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Retinol Purge: What Is It and How to Avoid it

Struggling With Retinol Purge? These 3 Changes to Your Skin Care Routine Will Help

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You've read the reviews. You picked your chosen retinol serum and you're ready for your best skin yet. But after one use you've broken out, your skin has become red and irritated, and you can see the money you've spent combust in front of your very eyes. We have all been there. Retinol is one of the leading ingredients when it comes to anti-ageing and improving skin health, however it is also one of the most intimidating and misunderstood due to the reaction it can cause. To understand why skin can react, and even breakout — known as a retinol purge — its important to know exactly what retinol is and how it works.

Derived from vitamin A, which is essential to new cell growth and stimulating collagen production, it helps repair and regenerate skin. This is why it has been found to diminish wrinkles and fine lines, as it works by speeding up skin cycles which then benefit from the increased collagen production. In terms of treating acne breakouts it can help clear pores and minimise inflammation, therefore it not only helps clear the breakouts it also can reduce redness.

Retinol is the most well-known vitamin A derivative as it's available over the counter. However, there are more potent ingredients available such as retin-a (tretinoin), which can be described by a dermatologist. Although it is the least intensive it can still irritate skin and cause what is known as a retinol purge. Most people regard this as an irritation to the product and stop using it, however it is completely normal. We've asked skin expert Cleo Medeiros at Derma Aesthetics London how to overcome a retinol purge to reap the benefits of this hard-working ingredient.

What Is a Retinol Purge

You've slathered on your new serum before bed, followed all the instructions and woken up with tight, red, irritated skin, or even worse an acne breakout. Before you swear off your serum forever, remember this can be completely normal. "Purging is the temporary initial worsening or breakout of acne when first starting to use retinoids," says Medeiros. "Think of it as temporary skin adjustment period." But why? According to Medeiros this can be quite normal: "This happens due to the process of increasing skin cell turnover, which can unblock pores, leading to more spots than before." This is particular relevant, and unfortunately far more likely, if you are using the retinol to help treat acne or hormonal breakouts.

How Long Does a Retinol Purge Last?

This may not be the most popular answer as the phase can lasts a few weeks as the skin adapts to the treatment. On average it takes between two to four weeks for your skin to go through a couple of skin cycles and start to see the benefits, so you will need to persevere if you want to really benefit for the power of a retinol. "It takes about three weeks for skin cells to adapt to retinoic acid and build tolerance," says Medeiros. And although it may be tempted to try and treat these with other blemish-fighting ingredients it's best to let your skin do its thing on its own. "Avoid using other harsh skincare products during this period," recommends Medeiros. "Initially, you may experience redness, itching, or burning, but these symptoms typically diminish as your skin adjusts to the treatment."

Should I Keep Using Retinol While Purging?

The answer is a resounding yes, however you need to approach with caution. "Start gradually with a low concentration to minimise irritation," says Mederios. "Applying it at night after cleansing and before moisturising is recommended." It is also advised to build up retinol use until your skin can tolerate it, so opt to use this twice a week for the first week, three times the second and then every other day. "Retinol doesn't need to be used every day," says Mederios.

What Precautions Should You Take During a Retinol Purge?

Buckle up, because the first few weeks may be tough, however if you can stick it out then your skin will thank you. Whilst you're going through a retinol purge Mederios has this advice: "Patience is key, as results may take a few weeks to appear. Wait 30 minutes after washing your face before applying your retinol product and avoid combining retinol with harsh products." She also insists on the importance of wearing a sunscreen every day as the retinol can make skin more sensitive to environmental factors and UVA/UVB rays.

You could also consider buffering or "sandwiching", which has been found to be a beneficial technique for retinol, especially for those with sensitive skin. "It involves applying moisturiser before and after retinol application to minimise irritation, while allowing effective penetration," she explains. "This method can help alleviate dryness, redness, and flakiness commonly associated with retinol use. However, it's essential to find the right balance as it may slightly decrease the efficacy of the retinol."

A really good option is Dr Jart+ Cica Repair SOS Treatment (£38), it is ideal for using post intensive skin treatment, like a chemical peel, or as a thin layer if you're finding it hard to push through a retinol purge. Packed full of soothing centella asiatica and alpafor it really nourishes and repairs the skin barrier without compromising the effectiveness of the retinol too much.

Lauren Ezekiel is an associate editor at POPSUGAR UK, where she writes about all things beauty and wellness. With a degree in journalism and 12 years' experience as a beauty editor at a leading Sunday supplement, she is obsessed with skincare, hair and makeup, and is often found offering advice to innocent bystanders. Her work has been published in Grazia, OK, Health and Beauty, The Sun, ASDA, Dare and Metro.

Dr Jart+ Cica Repair SOS Treatment
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