The Tretinoin Purge: Exactly What To Do To Beat It

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skin purging from tretinoin

Tretinoin Purge Timeline: Everything You Need To Know To Beat The Dreaded Purge

Tretinoin, or Retin-A, has long been the gold standard for acne and anti-aging. And although some call it a miracle worker, it’s not without some dreaded side effects, namely, the tretinoin purge. Purging is common with many different actives, but it can be especially worse with something as strong as tretinoin. We’ll take a look at everything related to purging on tretinoin including what it is, why it happens and how to beat it. And come out on the other side with clear, glowing skin!

What Is Tretinoin

Tretinoin is a prescription-only topical medication that’s used to treat anything and everything from acne, skin texture, and signs of aging like wrinkles and loss of collagen.

Tretinoin belongs to a class of molecules that are known as retinoids. The term “retinoids” is just an umbrella term for all Vitamin A compounds and Vitamin A derivatives. So tretinoin is just a type of retinoid. Just like retinol, which is an OTC retinoid.

Retinoids, like tretinoin, speed up skin cell turnover. This can unclog pores, reduce acne, smooth skin texture, fade hyperpigmentation, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, minimize pores and stimulate collagen and elastin.

The difference between prescription strength tretinoin and OTC retinoids like retinol, retinal or retinaldehyde, is that tretinoin is stronger and more effective because it’s in its active form, meaning tretinoin can penetrate the skin and start working right away.

OTC retinoids have to be converted by the skin into their active forms before they can start working. So while they’re not as strong or fast-acting as tretinoin, they’re a good place to start if tretinoin is too strong for your skin or you’re concerned about the tretinoin purge.

Related Post: Does Tretinoin Go Bad?

Benefits Of Tretinoin

So what all does tretinoin do? Well it would probably be easier to list what tretinoin doesn’t do. Cause let’s be honest, it’s pretty much a miracle worker. No matter what your skin concerns are.

  1. Treats & prevents acne – tretinoin is FDA approved to treat acne, which is why it’s one of the most commonly prescribed topical treatments for all types of acne including comedonal and inflammatory acne like cystic acne. Tretinoin helps treat acne by speeding up cell turnover which unclog pores and keeps dead skin cells from getting trapped in the pore and leading to acne, clogged pores and blackheads.
  2. Anti-aging – Tretinoin is also FDA approved for anti-aging. Tretinoin helps to smooth the skin and reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles. It also helps to stimulate collagen and elastin which plump the skin, reducing signs of aging and keeping the skin firmer and more youthful looking
  3. Fades hyperpigmentation – No matter what kind of hyperpigmentation you’re facing, everything from acne scarring, sun spots, or melasma, it’s no match to tretinoin.
  4. Acne Scarring – Indented acne scars, like boxcar or icepick scars require some seriously powerful treatments. Tretinoin is a great treatment that helps to stimulate new collagen to fill in those scars
  5. Improves texture – Tretinoin is great to smooth out rough skin texture. Whether you have a buildup of dead skin cells or comedones and clogged pores, tretinoin will get you the smoothest skin of your life
  6. Improves skin tone –  Tretinoin is great to help even out skin tone and brighten dull skin
  7. Reduces pore size – When pores are clogged, they tend to look bigger, so keeping the pores clear will help to reduce the look of large pores. Additionally, stimulating collagen can help to minimize pore size as well

So as you can tell, tretinoin has some pretty serious powers!

Side Effects Of Tretinoin

While tretinoin is truly a do-it-all ingredient, it certainly comes with it’s own cons, side effects and downsides. Although most side effects are temporary, here’s what you can expect when first starting out using tretinoin

  • Redness
  • Irritation
  • Flaky skin
  • Dry skin
  • Purging

The biggest downside to tretinoin is certainly the purging process. It leaves most people thinking wondering what the heck they got themselves into and regretting ever trying the dang thing.

But, of course, clear skin doesn’t come easy. As we all know. So let’s talk more about the tretinoin purge to help you get through it without going crazy. (easier said than done, I know).

What Is A Tretinoin Purge?

does tretinoin purge always happen

A tretinoin purge is a process in which the skin purges all the gunk, dirt and grime that’s been trapped in the pores. During a tretinoin purge, you may experience more breakouts than usual as well as inflammation, redness, dryness and irritation

Essentially, tretinoin works by speeding up cell turnover and your skin will start shedding dead skin cells faster. During the process, tretinoin will help to unclog your pores, resulting in all that gunk coming to the surface. This can lead to an increase in breakouts which can range from blackheads, comedones, all the way to severe cystic acne.

