Tretinoin and other vitamin A-related compounds are a favorite among skincare enthusiasts on the internet. If you hop on r/SkincareAddiction, you’ll find that it’s one of the most popular products that get recommended to users as an acne-cure and anti-aging miracle worker.
And for good reason. Tretinoin’s ability to stimulate fast cell turnover means that it can keep you looking fresh and soft-cheeked as a baby as long as you stick to your skincare routine. There’s just one teensy problem: Like other vitamin A products, tretinoin purges and, during the purging process, can bring out all your acne, cause redness and irritation, and make you susceptible to sunburns.
Sounds scary, right? But it really is worth it once you get through the purging. So, here’s everything you need to know about tretinoin purging and what to do about it.
What Is Tretinoin and How Does It Work?
Tretinoin is a vitamin A derivative and is commonly sold on a prescription basis, according to GoodRx. If you’ve tried The Ordinary’s Retinol serums before, this is a little similar to that as retinol itself is vitamin A, making retinol products a good tretinoin alternative if you don’t want to get a prescription because retinol is sold over the counter. That said, tretinoin offers better results in a shorter span of time because of how concentrated it is compared to retinol.
You can get tretinoin as a gel, cream, or lotion, as per Mayo Clinic, under brand names such as Tretin-X, Retin-A, Avita, Atralin, Refissa, and Renova. For readers in Canada, you may see tretinoin advertised as Rejuva-A, Stieva-A, or Vitamin A Acid.
Tretinoin is often used to cure acne, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and evening out skin tone because of its ability to stimulate cell growth. The high cell turnover that regular tretinoin use produces in the skin lets your skin shed its older upper layers and make new, unmarred skin to replace it.
Why Does Tretinoin Cause Purging?
The same mechanism that makes tretinoin a golden standard in skincare is the same reason why it purges. The fast cell turnover rate it causes means that your skin is also producing acne faster so that one pimple or two you get in a month? Yeah, expect to see them early along with the pimples that were supposed to come later.
How Long Does Tretinoin Purging Last?
A tretinoin purge can last anywhere from a few weeks to a couple months or so. We know it’s not an exact number — sorry! But skin varies from person to person and depending on how your skin is doing, you may have to put up with a purge a little longer or shorter than most people would have to if they were the ones on tretinoin.
Tips for Surviving a Tretinoin Purge
Pushing out all that oil and dead skin cells from your pores can be taxing on the skin and results in the dreaded tret face that all skincare enthusiasts have to put up with if they want to receive the rejuvenating gifts of vitamin A.
While most of dealing with tretinoin purging is just waiting for it to end and being very careful with your face in the meantime, what a lot of people don’t expect is how mentally taxing tretinoin purges can be. So here’s what you can do about a tretinoin purge both physically and mentally.
Stay Moisturized and Hydrated
One of the most obvious, to both tretinoin users and everyone else around them, effects of tretinoin are peeling and dryness. As tretinoin exfoliates your skin, you’re going to see bits of flaky skin and dried-out skin in general that may hurt a little sometimes because of how dry it is. This is a normal part of the purge and can be dealt with using an arsenal of moisturizing and hydrating products.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermallegro Ultra Soothing Repair Face Moisturizer is one of the best moisturizers you can get for dry skin. The cream is thin enough that you can use it all day without getting the sticky, oily feeling you usually get from thicker creams.
For hydration, you can check out a favorite of r/SkincareAddiction, r/AsianBeauty, and our editorial team — Cosrx Snail Mucin 96% Power Repairing Essence which can heal any potential damage you might see on your skin during the purging process.
Don’t Pick or Peel at Purging Skin
Please, don’t. It may be tempting to pull off dried skin patches and pop pimples so you can put on a layer of makeup that hides the redness from the purging process of tretinoin, but all that does is spread bacteria all over your face. Even if your hands are clean, you’re still creating openings for bacteria to enter your face. Be patient and trust the process here.
Switch to Gentler Products
Skip the bar soap! A cornerstone of good skincare routines is switching to a gentle cleanser. Generally, you want to stick to a pH 5.5 face wash. The gentler the better so if you can find one that doesn’t have sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), the compound that makes your shampoo bubble, the gentler it is.
SLS is a known skin irritant so you might want to switch to Hada Labo Gokujyun Hylauronic Acid Moisture Bubble Foaming Cleanser which still bubbles but not because of SLS. Hada Labo’s facial cleansers use a special pump that adds air into the SLS-free cleanser, thus making it froth. It’s a lot of fun and super gentle even if you tend to have a bad skin reaction to most cleansers. Personal anecdote here: CeraVe cleansers were not gentle enough for me (I know, shocker!), but this definitely was and has been for the past six years.
We Cannot Stress This Enough: Wear Your Sunscreen!
Avoiding UV damage isn’t just about staying out of the sun. Even if you wear a hat, you’re still getting ultraviolet light reflected onto your face and that’s what causes skin damage.
“Regardless of whether [or not] you wear a hat, you need to apply a sunscreen of at least SPF 30 because ultraviolet light is reflected off of surfaces.” Dermatologist Ava Shamban, M.D., shared with Women’s Health.
Shiseido’s Anessa sunscreens are a tried and tested fave over at r/AsianBeauty.
You’ll also need to be careful about exposure to harsh weather — whipping winds, direct sunlight, and bitter cold are all no-gos that call for more moisturizer and limited exposure.
If the Tretinoin Purging Is Too Much for You, Stay Away From Mirrors
What takes some people off guard about the tretinoin purging process is how harsh it can be on the skin. You can expect to see your skin at its worst as it purges and that can easily make you feel bad about your looks. Just remember it’s temporary and stay hydrated and sunscreen’d. It’ll be over soon.
Products to Avoid While You’re on Tretinoin
Some skincare actives (read: the ingredients responsible for a product’s effects) just don’t mix. Tretinoin is rough on the skin on its own so some products not to use with tretinoin include anything that peels (think salicylic acid and sulfur soap), have high amounts of alcohol (like toners), and are abrasive (looking at you, Saint Yves scrub). Also, those home cures everyone tells you will cure your acne? Yeah, forget putting lemon juice on your face.
While tretinoin can be hard to get and even harder to stick with in a skincare routine, you’ll find that it’s worth it. Topical tretinoin is effective in improving the appearance of wrinkling and pigmentation as well as giving your skin a fresher, more lively look, according to a study published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology.