to it. Too much of a good thing too soon is never good.

Shruti Desai April 12, 2017 - 4:01 am

Hi there, thanks for your post!

I started brand new meds from a brand new dermatologist a few weeks back: Tretinoin (Retin-A) 0.025%, along with ACZONE (Dapsone) Gel 7.5%.

I made an appnt. because the hormonal comedonal acne on my forehand was severe, along with hormonal acne along my jaw line and cheeks.

I was instructed this nightly routine: apply the Tretinoin mixed with CerVa PM (small pea size amount) to the face. Wait 5 mins for the tretinoin to settle, then apply a small pea size of the Dapsone to face/acne areas.

1 to 1 and 1/2 weeks in or so, things may have started to clear up, slowly, not so sure, but that week and half in, my skin started to peel and easily burn (from my usual facecloth routine). My derm said this was from the tretinoin.

My derm then suggested I take a break from the tretinoin for a week and restart the next week only 3 times a week (while still keeping up with aczone nightly)

A couple days before I was about to start the new week, my face absolutely blew up (is blown up now) with an insane amount of red pimples, mostly all whiteheads along my cheeks and jawline and more comedonal acne on my forehead than I’ve ever seen. The real tragedy is the acne on my cheeks/lower jaw. It’s so bad I definitely can’t go out in public.

I think this was a reaction to the tretinoin break. I had only just started and a couple weeks in, I had to stop for about a week. Do you think it may have been a reaction to that?

I didn’t have access to my usual salicylic acid facewash for the couple days before I broke out, so I used some random clean and clean morning burst.

Another thing, my normal routine for years before this new routine was nightly benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin phosphate application. and my derm suggested i switch off the aczone and duac every night so as to adjust to the aczone. but i just started with aczone right away.

sorry if i rambled, im just so sad about the status of my face right now and im wondering if you have any insight about this? thanks so much!!

– Shruti

Gio April 21, 2017 - 8:18 pm

Shruti, I’ve found your comment! I’ve already replied by email but let me know if you need anything else.

Leahe April 16, 2017 - 5:50 am

I have been using retinol for 5 months now, and although it has helped clear my skin, I am dealing with excessive oily skin! I am guessing this is retinol a way of balancing my skin, but not sure. Will it at any point curb the oil, is there some science behind this?

Gio April 21, 2017 - 8:03 pm

Leahe, retinol should help decrease the oil, not the opposite. It may be that this form of vitamin A is too gentle for you. I’d consult a dermatologist to see if they can prescribe something stronger.

Beulah April 26, 2017 - 11:10 pm

My face is so dry and messed up with acne and spots all over.I had a nearly perfect facial skin until I started breaking out recently and a friend’ recommended clinicians complex containing 10% of retinol . I started the dosage morning and night and now I hate my face.
From all the comments above, it is evident that the 10% is too harsh for my skin as a beginner. I am a bit vain and now I am ashamed to step out. What do I do to regain my glowing skin within the shortest possible time??

Gio April 29, 2017 - 1:04 pm

Beulah, I hope that 10% is a typo because such high concentrations should only be available by prescription. But even 1% would be too high for a beginner.

You need to give your skin time to heal. Stop the retinol and any other ingredient that could irritate skin, including glycolic acid and vitamin C, if you’re using them. Go back to basics. A gentle cleanser, a hydrating serum and a moisturizer for sensitive skin (Nia24 Skin Strengthening Complex would be a great choice). Don’t exfoliate with scrubs or do anything else that may irritate your skin.

Once you’ve done this, you can gently introduce salicylic acid to clear up the breakouts.

Rina April 30, 2017 - 4:10 am

DON’T USE SALICYLIC ACID WITH TRETINOIN!!!!!!!!!!!!! They cancel each other out. Benzyl Peroxide and Tretinoin help each other, but do not use Salicylic acid if you’re using Tretinoin.

Gio May 5, 2017 - 7:29 pm

Rina, thanks for the heads up!