Though some studies do not show any supporting evidence that retinoids cause an initial purging period, most people who use retinol or tretinoin do in face experience some sort of adjustment phase.

And although it’s certainly not pleasant, it’s a necessary part of using tretinoin. And while it’s frustrating to deal with, it just means the tretinoin is doing its thing and it’s working like it should be. Which also means clear skin is coming!

Why Does Tretinoin Cause Purging?

Alright so now that we know tretinoin causes purging, how does it happen and why?

First, let’s have a little lesson on how acne forms and how tretinoin helps treat acne.

Acne is caused when things like oil, dead skin cells, dirt and bacteria get trapped in your pores.

Acne comes from a combination of many different factors.

The pores on your skin each have a hair follicle and an oil gland. The oil glands will produce oil to keep your skin hydrated.

Although we do need some oil production for healthy skin, oftentimes it causes issues when your oil glands produce too much oil. Too much oil in your pores can lead to clogged pores.

This oil combined with bacteria, dead skin cells, dirt etc all contribute to acne.

Once your pore gets clogged with oil, dead skin cells will also become trapped, along with bacteria. The bacteria will multiply and this process is what forms a pimple.

Eventually, tretinoin will keep your pores clear from any dead skin cells which can help to prevent acne from forming in the first place.

But, before that can happen, your skin has to get rid of everything that may be clogging your pores. Oil, dirt, bacteria, dead skin cells etc. During the tretinoin purge, your skin is pushing all of that gunk to the surface, which causes an increase in breakouts and acne.

When your skin is purging you will likely get breakouts in the areas you normally break out in. You also may get types of pimples you aren’t used to getting. The tretinoin purge can create everything from cystic acne, whiteheads, blackheads, etc.

Although it doesn’t seem like it when you’re dealing with even more acne, skin purging is actually a good thing! It means the tretinoin is working andy you’ll soon have clear skin.

The tretinoin purge can also come along with dry skin, flaking skin, redness and irritation.

Something important to remember about the purge is that tretinoin is not causing the acne. Tretinoin is simply speeding up the process and bringing that acne to the surface that would have formed eventually.

So, don’t get discourged because this process is good. I know it doesn’t seem that way when you’re going through it. But, the tretinoin purge means that it’s working! And you are on your way to clear, healthy skin!

It’s also important to note that even if you’re using tretinoin for wrinkles, fine lines or general anti-aging, you may still experience skin purging! Even if you don’t normally get acne, it’s likely you will still purge some.

When Does The Tretinoin Purge Start?

does tretinoin purge skin

Skin purging can start almost immediately when you first begin using tretinoin or retinol. It’s hard to give the tretinoin purge a timeline, but the purging will usually start within 2 weeks for most people.

However, keep in mind the timeline can vary from person to person.

There are some people who may not experience purging until 6 weeks of use. It all just depends on your skin, your skin type, frequency of use and strength of tretinoin you are using.

How Long Does The Tretinoin Purge Last?

The 100 dollar question, how long does tretinoin purging take?

I know, I know, you want this adjustment phase over as quickly as possible! However, how long the purge last will vary from person to person. Again, it’s all dependent on your skin, frequency of use and strength of tretinoin.

Generally, the tretinoin purge can last anywhere from 2 weeks to 8 weeks.

The tretinoin purge duration can be 2 months, 4 months, 6 months or even longer. It all just depends.

Some people may only purge for a couple weeks, whereas others may not see a significant improvement for 2-3 months. Don’t let this scare you because if you keep at it, your skin will gradually start to improve day by day.

Some people won’t experience a purge at all.

If you’re still not seeing any improvement after 3 months, talk to your doctor as you may need to adjust the formula, strength or frequency of application.

Tretinoin Purge Waves

Unfortunately, clearing up acne is not linear and going through the tretinoin purge is no different. You will have good days and you will have bad days. The tretinoin purge can certainly come in waves. It’s tricky and frustrating.

After using tretinoin for a few weeks and experiencing the purge, your skin may finally start to clear up. Of course, then you get so excited to finally have clear skin, only for your skin to start breaking out again. And that’s just part of the process!

The tretinoin purge may come in cycles! Particularly if you’ve never used tretinoin before or have a lot of deeply clogged pores. Sometimes certain pores can take longer to unclog than others. Just be patient and trust the process. The tretinoin purge means it’s working and you are well on your way to clear skin.

What Does Tretinoin Purge Look Like?

So how do you tell if your skin is purging or just breaking out? Sometimes it can be hard to figure out if your skin is breaking out because of a product or some other reason vs purging from tretinoin or retin-a.

