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:

What Is Retinol And How Does It Help Acne?

A form of Vitamin A, retinol is an antiaging superstar that both treats and prevents wrinkles and acne. It works in three ways:

  1. It has antioxidant properties that destroy the free radicals that cause premature wrinkles and dark spots.
  2. It accelerates cellular turnover (i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliating process), reducing the appearance of dark spots and wrinkles AND treating acne.
  3. It boosts the production of collagen, the protein that keeps skin firm.

Number 2 is how retinol helps you get rid of acne. By speeding up cellular turnover, dead skin cells slough OFF your skin instead of ending up into your pores, where they would form clogs and breakouts.

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):

Does Retinol Causes Breakouts And Acne?

Retinol doesn’t cause breakouts. It causes purging.

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.

The good news? Once your skin has purged all that gunk out, the breakouts stop (unless you keep using pore-clogging ingredients).

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. 😉

Best Picks:

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

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.