Dalia May 1, 2017 - 1:11 am

Hi there,

So I have always had pretty good skin…a pimple around my period but that is about it. However about a month ago I tried two new products both by philosophy, (the micro delivery exfoliant wash with vitamin c and their new tinted moisturizer) and it broke me out…a bunch of tiny tiny bumps developed all over my skin in addition to some pimples but it was not thaaaat bad. I went to my dr and received samples of Veltin (form of Retin A) as well as Clindamycin phosphate and my acne has NEVER been worse. I am about 20 days in and I am really really starting to give up. I have read that it can cause purging but I have huge white heads all over and my cheeks are covered in red marks. I am exhausted of having this skin. I wish I had never used the philosophy and now i wish I had never used the veltin because i feel like it brought out acne I never even had. What should I do?? Im losing hope 🙁 How long is this purging period going to last? how can I get my natural skin back 🙁

Gio May 5, 2017 - 7:30 pm

Dalia, so sorry to hear about your situation. Typically, a purge can last up to 6 weeks. Anything longermore than that, you’re breaking out. If you don’t want to wait, I recommend consulting another dermatologist for a different treatment.

Chelsea May 24, 2017 - 4:13 pm

Yes! I bought a somewhat pricey Peter Thomas Roth retinol serum, and I broke out. I didn’t toss it, but I stopped using it. I wasn’t sure if it was the retinol or the base of the serum (I think it has grapeseed oil, so I thought that might be the culprit). I’m going to give it another shot now. Thanks!

Gio May 27, 2017 - 5:53 pm

Chelsea, sometimes it can be difficult to tell what causes the breakout, especially if you’re prone to them. If you want to be sure, you can also try a different product with retinol but without the oil and see what happens.

Laura June 8, 2017 - 9:57 pm

What about retinyl palmitate? Would that cause an initial breakout?

Gio June 10, 2017 - 6:32 pm

Laura, potentially, yes. Practically, it’s not as common as retinyl palmitate is less powerful than other forms of vitamin A.

Allie June 29, 2017 - 8:13 pm

I have always had relatively good skin, but had a random breakout of whiteheads (closed comedones) on my forehead back in March. I am in my thirties and was told by a doctor that it was hormonal. I started using one of Paula Choice skin care kits as I have never had a strict face cleansing routine, and my face had a very bad reaction to what I assume was an ingredient in one of the products. Because I had a wedding coming up, I was prescribed a steroid cream which calmed everything down in a couple of days (I was only on the steroids for 3 days). Once the wedding passed, I went to a very strict routine of gentle cleanser in the morning and salicylic acid (2%) face wash at night, moisturizing twice a day. My face is pretty clear now except for my forehead, which has had small skin colored bumps all over that come and go. It’s enough that I am self conscious about it, but not enough that I am embarrassed to go out of the house (as described by some above). My derm prescribed tretinoin .025% to start using every 3rd night, but after everything i have read online, I am TERRIFIED to use it. I am not happy with how my skin looks right now, but it is nowhere near as bad as what some people have been describing on this and other sites. I am afraid that if I start using this cream, I will make things so much worse. Does the purging always go away after a month or 2? How likely is it that my skin will get worse before better? I definitely need advice and my derm is not very reassuring when I ask her.

Gio July 7, 2017 - 10:20 am

Allie, tretinoin doesn’t always cause breakouts. If your skin is prone to them, chances are your pores are already quiet clogged and would erupt in a breakout later on. Tretinoin accelerates the skin’s natural exfoliating process so it brings these breakouts to the surface earlier than that they naturally would on their own. But the purging shouldn’t last more than one month.

If you’re not comfortable with tretinoin, you can start with a small concentration of retinol to give your skin time to get used to vitamin A (tretinoin is a higher strength of retinol) and see how it goes.