Typically, when your skin is purging from tretinoin, you will see more acne in your usual places. So if you tend to always breakout on your chin or cheeks, then you will likely have more breakouts in those areas when going through the tretinoin purge.

During the tretinoin purge, you will also experience similar types of breakouts. For example, if you have cystic acne, then chances when you’re going through the tretinoin purge, you will experience more cystic acn

Tretinoin Purge Timeline

While the purging duration and timeline can vary so much from person to person, sometimes it can be helpful to have an idea of what to expect.

First Week

Don’t expect a ton of changes right away, but you may start to see some flaky skin or feel like your skin is getting dry.

Second Week

Now is when you should start to expect to see more breakouts. If you haven’t started to see any purging yet, don’t worry! It can take a few weeks for some people. You’ll probably also notice your skin is drier and maybe getting irritated.

Third Week

At this point, you may be seeing a lot of breakouts and your skin may feel dry and irritated. You might also start to see some redness and inflammation.

4-6 Weeks

Hopefully by now, you are starting to see your skin improve! You may still have some breakouts, but they should be less frequent and less severe. Your skin may also start to feel less dry and irritated.

7-8 Weeks

By this point, your skin should be significantly improved! You may still have the occasional breakout, but it should be much less frequent. Your skin should also feel more hydrated and less irritated. You might still experience some breakouts, but they should be getting few and far between.

3 Months

If you haven’t started to see any improvements after 3 months, talk to your doctor as you may need to adjust the formula, strength or frequency of application.

How To Prevent The Tretinoin Purge

tretinoin purge tips

Although the purge is a very frustrating experience, there are a few things you can do to make the adjustment phase as smooth as possible. I’ve been using tretinoin for a long time now and the purge experience was not fun.

But it sure was worth it!

I’m here to tell you that it will all work out. It might not be the best process to get there, but I promise, it will be worth it.

Accept It & Expect The Purge

Many people wonder “will I purge on tretinoin?” Just go ahead and accept that fact that it’s going to happen. There’s nothing you can do about it but just ride it out, unfortunately. Your skin will purge no matter what you do.

Although you may be one of the lucky few that doesn’t experience a purge while using tretinoin or retin-a.

Go into the process thinking that you are going to purge. Be prepared for the purge. It will make it easier if you’re prepared for it vs being shocked at all the new breakouts.

Plus, you might just be one of those lucky few that don’t purge at all! What a great surprise that would be.

Instead of dwelling on the new breakouts, think about how tretinoin is working and you will have clearer skin day by day.

Start With Low Strength Tretinoin

Use the lowest strength tretinoin available to you. This will not only help make the tretinoin purge less severe, but will help with the other side effects associated with tretinoin like dry skin, irritation and flaky skin.

This is particularly important if you have never used a retinol or chemical exfoliant before.

If you start with the highest strength, your skin could become extremely irritated and make inflammation and acne worse.

Start Off Slow

I know it’s tempting to jump right in and start using it every singe day. But, I’m telling you do. not. do. that.

You need to help your skin adjust. Start off with once a week, then after a couple weeks move up to using it twice a week, then three times a week.

If you jump right in using it every night, then you will make the irritation, dryness and acne worse!

Don’t Touch Your Face

Only touch your face when you have to and only with clean hands. Don’t add extra oil or bacteria to your face, which could make the breakouts worse.

Don’t pick at dry or flaky skin. Just leave your skin alone and let it do its thing. The dry skin will get better with time.

Stay Hydrated

Make sure you are drinking at least 8 glasses of water a day, preferably more. Not only will this help with the dryness from tretionin, but will also help keep skin healthy and clear.

It’s been proven that drinking more water does, in fact, help your skin in many different ways!

Simplify Your Skincare Routine

If you use a ton of products, scale back. I used to be one of those people that had so many skincare products and I changed them up almost every day. Once I scaled back my skin actually got so much better.

Your skin likes routine!

Try to stick with the same products daily and make sure you’re only using the bare minimum until the adjustment phase is over.

Additionally, make sure you’re not using any irritating products! No chemical exfoliants, sulfates, essential oils, acne treatments (unless prescribed by your doctor, of course).

Stick with gentle, bland formulas. At least for now. Once your skin adjusts you will be able to introduce some of your other products back. But, remember, you don’t need a 20 step skincare routine! It’s best to stick with the basics.

A niacinamide serum is a great product to add into your routine when going through the tretinoin purge. Niacinamide can help to strengthen the skin barrier, hydrate skin and reduce irritation during the adjustment phase. Tretinoin and Niacinamide make an incredible duo!

For more information about changing your skin routine for tretinoin, check out my tretinoin skincare guide here.

