Can Retinol Cause Acne? What You Need To Know

For many, retinol is the go-to treatment for a nasty skin condition that breaks out without warning. Yes, acne. So, when one faces the question – can retinol cause acne? – it sounds conflicting with the general wisdom.

In this post, we will try to address this conflict. While there is no absolute answer to the question, it helps to know what happens exactly when you apply retinol to treat your acne.

Acne is a skin condition that affects millions of people around the world. Although it is not a life-threatening condition, it is responsible for feelings of dejection, low self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts. But, it is a perfectly normal condition to have. Hence, it is understandable why people look for different treatments and remedies to reduce spots on their faces.

Related post: Is Acne Normal?

Retinol is one of the common products that gets used for treating acne. Despite its renown, when you come across the question – does retinol cause acne? – it can sow a seed of doubt in your mind. Let us try to clear up the confusion.

Can Retinol Cause Acne?

does retinol make acne worse before it gets better

Retinol does not cause acne. True to its reputation, it reduces acne effects and leaves the skin smoother than before you applied it. However, like the calm before a storm, retinol can make your skin appear worse before it makes it better.

To be fair, retinol is a handy magic ingredient for treating different skin conditions, including wrinkles, aging signs, and acne. This is because it increases the skin’s elasticity, which helps to resolve uneven skin texture. Retinol increases the rate of new cell production by speeding up cell turnover.

When you apply it to your skin, your new cells travel faster from your skin’s inner layers to the surface faster than normal. As a result, it gives your skin a fresher and younger appearance.

Remember, retinol is a long term treatment for acne. Expecting benefits immediately upon applying it will only cause disappointment to you. If used in the long-run, retinol promises huge benefits for the skin. However, in the short-term, it’s use can cause skin irregularities, including a few spots on the face.

The reason for the irregularities is the introduction of a new agent to the body. Thanks to the complex design of our systems, your body is naturally designed to fight foreign introduction in a bid to keep you healthy.

However, although well-meaning, the process of applying retinol can cause adverse effects on your skin at first. It is a case of turning bad before coming good.

However, you should know that different individuals have different skin types. So, predicting how one reacts to ingredients and agents is a difficult task. How one person reacts to retinol might differ from the way another person reacts, significantly.

In essence, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that retinol will ultimately make your skin worse before it makes it better. However, we won’t disprove that it happens in some cases due to uniqueness in how everybody reacts to different agents.

The bottom line, however, is that retinol does not cause acne. Instead, it is a treatment used to combat acne. In fact, it is recommended by most dermatologists as a handy anti-acne treatment.

Does Retinol Make The Skin Worse Or Better?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that is formulated to help with clear skin. It works from the inside out by seeping into the cells to attach itself to binding receptors. This way, it tells the receptor it is time to kick in the high gear and start cell turnover.

Apart from this, opening the cells provides an excellent opportunity for other topical medications to penetrate more effectively.

As we mentioned, our individualities are what sets us apart and make us unique. Hence, it is not unheard of that retinol produced different effects on skins.

Study after study, retinol has been proven to stimulate collagen, soften wrinkles, increase cellular turnover, and work as an acne treatment. To be sure of its effect, first of all, all retinoids are the same. Contrary to the myth, retinol does not thin the skin but makes it thicker since it stimulates collagen production.

Apart from this, thanks to its anti-aging formula, retinol can be used by young and older people. Although it was originally advertised as an anti-acne cream, a study conducted in the 1980s revealed that retinol also lightens hyperpigmentation and softens fine lines by promoting collagen production.

Hence, it works as an anti-aging formula. By implication, there is no age restriction on the use of retinol. In fact, after sunscreen, it is known as one essential anti-aging ingredient.

There are some arguments that retinol makes your skin more sensitive to the sun. However, this story is just what it is- a myth. Retinol serves as a barrier between the skin and the sun; hence, it breaks down in the sun.

This reason accounts for why they are recommended for night use. Nonetheless, they don’t increase your risk of sunburn. Besides, if it is recommended for use at night, it is best you use it during the night and not during the day.

In essence, this is not permission to step into the sun without any form of protection.

What Are The Side Effects Of Using Retinol?

We can’t overstate the point that retinoid can sometimes cause peeling and redness in its “make it worse before better cycle” in some individuals. Some other side effects include tightness, dryness, and peeling when you start using it.

However, the side effects disappear in a few weeks once your body is used to the effects. You should use it daily to see the result you desire, but you should watch the strength before dabbing it on your skin.

Applying retinol in excess can cause undesirable dryness and peel. The recommended quantity is a pea-sized drop; however, you can always ask your dermatologist for a recommendation.

When strength is concerned, you should not use a strong concentration if you want to avoid annoying side effects. Retinol is an antioxidant that encourages younger and healthier cells. Apart from this, they can be used by different people with different skin types without worry.

How Long Does Skin Purging Last With Retinol?

can too much retinol cause acne

Retinol does not cause acne; however, it may cause purging.

Purging refers to the temporary reaction between a new ingredient and your skin. When an active ingredient increases skin cell turnover rate, it naturally increases the shedding of dead skin cells.

This shedding of cells is faster than the usual rate. Apart from cells, flakes and excess oil also rise to the surface. When oil mixes with the dead skin cells that have been produced in excess, it can clog the pores and produce a few pimples.

When your skin starts to purge, we recommend a non-abrasive skincare routine to discourage further inflammation. If you can, use a soothing moisturizer, a sulfate-free cleanser, and wear sunscreen when you go out during the day. Plus, you should also apply the retinol that caused the purge. Although it is usually tempting to discontinue the routine, you shouldn’t do so.

To know when your skin is purging, the purge occurs in places you frequently break out at; however, it disappears faster than an average pimple.

Purging usually lasts for about 28 days, or put differently, one skin cycle. This refers to the period between the shedding and renewal of the skin. However, since everyone has unique skins, the time can differ from one person to another.

On a broad scale, purging should span between four and six weeks, a little over the normal 28 days. If the purge takes longer than six weeks, it could mean that you need to either adjust the frequency of use or the dosage. You should speak to your dermatologist for recommendations.

Do note, though, that you cannot accelerate the rate of the purge. Instead, you can make it tolerable. If six weeks is looking too much to bear, you can help your skin by not picking at the acne. Apart from this, don’t use exfoliating acids and other drying products, and try to have gentle facials to remove impurities.

How Long Does It Take Retinol To Work?

In case you are wondering how long it takes retinol to work, your answer depends on how long it takes the purging to last. If the purge lasts for six weeks, you won’t start seeing results until after the first six weeks. Hence, it takes equal time it takes the purge for retinol to work. As annoying as the routine can be, the wait is worth it.

Although generally effective, how you apply retinol can make all the difference. Most dermatologists recommend you use a low concentration of the ingredient to know how it interacts with your skin. For significant result:

  1. Gently wash your face with a skin-friendly cleanser and dab it clean without rubbing. Then, apply eye cream to protect the delicate skin, especially around your eyes.
  2. Wait a few minutes after this to let your skin dry since retinol does not pair well with damp skin. If your skin is damp, chances are that it will irritate your skin. Hence, although moisturizers are best applied to damp skin, it is not the same with retinol.
  3. Take a pea-size amount and apply from your chin up with your fingertips in an outward and upward motion. Top it with a moisturizer to seal the effect.
  4. Use sunscreen before going out on sunny days for an extra shield during the day.


Patience is an essential seed that you must sow to achieve a significant result with retinol. It is best to wait out the effects and experience the post-purging skin glow since it takes considerable time. This is not to say that everyone will go through the purging phase. Speak with your dermatologist for a recommendation.

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