Sydney August 15, 2017 - 4:59 am

Hi. I’m scouring the internet looking for positive reinforcement about the Retin-A treatment I just started about 2 weeks ago. It feels like longer but now I look at the calendar and it’s only been two weeks. I’m frustrated because my doctor didn’t give me much warning about what to expect, but my skin feels awful! I don’t know if it’s worse, but it’s different and still horribly broken out. I’ve noticed that I break out in the summer sometimes (but not every year) and this summer has been the worst ever. I’m broken out all over my chest, upper back and the back of my neck. My face hasn’t been so bad, but since beginning the Retin-A treatment, I feel like pimples are encroaching on my chin and cheeks and forehead. I guess I just need to stick with it? I used to use a Benzoyl wash, but weaned myself off of it when my skin seemed to clear up with a change in my birth control pill. But I’m still on that pill and my skin is a mess again. I had happily gotten my skin care regimen down to simply soap once, sometimes twice, a day and lotion. Now I feel like I have to be all high maintenance again. I guess more than anything I want to know that I’m not alone and that it will get better! I feel so ashamed of my appearance right now.

Gio August 19, 2017 - 9:16 pm

Sydney, please, don’t feel ashamed. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re still the amazing person you were before the breakouts. I know that the adjustment period of Retin-A can be very difficult and it is a shame that your doctor didn’t prepare you for it and warned you this might happen. The breakouts should disappear within a couple of weeks but you can try using a leave-in exfoliant with salicylic acid to speed up the process. That usually helps.

Maranda Howman September 4, 2017 - 5:48 pm

Hello. My name is Maranda and I am 23. My acne struggles have been on going for years. I have tried over the counter brands from drug store lines all the way up to high-end brands. I have used gentle ingredients and harsh ingredients with no real luck. My diet has even been altered for the sake of clear skin – and overall health of course.
Finally, after years of trying to navigate the waters, I visited a dermatologist for help. I was put on Spironolactone to reduce the amount of oil my body produces as my face would be slick with sebum after an hour of waking up. They also had me do a complete overhaul of skin care products. They have their own brand called h&h science that is free of parabens, fragrance, and pore clogging ingredients. Because they have medical grade levels of ingredients, they felt it was best to switch me over. (I asked around town and they don’t do this with all of their clientele so I feel better knowing it isn’t just for self promotion and sales)
I was placed on a Green Tea Cleanser, 2% Salicylic Acid (morning toner only), low dosage of Retinol (evening use only), a Green Tea Moisturizer, and a Zinc Oxide based Sunscreen specifically formulated for acne prone skin. My weekly treatments consist of a Clay Mask, Benzoyl Peroxide 5%, and a 10% Glycolic Acid Tonner.
This is week 5 and the acne is still worsening. My entire face has taken 20 steps backwards. I now feel the need to wear mineral makeup every day to cover the acne. Thankfully, there aren’t many large cystic spots, but more small red bumps that are filled with puss. Neither form is one that you want to see on your face. I keep reading that this is to be expected; even my doctor said it takes time for these ingredients to work. Still- it is discouraging to see your skin react this way. Acne is embarrassing in all forms.
To wrap up this long story, how much longer should typical results continue to be worse? At what point do you suggest that it be looked as a reaction outside of the “normal” when adding retinol and doing such a huge change in products?
Thank you for your help!

Gio September 8, 2017 - 9:31 pm

Maranda, so sorry to hear about your story. Usually, when you start using retinoids and acids, it is normal to experience purging. You had breakouts brewing in the deepest layers of your skin and these ingredients simply bring them to the surface earlier. This period should last between 4 and 6 weeks. Anything longer than that and I’d say you’re doing something that’s making your skin very unhappy.

Jason September 12, 2017 - 5:09 pm

How long does it take to get over the peeling and so forth from retinol? Retinol made my skin red and some spots on my face were flaky. So I took a break and have been using Cerave Moisturizing Cream at night to repair and then I will do the retinol twice a week instead I was doing it 5 days in a row so I think I used to much in the beginning.

Gio September 17, 2017 - 8:14 am

Jason, you definitely used too much! It’s always better to start a couple of times a week and then apply a moisturiser, especially if your skin is dry or sensitive. The peeling and other symptoms should disappear within a month, six weeks tops. If you experience them for longer then it means you’re either doing something wrong or your skin can’t tolerate it (some people with sensitive skin simply can’t use it).