Take Before & After Photos

When you’re feeling really disappointed and like your skin is not making any progress, you can take a look at those photos and actually see that your skin is improving.

It’s hard to see the daily changes that happen with your skin. It might seem like your skin is still the same (or worse) than it was a few weeks ago. Regularly taking photos can put your mind at east and show how far your skin has come.

If you’re feeling discouraged, take a look at your progress photos and use them to motivate yourself to keep going.

Tretinoin does take a long time to get the most benefit out of it, but it’s so so worth it!

Tretinoin Purge FAQ’s

How do I know if tretinoin is working?

A good indication of the tretinoin working properly is actually purging! A purge means that the tretinoin is increasing cell turnover and pushing all the gunk out of your pores and doing its job!

Does Everyone Purge On Tretinoin?

Surprisingly, no, not everyone experiences purging on tretinoin. Though most people do experience some sort of ‘retinol uglies’ or adjustment phase, whether or not you will experience an increase in breakouts or acne is just impossible to say. Some people may just experience dryness, irritation and flaking skin, whereas others will experience a lot more acne than usual.

Is The Tretinoin Purge Worth It?

Completely! The purging process is not an easy one, but once it’s over, you’ll see that it was so worth it. Once your skin adjusts, you’ll be left with clearer, smoother and brighter skin.

Why Am I Still Breaking Out On Tretinoin?

If you’ve been on tretinoin for 3 months or longer, you’re probably wondering why the heck your skin is not getting any better. Though most people will see improvements after about 3 months, the purge can last longer than 3 months in some people.

Give it a few more months, and if you’re not seeing any improvements after 6 months, talk with your doctor or dermatologist.

Is Purging A Good Sign?

100%! The tretinoin purge mean that it’s working! Although the skin purging is not a fun process, just keep in mind that it is a good thing.

How can I speed up tretinoin purge?

Unfortunately, you cannot speed up skin purging, but you can do things to help lessen the purge and make the process easier and less frustrating. However, one study did show that a combination of tretinoin and clindamycin did help improve the inital adjustment phase of tretionin.

Can tretinoin purge last 3 months?

The tretinoin purge can actually last as long as 3 months or even longer, in some people. It really varies from person to person, but most people will see an improvement after about 3 months. However, if you’re still breaking out after 6 months on tretinoin, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor or dermatologist.

Skin Purging From Tretinoin Is Worth The Wait

The thought of starting tretinoin can seem daunting and off-putting to some. As someone who has used tretinoin for about 10 years and almost had to go an Accutane, tretinoin is worth it.

I would go through the whole process again and again if I had to!

I promise it WILL get better. Your skin WILL improve. And you WILL be amazed at how your skin looks.

Eventually, you will stop breaking out and your new, healthy skin will be revealed. Clear, youthful, glowing skin. Sounds amazing, right? I’m telling you it’s possible with tretinoin!

I would pay hundreds of dollars for a tiny little tube of tretinoin. Luckily, I don’t have to, but it’s done so much for my skin that it’s worth any price.

Tretinoin Purge: Wrap Up

If you’re feeling discouraged while using tretinoin, remember that it’s normal to purge in the beginning. Though the tretinoin purge can be a frustrating process, skin purging is actually a good sign that the tretinoin is working. Stick with it and you’ll eventually see improvements in your complexion.

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5 Comments

  1. Such great information thank you. Way more than my doctor gave me. Do you have a non irritating moisturizer you can recommend? The stuff I have is stinging and the others have BP or SA in it. Thanks!

    1. Hi Julie! I’m so glad you found it helpful! Here are some moisturizers I recommend. I personally use the CeraVe cream and love it! If your skin is drier, I would go with the cream and if your skin is more oily, the lotion would be better. These are great because they help to strengthen the skin barrier and keep skin moisturized and they have a limited ingredients list so less chance of anything irritating your skin while on tretinoin.

      CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
      CeraVe Moisturizing Lotion

  2. This article really helps me with my frustration using tretinoin. Thank you for this.

  3. Hi Brittany, I’m so grateful you wrote this post. I read it quite regularly to keep motivated. I’m feeling very discouraged today. It has been 2.5 months and my skin is still purging. What’s worse is that it is leaving marks behind and I’m breaking out in areas I never did. I just keep re-reading your post and reminding myself I will have beautiful skin at the end of it. It will happen, won’t it……..

    1. Thank you so much, Faith! I’m so glad it’s helpful! The purging process isn’t fun at all, but just take it day by day. You should be getting through the worst of it and it will gradually get better. The tretinoin will also help speed up the process of healing those acne marks as well! I felt the same way going through the purge, but I promise it’s so worth it!

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