What is Retinol and Why Can it Cause Skin Purging- Everything Explained

After months of repairing my skincare barrier due to eczema, I finally decided to start a retinol in March 2022. I started the Environ AVST gel, containing retinyl palmitate, a very weak retinoid suitable for my sensitive skin type. All I can say is, I PURGED. Never have a had so many breakouts in my entire life. But trust me, it is worth it - the health and quality of my skin has never felt so good.

Retinol is a type of retinoid, a derivative of vitamin A; the fat-soluble vitamin found in copious amounts in vegetables like carrots and broccoli. It is considered great for the skin as it treats several aspects simultaneously. However, most people flinch at starting a retinol for the fear of retinol purging. June 2022 is acne awareness month so let me tell you a little bit more about this wonder element that is magical for your skin.

How Does Retinol Affect The Skin

Retinol penetrates through the epidermis into the second layer of skin, the dermis. There, it gets involved in neutralising the free radicals which are the reasons behind the oxidative damage to the skin. It also stimulates the production of more collagen and elastin in the dermis and reduces oil secretion.

Additionally, it works toward increasing the skin cell turnover. This refers to the process in which the cells from the layers underneath are pushed to the surface of the skin. The cumulative effect of all these leads to an improved texture of the skin. It reduces acne breakouts, and wrinkles, smoothens the lines on the skin, reduces large pores and evens out the skin tone.

Unlike other skincare products which address only the symptoms, retinol treats skin issues from the root and completely obliterates this, thus leaving a long-term effect. Therefore, if your skin starts looking younger after retinol treatment, know that it is not just at the surface, instead, your skin has actually become young at the cellular level.

What Is Retinol Purging?

Retinol is well known for worsening the condition of the skin before improving it. Most people who introduce retinol to their skin, experience severe breakouts, dryness, itchiness, and redness. The immediate side effects of retinol treatment can take the form of a surge in acne, blackheads, whiteheads, and rashes. This is termed retinol purging. It lasts for about 2-6 weeks depending on the quality of the skin, following which the positive effects ramp up.

Why Does Retinol Purging Occur?

Retinol purging is often not understood well. Users mostly think that retinol escalates skin breakout. However, the truth is that retinol only speeds up the process. Since it works by increasing the skin cell turnover, it also pushes oil and skin debris to the surface which are removed through acne.

The breakout that happens after using retinol is not new, rather, an impending one. This way, you get cleansed from the deepest level. It is like a deep skin detox. Thus, if you are prescribed retinol during your virtual skincare consultation your skin may potentially get worse for a few weeks before seeing its real effects.  

Can purging be avoided?

There are ways to decrease the irritation caused by retinol. The safest way to use retinol is start with a low percentage and make your build your way up to what your skin can tolerate. Start slow and go with alternate applications to begin with until you can tolerate daily use.

You can also try the retinol sandwich method where you apply moisturiser, then retinol and then another layer of moisturiser. This means the retinol releases slowly into the skin so is especially good for sensitive skin types. 

Since retinol makes the skin more sensitive to the sun and UV rays breakdown vitamin A, it is imperative to apply sunscreen religiously, if you are on retinol treatment. If you notice the side effects not alleviating, then book a skincare consultation. 

Stay hydrated and moisturise the skin to prevent it from becoming itchy and flaky. The Obagi hydrodrops facial serum is a fantastic product to keep your skin hydrated during this time.



Have patience and trust that your skin will get better. This acne awareness month, commit to a regular skin care regimen and loads of self-love. Make sure that you are aiming at healthy skin and not a perfect one because perfect is already what you have!

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