Hannah September 13, 2017 - 11:55 pm

So I’ve had fairly decent skin for a while and just a random pimple during the TOTM – my dermo told me to use Soskin C-Vital which has retinol and vit C in it combined. When I used it- I got 3 small pimples within the first 2 weeks or so in the places where I usually get pimples which I guess was purging. I’m now on week 6 and my skin is fairly clean but I am still getting tiny whiteheads (no puss, red skin, infection, irritation) on forehead and blackheads on my nose. I’ve definitely seen an improvement in my skin texture and pigmentation but I wonder if by now all my whiteheads and blackheads should have gone? I also use dermalogica exfoliant once a week – should I exfoliate twice a week now? Wait another 2 weeks for the whiteheads and blackheads to go away? Btw my skin type is sensitive and dry/combination. Please advice!

Gio September 17, 2017 - 9:33 am

Hi Hannah, glad to hear the retinol serum is helping somewhat. You didn’t mention the name of the dermalogica exfoliant. Does it have salicylic acid? That’s what your skin needs to get rid of the whiteheads now.

Jenny September 26, 2017 - 10:38 pm

Hi, I have extremely oily skin – I have to blot continuously and my make up can look awful by the end of the day. Will retinol help with this?

Gio September 29, 2017 - 12:21 pm

Jenny, yes, retinol should help. I would also encourage you to try salicylic acid, if you aren’t already using it. That can keep oil production under control, too.

HotHumidHTX October 10, 2017 - 8:12 pm

Question: Can you use a retinol product (e.g., Skinceuticals 0.5%) as a “spot treatment” for melasma and/or sunspots? Or do you have to use it over your entire face? Thanks!

Gio October 14, 2017 - 11:04 am

Hothumidhtx, you can definitely use retinol as a spot treatment but in my opinion, that is a waste. Retinol is such a powerful antiaging ingredient, why not use it all over your face?

William November 8, 2017 - 7:05 am

I just started using Differin 8 days ago … 3 days ago i thought WTH ..yip breakout woke up next morning worst pustule breakout i have ever had … must of been 50-60 between edged nose and cheek area… I mean 50-60 it was like 2 months worth popped up all at the same time. not even a hey how you doing just BAMMMM. Needless to say i felt like curling up and going to sleep in a dark room for a month or forever ….. But i have kept using it…hopefully this is not a mistake.

Gio November 26, 2017 - 12:18 pm

William, so sorry to hear that. Unfortunately, Differin often makes things way worse before it makes them better. This breakout should last a month, 6 weeks tops. If after that your skin isn’t clear, it’s time to ditch it.

Tania December 11, 2017 - 4:07 pm

I’m using La Roche Posay’s Redermic R. What do you know about this one?

Gio December 16, 2017 - 11:03 pm

Tania, it’s a fairly basic moisturizer but it does contain enough retinol to work.

Nicole Hopkins February 3, 2018 - 12:34 am

I had tried retin-a years ago for acne. After 6 months of painful break outs I stopped using it. My Dermatologist said my acne was hormonal and moved to actzone. Now several years later and 45, I need an anti-aging cream. I started using Neutrogena rapid wrinkle repair, and sure enough, I am breaking out again. I don’t have 6 months or even 6 weeks to wait. Is it possible my skin and retin a just don’t get along?

Gio February 11, 2018 - 12:04 pm

Nicole, yes it is possible. Some people just can’t use it at all. 🙁

Rebecca April 2, 2018 - 1:44 pm

Good Morning, My daughter 15 year old daughter was recently put on Tretinoin .5% to help with her breakouts. In addition, she was prescribed Doxycycline. Since starting the Tretinoin, her skin appears to have gotten worse with more severe acne. It is typically concentrated on her forehead and she is very self-conscious about it. Is there anything she can use in conjunction with the Tretinoin to help with breakouts? My heart breaks for her but I don’t know what to do.

