Is the retinoid purge real?
By Kaleigh Fasanella, she/her
If you’ve ever done an intense closet purge, then you know first-hand things typically look worse before they look better. Well, the same can sometimes (but not always!) go for your skin when it comes to using certain ingredients—namely exfoliants and retinoids. In the world of skincare, this experience is known as “purging,” and there’s a well-spring of misinformation about it. Here, board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, breaks down everything you need to know about the common skincare term, including some of the most common myths that still persist.
“Purging occurs when a new product is introduced to the skin that can increase skin [surface] turnover to get rid of the dead skin, such as retinoids and exfoliants,” says Dr. Garshick. “It can lead to a temporary increase in breakouts either by bringing smaller breakouts to the surface, or by triggering new breakouts and clogged pores associated with the accelerated skin turnover.” What’s more, Dr. Garshick says if these products are used incorrectly, they can cause excess dryness and/or irritation and a surge in oil production, in turn leading to the potential for new breakouts to pop up.
Ultimately though, this is all temporary (read that twice!) and shouldn’t steer you away from using retinoids and exfoliants, as their long-term benefits far outweigh the short purge period that your skin may (or may not) go through.
“While it can occur, purging should not be a cause for concern as it can actually be the normal process of the ingredient taking effect,” explains Dr. Garshick.
The main myths:
MYTH: Purging is going to last forever.
FACT: According to Dr. Garshick, purging can last a few weeks as it takes time (around four weeks) for skin to cycle through and produce new skin.
“When incorporating any new skincare product, I always advise my patients to wait two to three months to see results as it can take time for the skin to get adjusted to the product and for the benefits to appear,” says Dr. Garshick. “While not necessarily enjoyable, purging is not a problem if it happens, and in fact, may even be a reassuring sign that your product is working.”
MYTH: Purging is a sign that something’s wrong.
FACT: Nope. Purging is not an alarm bell signaling that something’s gone deeply awry, but rather a sign that your product is going to work and your skin is simply adjusting to it.
“While a skin purge doesn’t have to happen in order to know a product is working, it also does not mean you have to stop using a product or that you are allergic to it if you experience a purge,” says Dr. Garshick.
MYTH: Retinoids lead to blemishes.
FACT: While using a retinoid (i.e. vitamin A) may spark short-lived blemishes, there’s zero evidence that retinoids are actually a root cause of blemishes.
“During a purge period, blemishes that you may have experienced anyway come to the surface sooner as a result of the retinoid increasing skin [surface] turnover,” says Dr. Garshick. “For this reason, it’s a good idea to slowly ease into usage as this may minimize the extent of the purge, as well as any irritation.”
MYTH: Exfoliants cause acne.
FACT: Not true. Take it straight from Dr. Garshick:
“Exfoliating acids such as alpha and beta hydroxy acids can lead to a temporary purge as they are designed to increase skin [surface] turnover. However, unlike certain pore-clogging ingredients like comedogenic oils, they are not an actual source of acne.”
OK, but what isn’t normal?
If your breakouts are persisting past the two to three-month mark—or continuing to worsen— this could be a sign that your skin is having an adverse reaction to the product you’re using. In this case, it’s always best to consult your resident dermatologist to determine what’s going on, as they know your skin best and can help you accordingly.
The bottom line: While purging is not a fun experience, by any means, it’s also not at all a bad thing despite its negative reputation. In fact, it can even serve as a sign that your product is working the way it's supposed to.
Written by Kaleigh Fasanella for Youth To The People