Tips & Tricks for Surviving the Retinol Purge




I first started using Retinol at the ripe old age of 20. I had a friend who was a dermatologist and she told me, "Dena, if you learn only one thing from me it should be this - skin works better when you prevent it from wrinkling and sagging instead of trying to fix it later. Start using a retinol now and in 20 years you will thank me."

She urged me to start with a mild formula - the Neutrogena  acne/aging which has since been replaced by this one. So I did. A few years later I upgraded to the blue prescription Tretinoin (Retin A) at .05% for my adult acne. I was maybe 26. That was 8 years ago.

So, while I remember the purge anecdotally, mostly I remember being warned that my skin would peel. That pimples would pop up, massive suckers that were hanging out below the surface and waiting for a special occasion to arrive like a dreaded, uninvited guest. Those evil jerks would now be forced to the surface. That was good. It would mean it was working.

I was told to stick with it. It would be worth it. And for awhile it was. My skin was glowing and clear, smooth and relatively blemish free. It was awesome.

Then I started chemo and my skin fell apart again. I ended up on another prescription - Epiduo - this one a combination of benzoyl peroxide and a different form of retinol. It worked for what was ailing me then, a kind of acne that was caused by all the crazy chemical things happening in my body.

Then a few weeks ago it stopped working again. The acne came back big and bad and painful. Enough for some cortisol shots. Enough for the dermatologist to put me on the .1% Retin A. (This time "you can get benzoyl peroxide from lots of places, let's try a stronger retinol," my new doctor says.)

And so, almost 15 years after I first started on Retinol, I find myself once again going through the dreaded retinol purge. That is the creative name I have given for that adjustment period - when your skin sloughs off in thick, crumbly layers and the deep, lurking cystic acne rises up like a seismic event is occurring beneath your skin. It is how you know it is working, that deep changes are happening under your skin and that it's making an impact. But boy oh boy does it SUCK.

I consider myself somewhat an old hat/dilettante expert at Retinol. I wrote this great list with things to know about Retinol and another one about how to use it.  Yet it's not until I found myself experiencing this horrific purge again that I can fully appreciate just how truly awful it is. Concealer flakes off in pieces. My skin is many colors, none of them good and definitely not matching the rest of my body. Zits bubble up under the skin in painful clusters and it takes all my willpower (and very short nails) not to dig at them. I ripped one open in my sleep, which of course led to a scar that will be impossible to cover up as it dimples below the skin. It is awful.

But if I can survive cancer then I can sure AF survive a little retinol purge, so here's my battle plan for surviving the next few weeks until things get back to (better than) normal.

1. Sun is the enemy
As if I didn't already have enough going on the new layers of skin are extra sensitive to everything, but especially sun which means I am not just going hats and sunscreen - I am going full mole people. See photos above taken in the subterranean passages of our apartment building. Such is the lengths I am going to avoid prime "tanning" hours and keep my baby skin fresh and dewy. Summer is the worst time to try a new retinol (or stronger), but Fall is a great time to refresh and purge your skin (winter cold can be extra drying, which is not awesome for peeling.)

2. MOISTURIZE, moisturize, moisturize
Not only will this help with the peeling but it will also act as a protective barrier for the skin, but it will also aid in the absorption of the active ingredients in all your skincare. I am currently obsessed with the Lagom line (seen here) and on the dry, peeling patches I go full on balm.com. I like the coconut one because it smells amazing, the packaging is so cute and it's incredibly portable, but I will also settle for aquaphor or straight up vaseline in a pinch.

3. Creamy Makeup
My favorites are the Glossier's waxy Stretch Concealer and Urban Decay's Naked Skin Weightless Complete Coverage, both of which I apply with the Finger Brush. I also like the pencil form of the 24/7 Concealer Pencil for areas with redness that aren't peeling as much (zits, around the nose) but it can exacerbate the look of peeling. Pro Tip: You can tell in these pictures where the makeup is because of the absence of freckles, but that particular problem might be unsolvable (how do you cover a red patch and not a freckle? le sigh)

4. Be gentle with your skin
I tried just shoving the retinol into my existing routine as if that was going to be OK and within two days I was regretting it. Right now I have scaled back my p50 to once a day, and taken out any exfoliating products, slowly reintroducing them as I feel the stinging and dryness abate (this includes other acids like the MicroPeel from Kiehl's and my salicylic acid!)

5. Don't pick
So easy in theory right? NOPE, impossible. I want to peel off the dry skin, pop the pimples, put 14 kinds of cream on. It is in these situations I find the acne dots so helpful for acneand apply a thick layer of balm to the dry patches in lieu of picking or scrubbing. My stepfather told me my face felt like glue the other day when I hugged him. Sorrynotsorry.

6. Hydrate
Drink tons of water. Help your body out internally. Eat water rich fruits and dark leafy greens and drink peppermint tea and whatever else you can consume in large quantities. Purging your skin is an internal process that becomes easier when your body is properly fueled.

7. Distract 
I feel like I could write an entire novel just about the distraction method but instead just click here or here and read about it so I feel like I am not a broken, cleavage-y record.

8. Stick with it
I know it's hard, but it's worth it.


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