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. 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 build your way up to what your skin can tolerate. Begin slow and go with alternate applications to begin with until you can tolerate daily use. The OBAGI Retinol 0.5 (for sensitive skin types) and OBAGI Retinol 1.0 (for normal skin types) would be a good place to start.


OBAGI Retinol

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 virtual skincare consultation. 

Stay hydrated and moisturise the skin to prevent it from becoming itchy and flaky. The Obagi Hydrate is a fantastic product that doesn’t clog pores and gives up to 8 hour hydration.


Obagi Hydrate


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 using high quality skincare and aiming at healthy skin. If you are unsure where to start with a retinol, then book a virtual skincare consultation. 


5-6 weeks on au medical retinal sensitive cream baught from a clarins store also along with cleanser hel and eye retinol was free I basically spent a bomb and all that’s happening every day skin getting worse is this normal as il be asking for refund as I only on first strength out of 3 once I finish this I will go to a higher retinal middle strength plz tell me if this is normal thank you

Vicky April 12, 2023

Do you continue use during a big purge?

Tarilyn Beer March 19, 2023

Hoping Noelle sees this message! Switch to medical grade skincare, the ordinary is awful! Highly recommend Osmosis retinol products, they are a retinaldehyde so they’re gentler on the skin but just as effective. Skinceuticals and Obagi also make excellent retinols! Good luck!

Skincare Fairy March 19, 2023

Thank you so much for this im using a Retinol cream and my cheeks go red and hot afterwards I thought I was maybe allergic to it but after reading this I feel so much better ive only been using it for about 2/3 weeks so I will persevere with it. Im 58 so anything that can help my skin im going to try. Thank you again I fully understand what Retinol actually does now. Should I keep using it everyday or would you discontinue after maybe 3 months then do normal face cream for a few months then go back onto the Retinol, as ive heard changing your face cream all the time is ehats best as your skin gets use to the cream you use and it stops having an effect. Sorry to be a nuisance. Tracey Evans xx

Tracey Evans March 19, 2023

I used retinol lotion on my body and it seriously broke me out all over my body I am going to try the method of putting on lotion first then retinol lotion after. Thank you for the advice

Tammy Crenshaw March 19, 2023

I have been using the ordinary retinol 0.2% serum for about 2 months now. But my face is still breaking out so should I continue using it or stop?

Noelle January 29, 2023

Perfect is what YOU are. Thank you for your wisdom and kind words. You are indeed a shining example of humanity.

Cecilia Hyde January 29, 2023

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