We’ve all been there. You get excited about trying the next new skincare solution, but it just ends up making things worse. The product you thought would finally clear your breakouts has created more swollen, red pimples.
While this may seem like an immediate indication to stop the use of the product, that may not always be the right answer. These new breakouts could actually be a sign that the product is working. Your skin is purging.
What Is Skin Purging?
The term “skin purging,” while not a true medical condition, is a common term used to refer to the process of shedding dead cells, oil, bacteria, and debris that lie underneath the surface of the skin. This typically happens as a reaction to an active ingredient in a topical product that is increasing skin cell turnover rate. As skin cell turnover speeds up, the skin starts shedding dead skin cells faster than normal. That explains the new breakout you experienced in the first four to six weeks of starting a new skincare product, particularly if you have acne-prone skin and the product was an exfoliant or retinoid.
Why Does Our Skin Purge?
Purging occurs when built-up sebum, impurities, or dead skin cells in the pores make their way to the surface of the skin, resulting in a breakout. This isn’t a bad thing. The skin has to bring up the impurities to the surface in order to ultimately get rid of them.
So don’t blame the product for your purge! The resulting pimples were there all along, simply lying below the surface. The product merely expedited the process.
What Types of Products Cause Purging?
Certain skincare ingredients are more prone to causing purging than others. Any products that speed up the cell turnover rate, such as exfoliating acids, including AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids), BHAs (beta hydroxy acids), and retinoids can cause purging. Retinol may include an oral or topical, prescription, or over-the-counter product. Even in-office chemical peels may cause purging as well. By definition, these peels are a form of accelerated exfoliation and use exfoliating acids to reveal that fresh layer of skin cells.
How to Tell the Difference Between Purging and Other Breakouts
A skin purge looks just like your normal breakout, but what caused it is different. That makes telling the difference between purging and a breakout difficult.
Ask yourself if you’ve recently introduced any new products to your skincare routine. If you haven’t, or they don’t contain exfoliating acids or retinol, your breakout isn’t likely due to skin purging. In the same way, purging only occurs with resurfacing (the shedding of dead skin cells from the surface to reveal newer cells underneath), so if you notice breakouts from a hydrating or moisturizing product, it likely isn’t due to skin purging.
Also, purging typically occurs in areas where you are already prone to breaking out. If you’re breaking out in new places, it may not be a purge. Breakouts from a purge typically heal faster than other blemishes, disappearing in about five days, while a pimple from a traditional breakout can take up to 10 days to clear. So, if breakouts last longer, it may not be a purge.
Skin purging can look different for each person, but typically it reveals itself as clusters of small, red bumps and pimples that appear at the same time.
How to Manage a Purge
To manage purging, introduce new resurfacing products one at a time and slowly. Depending on the product, you may want to start using it only once or twice a week before increasing the frequency. In the same way, consider applying less than the recommended amount.
Depending on your skin and the product itself, you can increase the amount and frequency once you start noticing some results and the purging subsides.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to get around the purge. You just have to wait it out. You should see improvement within five to seven days.
While introducing new products, keep up your healthy skincare habits to minimize additional skin irritation or flare-ups:
- Use a fragrance- and preservative-free makeup remover and cleanser
- Apply a gentle moisturizer immediately after cleansing
- Use daily sunscreen to protect your skin from harsh UV rays
- Avoid over-exfoliating. (For most people with acne-prone skin, exfoliation two to three times per week is sufficient.)
- Use microbiome-friendly products to maintain the skin’s first line of defense
As with any breakouts, avoid touching your face and keep your sheets and pillowcases clean.
Keep in mind if at any time you’re experiencing redness or discoloration, irritation, burning, or stinging, these are not symptoms of purging. You may be having an allergic reaction to the new product. In this case, discontinue use. Before starting any new product, always test the product on a small area before using it on your full face to check for a reaction.
Overcoming a Skin Purge
If you find yourself weathering the storm of a skin purge brought on by a new skincare regime, hold steady. This is a sign that the product may actually be working. Purging should subside four to six weeks after starting a new product. Once your skin finishes detoxing and the fresh skin cells have been exposed, the end result may be clearer skin.