tretinoin purge cystic acne
Beauty | Skincare

Tretinoin Purge: A Survival Guide

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tretinoin purge 6 months

If you’ve recently starting using tretinoin or retin a, you may have thought to yourself “why is retin-a making my acne worse?” It certainly seems that way when you first start using retinoids. It’s something called a tretinoin purge, and it happens to most people when they start using any kind of retinoid, but especially tretinoin or retin-a.

Even though tretinoin is one of the best acne fighting products, the first few weeks of using it can make you feel like it’s only making things worse. Many people experience what’s called a tretinoin purge, which is when you may see an increase in breakouts.

If you’ve done any research on tretinoin, you’ve definitely read about something called the tretinoin purge.

But, what exactly is it and why does it happen?

Today I’m going to be talking all about the tretinoin purge and tips to help make the adjustment phase as easy as possible!

How Acne Forms

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.

What Is A Tretinoin Purge?

tretinoin purge timeline

If you haven’t read my tretinoin guide, feel free to stop and check it out, it will help this section make more sense.

Essentially, tretinoin works by speeding up cell turnover and your skin will start shedding dead skin cells faster.

The result?

New, fresh and healthy skin cells! Your skin will be clear, fine lines and wrinkles will fade, and you will have healthy, glowing skin.

Why Does Tretinoin Cause Purging?

All those dead skin cells that we talked about earlier that lead to acne? Tretinoin helps shed them faster and prevent them from sticking around and clogging your pores. Which leads to less acne and breakouts!

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 to the surface, causing 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, flaky skin.

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 purge means that it’s working! And you are on your way to clear, healthy skin!

How long after starting tretinoin does purging start?

tretinoin purge how long

Skin purging can start almost immediately when you first begin using tretinoin or retinol. It’s hard to give the treitnon purge a timeline, but usually it will start within a couple weeks. However, it can very from person to person!

I’ve heard of people not purging until 3 months after starting tretinoin, so it really can just depend on your skin type, acne, how often you use tretinoin and the strength of your retin a cream.

I knew I was going through the tretinoin purge when I started getting a lot more cysts and cystic acne than usual. It was rough, but the results are so worth it. I no longer deal with cystic acne and I’m so happy about that.

How Long Does The Tretinoin Purge Last?

The 100 dollar question, how long does your skin purge before it clears up?!

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.

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.

What Does Skin Purging Look Like? Tretinoin Purge Vs. Breakout?

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 acne.

Is Purging A Good Sign?

does tretinoin make skin worse before better?

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.

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.

Can You Speed Up Skin Purging?

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.

How To Lessen The Tretinoin Purge

how long does skin purging last with retinol?

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

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.

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 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.

Hydrate

does everyone purge on tretinoin?

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.

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!

Skin Purging 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.


Getting through the tretinoin purge will get you clear skin!

Do you use tretinoin? Tell me about the best things it’s done for your skin! Did you go through the tretinoin purge? If so, what helped?

Hopefully this guide will help you get through the dreaded tretinoin adjustment phase and you’ll be well on your way to beautiful, clear skin in no time!

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3 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