Gio April 8, 2018 - 4:22 pm

Rebecca, I feel for your daughter. Acne can really rob you of your self-esteem. 🙁 Unfortunately tretinoin after causes purging so it’ll be worse for a while before it gets better. Try using a salicylic acid exfoliant every morning and night right after cleansing. Salicylic acid gets inside the pores and removes all the crap that clogs them out and causes breakouts. It’ll help the breakouts heal faster. Both Paula’s Choice and The Ordinary make good ones.

Brenda April 4, 2018 - 12:29 pm

I have read your entire blog and find it most informative – I recently started using the Go Pure system and got small red spots tender if touched and think I need to hold off the nightly Retinol and just use it every 3rd night until my skin gets use to it – your opinion would be appreciated – I did stop the Retinol all together and the red tender places went away all together – so should I start back only using every 2nd or 3rd night? Also what is your opinion of the Go Pure product? Thank you for your time I await your response.

Gio April 8, 2018 - 11:44 am

Brenda, glad you find my blog useful. I’d definitely try it again but this time only every 3 days. I’ve checked the GoPure retinol cream and, while it’s good for anti aging, it’s best suited for dry skin. If you have oily skin, it may be too rich for you.

Sophie April 28, 2018 - 8:50 pm

Had some typos on my last comment so I’m reposting… i’m on my second week of retin- a and I feel soooo discouraged. My entire skin is covered in clumps of cysts. I’ve never had acne this bad. Is all this going to scar? I’m so tempted to quit using it but if the purge thing is true… it would make sense to stick it out. Feeling soooo insecure. I’m a dancer and it’s so awkward to have this on my face. I feel so depressed. I’m praying this purge phase isn’t a myth.
I actually look deformed with how many inflamed puffy cysts are all over my skin. Is it normal for the purge period to be this cystic? I’m exfoliating and wearing SPF and moisturizing. I can’t even lay on a pillow with how inflamed the cysts are.

Gio May 4, 2018 - 6:53 pm

Sophie, you’re not deformed. And you’re not your acne. You’re a beautiful woman with lots of good qualities, values and skills. That’s what makes you truly beautiful. ? I understand the purging process can be heartbreaking but it’s not a myth. Hang in there. Are you exfoliating with salicylic or mandelic acid? These are the only two exfoliants that can help your cysts heal faster.

Ezgi April 29, 2018 - 3:11 pm

Hi Gio, just found your blog today and read through all the retinol related posts, great blog and so informative, thank you. A bad first experience with The Ordinary’s retinol 1% brought me here.
I have oily & sensitive skin & I am prone to all kinds of acne (mostly hormonal, I was prescribed birth control pills a few years ago which helps keep it under control). I foolishly bought the 1%, not having read anything, and after just 2 uses (once a week) it has caused a painful breakout, and caused all kinds of dryness. It hurts when I touch my face, so definitely this was not the product for me. I wanted to ask though, you say retinol does work for the red, irritated sort of acne (the one it has caused incidentally), what is the alternative in this case?

Gio May 19, 2018 - 9:24 am

Hi Ezgi, sorry to hear that! The Ordinary Retinol 1% is great but not for your skin type! I’d try one of their Granactive Retinoid in Squalane formulas. It has a different form of retinoid (the same family as retinol) that helps with acne.

Janet April 30, 2018 - 6:49 pm

I have read the entire blog and I have researched if it’s normal to purge with tretinoin cream and I am so confused (very overwhelming reading all these different opinions)! I was prescribed tretinoin cream daily use at night and doxycycline 2x daily and benzoyl peroxide wash in the morning. The first 2 weeks my skin was flaky and really dry but no irritation. I started breaking out a little more than normal but this is now my third week and I am still breaking out on my cheeks not cystic but big whiteheads. Is it normal to keep breaking out being on the 3 week?

Gio May 4, 2018 - 7:10 pm

Janet, yes unfortunately it is normal. A breakout can last for up to six weeks. Anything longer than that, you know there must be something else causing it.

