​​Can Retinol Cause Acne? Here’s Why it Sometimes Makes Breakouts Worse

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If you deal with acne breakouts on a regular basis, then you may already be familiar with retinol – it’s an ingredient that many turn to in their quest for clear skin.

However, while some may rave about its positive effects, others have noticed that adding retinol to their skincare routine seems to make their breakouts worse.

Can an ingredient that’s touted to help with acne also be the cause of the skin condition? That’s what we’re about to find out.

What is Retinol?

Woman undergoing a retinol treatment

Retinol is a form of vitamin A. It’s an active ingredient in many skincare products because of how it can help with everything from acne to aging.

However, it’s worth noting that retinol isn’t the only form of vitamin A.

There are several topical retinoids out there, with prescription retinoids being the strongest.

What Happens When You Apply Retinol to Oily Skin?

Retinol is a multi-tasker, meaning that it triggers a number of reactions when applied to acne-prone skin:

Provides a Source of Antioxidants

Vitamin A is an antioxidant [1]. It neutralizes free radicals in the skin to protect skin cells from damage. As a result, it can help to prevent fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots, giving you glowing skin instead.

Increased Collagen Production

Not only does retinol protect the existing protein fibers in your skin, but it also encourages your body to produce more.

Collagen is key when it comes to maintaining a smooth skin texture, which is why so many notice an improvement in skin firmness and aging skin after regularly using retinol products for a few weeks.

Dead Skin Cells Are Shed at a Faster Rate

Another big benefit that retinol offers is its ability to increase skin cell turnover. This is your skin’s natural exfoliation process – it refers to how quickly your skin sheds its dead cells, replacing them with fresh new skin cells.

This is one of the main reasons why retinol is used as part of a comprehensive acne treatment. Fewer dead skin cells mean less chance of experiencing clogged pores, which would have then led to a breakout.

However, this increase in natural exfoliation is also where the problems start…

Woman skin care in the morning

Acne Breakouts After Using Retinol

Let’s get one thing straight – retinol doesn’t cause breakouts. However, speeding up cell turnover means that retinol brings all of those lower lying skin cells to the surface, along with the pimples that were brewing within them.

Those breakouts were already going to happen eventually – the retinol just made them appear sooner rather than later.

This is known as a purging process, which usually lasts for 2-6 weeks. It’s an adjustment period for your skin and it’s completely normal when you start using a retinol product for the first time.

Purging skin can look very different depending on the individual. Those with dry skin or sensitive skin may experience one or two pimples, but they’re more likely to notice that the ingredient turns their skin red and causes skin peeling.

On the other hand, those with an oilier skin type may experience everything from tiny bumps to large red pimples.

How to Deal with Skin Purging

While retinol purging can be frustrating to deal with, there are several steps that you can take to minimize your symptoms:

Pretty woman with smooth skin taking her coffee
  • Add benzoyl peroxide to your morning skin care regimen – this will kill acne-causing bacteria on your skin. However, it doesn’t mix well with retinol, so save your retinol use for the night
  • Add salicylic acid to your skin care routine – salicylic acid is gentler than benzoyl peroxide. It’ll reduce redness and inflammation
  • Use hydrating skin care products – even if you’re dealing with increased oil production in your sebaceous glands, you still need to keep your skin cells hydrated. Look for humectants that won’t clog pores, such as hyaluronic acid
  • Go slow with the retinol – gradually increase your use of retinol over the first few weeks. Start by using it twice a week, or three times a week at most, before working your way up to daily use
  • If you experience a severely bad reaction, then stop using retinol for a while. Switch to a lower concentration formula – Retin-A, also known as retinoic acid, is one of the strongest, but it’s also the most likely to cause a skin reaction. Instead, consider retinyl palmitate, which is much gentler and kinder


Does retinol make skin worse before better?

Retinol can sometimes make skin worse before it gets better. Acne, dryness, and redness are the most common complaints.

How long does retinol make you break out for?

Acne caused by retinol purging usually continues for the first few weeks of using the ingredient, but it could last for up to six weeks.

Should I stop using retinol if breaking out?

No, this is exactly what you shouldn’t do. Instead, introduce it to your skin gradually to allow your skin to grow accustomed to it. The acne should soon stop.


So, can retinol cause acne? The answer is no, it’s definitely not a cause of acne. However, it does bring all of those underlying acne breakouts to the surface of the skin at a much faster rate.

This skin purge should only last for a few weeks, so ride it out – your skin will thank you!


[1] https://academic.oup.com/asj/article/30/1/74/199813

Avatar for Megan Foley

Megan has been a freelance writer and editor since 2016. In that time, she’s penned a diverse collection of articles for online publication, with a focus on skincare and beauty. From in-depth product reviews to concise marketing content, Megan is passionate about developing content that informs, entertains, and inspires.