Anyone who's ever been prescribed a topical treatment for a skincare concern has probably heard their derm utter the following cliche: "This will make things worse before it gets better." One common culprit is retinol, an ingredient that's beloved by many for its ability to treat everything from fine lines and wrinkles to acne, along with improving skin's elasticity, stimulating collagen production, and smoothing out uneven texture.
I'm currently testing a new serum, Algenist Elevate Advanced Retinol Serum ($98), which I love more than most of the people in my life. But before completely eliminating my stubborn acne and pesky hyperpigmentation, this stuff reeked havoc on my complexion.
Turns out, "getting worse before it gets better" has an actual name: purging. And the title is apt — after seeing a uniform pack of pimples pop up on the left side of my face, I was so out for blood that I could have starred in The Purge 37, or whatever sequel number that horror film franchise is on by now. I reached out to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research for NYC's Mount Sinai Hospital, for everything I needed to know about this process.
First, a little science lesson for you: "Purging is the skin clearing blockages from the pores in a rapid manner," Dr. Zeichner told me. "This usually occurs in the setting of using topical retinoids, which enhance cell turnover and help open blockages within the pores."
"The breakouts should look similar to each other, as they tend to develop at the same time"
It can take anywhere from days to weeks, a time frame that depends on how much oil or gunk is clogging your follicles to begin with. Zeichner says if you have a fairly clear complexion and are using retinol to treat wrinkles rather than acne, "purging may be so minor that you do not notice it at all." Translation: a retinol won't create a pimple that wasn't already budding underneath your skin.
So what makes purging different than just a normal breakout, or perhaps a bad reaction to your retinol of choice? A purge is just a rapid breakout that can occur all over the face. (But not always — mine was confined to the left side, as that has always been a problem area for me).
The key to self-diagnosing purging is making sure that your pimples are all uniform. "The breakouts should look similar to each other, as they tend to develop at the same time," Dr. Zeichner said. "In the case of regular acne, breakouts occur at different times and individual pimples are usually in different stages." My purge took form as multiple whiteheads that literally sprouted overnight — such a pleasant surprise to wake up to!
So why keep slathering a retinol on your face? "Once you clear the pipes, if you continue to use the retinol, you can keep them clean and prevent them from getting clogged again." To quote Robert Frost (and also my dad during a particularly gruesome fourth-grade soccer game), "The only way out is through." Luckily, if you continue using your product, it should not happen more than once. However, sometimes extreme aggravating factors like stress or hormonal change like switching birth control cause a rapid increase in oil buildup.
And if you're going through a purge, just remember this: there's nothing wrong with proudly rocking your acne.