Gio May 4, 2018 - 6:51 pm

Sophie, you’re not deformed. And you’re not your acne. You’re a beautiful woman with lots of good qualities, values and skills. That’s what makes you truly beautiful. 🙂 I understand the purging process can be heartbreaking but it’s not a myth. Hang in there and get yourself a bottle of salicylic acid. It’ll help the acne heal faster.

Brandi May 5, 2018 - 3:16 am

I went from one or two pimples normally to severe and I mean severe acne from this, it’s so bad most people think it’s one big rash but up close you can see thousands of white heads and pumps, aswell wind burn feeling and my nose is like stiff like a weird dry. I want to send a pic because I feel this is not normal, even my friends say they’ve never seen it this bad before HELP!!!

Gio May 19, 2018 - 9:17 am

Brandi, without knowing what product you’re using, it’s hard to tell whether it’s the retinol alone that’s causing this or if there’s something else there that may be aggravating the purge. Either way, stop using it immediately and get yourself a salicylic acid exfoliant. It’ll help the breakouts go away faster.

Imanp May 28, 2018 - 9:45 am

I need some help i have bin using ratin a from 6 weeks now.it has improved acne on chicks but skin is still red and irritating but suddenly there are so many tiny bumps on my forehead and i dont know wat caused it and m worried should i continue usin ratin a on my forehead or should i stop. Or is rarin a the reason for those tiny bumps

Gio June 2, 2018 - 2:44 pm

Imanp, it’s likely a purge. Hang in there, it should be over soon.

Allie June 10, 2018 - 12:28 pm


Is there an email we can contact you on for specific skin care advice?


Gio June 16, 2018 - 10:33 am

Allie, you can find my contact info here: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/contact/

Valerie October 19, 2018 - 10:38 pm

I used Retin A for 6 weeks. I hadn’t had any breakouts in YEARS. But I did, for the entire 6 weeks. When I stopped (almost immediately) the breakouts went away. Unfortunately, my normal skin is now extremely dry. It’s off to the dermo again 🙁

Gio October 20, 2018 - 6:55 pm

Valerie, oh no, sorry to hear that! Maybe there was something else in the formula that trigger it. I know that some prescription retinoids also contain isopropyl myrystate, an ingredient that never fails to break me out too. Try another form of Vitamin A, you may have more luck.

Sharmeen September 20, 2019 - 3:30 pm

Hey, so I’m 24 and started experiencing hormonal acne this past year. My doctor put me on birth control and now after 5 months my skin is back to normal. I still get the occasional pimple around that time of the month but it seems the longer I take the birth control the better my skin has been getting. However, without makeup I’m still dealing with hyperpigmentation in certain areas. I’m thinking of trying a retinol to help clear this issue, but I don’t know what to get and what dosage since it would be my first time using it. Any recommendations? Also would I still have to deal with “purging” even though my skin is mostly clear and I only dealt with hormonal acne?

Gio October 5, 2019 - 4:56 pm

Sharmeen, check out this post for the best retinol products for beginners: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/strength-retinol-need/

Purging happens when there are breakouts brewing underneath your skin. If there aren’t any, you won’t have to deal with it.

Sasa April 4, 2019 - 5:17 pm

Hello Gio, i have been using the Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion for about 1 week, is it normal to have acnes the first time you used a retinoid? i mostly get my acnes on my chin area and forehead.

Gio April 12, 2019 - 4:14 pm

Sasa, yes it’s possible to experience purging from retinol. Give it a month and see if it gets better.

Ghasal April 17, 2019 - 10:39 pm

Hello Gio,
I have been recommended Medic8 by a friend. I have started with 0.3% twice a week for 2 weeks, then every other night for another 2 weeks. I have some breakouts, hoping that the’purging’ period will soon come to an end. 2 questions : Do you know this brand, and does it have any comedogenic ingredients? Secondly, I am supposed to carry on with higher percentage, but do I have to go back to twice a week or should it be every other night?
Many thanks for all your advise.

Gio April 20, 2019 - 2:54 pm

Ghasal, I do like Medik8 products a lot and have used their retinol serums without problems. They work, but they have an oil base, so if your skin usually breakouts with oils, you may want to look for a different brand.

You should be able to keep up your current frequency. Only if you experience any sign of dryness, go back to twice a week and up again.

Kirt June 11, 2019 - 6:26 pm

Hi Gio, I have an oily skin and my pimple has it’s own mind like this week it’s on my left cheek and next week the right cheek, I’m using neutrogena alcohol free toner and then the qiansoto goji berry facial cream and it has retinol and hyaluronic acid and organic botanicals, and it gave me some breakouts I’ve been using this for almost 2 weeks straight, so any thoughts? should i still continue using it? thank you! Ü

Gio July 6, 2019 - 1:20 pm

Kirt, this is tricky. With these ingredients, it could be both a purge or a breakout. Do these tests to find out which one is it: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/purging-breakout-difference/

Tori June 28, 2019 - 4:51 am

Hi, I’ve been using skin ceuticals refining night cream .3 and it was making my skin really dry at first but now I have under the skin pimples constantly. I am very diligent with washing my face in the morning and at night. I dont ever wear makeup. I moisturize in the am and pm. Should i be putting moisturizer before or after the retinol? Im thinking i am putting too much retinol on my face and should dial it back to once a week because I have been using it almost every night. Also how much should i be applying? I usually have clear skin so this is so frustrating! I bought this to get a head start on wrinkles and fine lines and my pores before i turn 30. I’m torn on whether I should quit altogether or maybe there is an ingredient thats making me breakout?

Gio August 8, 2019 - 6:14 pm

Tori, thi post will help you figure out if it’s a purge or a breakout: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/purging-breakout-difference/

If a breakout, stop using it immediately. If a purge, cut back to twice a week and moisturise afterwards.

jenjen November 12, 2019 - 5:16 pm

I just wanted to say thank you for posting this. I’ve been on Epiduo (adapalene and benzoyl peroxide) for 4 weeks now and my purge is almost over but the flakiness remains in some places. I see how people give up on it so quickly as it certainly made my acne worse, but your post has encouraged me to continue and see how things are going at 6 weeks. The spots I had 4 weeks ago are gone, and the ones that remain are ones that purged later, so that seems to be an indication that it is indeed working, although the redness is a bit extreme.

Claire Chu January 24, 2020 - 6:26 pm

Hi Gio,
I have been battling acne for about six years and it had finally mostly cleared up when I went to an acne clinic. However, I still had some hyperpigmentation and occasional breakouts so I started using the A-pasioni from drunk elephant along with the protini moisturizer and slaii cleanser. I started on new years so currently it has just been over three weeks since I’ve switched skincare routines. I have been breaking out quite badly but I have read many articles about the purge so I’ve been keeping faith that this will be over soon. The breakouts have been in my T-zone, especially on my forehead, where I am normally most acne prone. What are your thoughts?

Thank You

Claire Chu January 28, 2020 - 5:45 pm

Also, I’m not sure but it seems as if my hyperpigmentation is getting worse but maybe it’s from the new pimples.

Gio February 8, 2020 - 7:11 am

Claire, it’s hard to tell for sure, but sounds like a purge. A Passioni is one of the most powerful retinoids out there and can make your skin worse before it makes it better. Give it a couple more weeks and if things doesn’t get better, ditch it.

Shantell Bianaline Gauna February 29, 2020 - 1:10 pm

Hi Gio! My derma prescribed me with tretinoin. My skin was doing well during the first 2 weeks, but then i suddenly had a breakout. Until now i am breaking out, it is my 5th or 6th week already. 🙁 i am also using isispharma teen derm morning and night. I use the tretinoin every other day. Is my skin purging or am i breaking out? My skin got smoother but my pimples just keeps on popping out literally anywhere.

Gio March 6, 2020 - 9:59 am

Shantell, did you introduce any new product in the meantime?

If not, answer the three questions in this post to help you figure out if it’s a purge or a breakout: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/purging-breakout-difference/


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