Skin Purging – Everything You Need to Know About It

Medically reviewed by Dr. Vindhya L Veerula, MD, FAAD
by Ramona Sinha

Sometimes, things get worse before getting better. This holds true for your life as well as your skin. Here’s a quick question – how many times did your skin break out when you tried a new skin care product? Most of us have experienced this and end up assuming that the product is not suitable for our skin. But, is your skin really breaking out or purging?

Both breakout and purging happen when you introduce your skin to a new product. Although they are similar, they are not the same. Scroll down to find out all about skin purging.

What Is Skin Purging?

Skin purging is a reaction (breakout) that occurs when you use a new skin care product to speed up the cell turnover. Products that contain powerful active ingredients can make your skin purge. You may also experience purging after the extraction process during facials. Skin purging brings out the existing microcomedones (early acne or clogged hair particles) to the surface.

Not all products cause skin purging. Retinoids, hydroxy acids, anti-aging products, and acne management and over-the-counter products that accelerate the skin exfoliation rate usually cause skin purging.

This is because your skin needs some time to adjust to the new products and give the expected results. These products increase the cell turnover rate and cause faster pimple formation. If you have clogged pores, they might mature into pimples, and if you have small pimples or acne, they will turn into large ones. In other words, the products push the hidden comedones to the skin surface.

You might assume that your skin is reacting negatively to the product, but that is not true. A breakout occurs when your skin is sensitive to the ingredients, resulting in skin irritation, allergy, and clogging of your pores.

If your skin is purging, continue using the product for a few more weeks, or follow up with your dermatologist. If it is breaking out or develops into a rash, stop using the product.

But how do you tell if your skin is breaking out or purging? Let’s look at the differences.

Skin Purge Vs. Breakout

Skin purging happens when a new skin care product or an active ingredient speeds up the skin’s cell turnover cycle. The skin’s natural cycle is of 28 days, meaning, your skin takes 28 days to shed cells and produce new ones. If the cycle speeds up, you will experience the following things:

  • The microcomedones will turn into blackheads, whiteheads, or cysts.
  • The existing pimples will get inflamed.
  • The blemishes will get pronounced.
  • The invisible microcomedones will be pushed to the surface.

Purging is a sign that the skin care product you are using is working, and, in a few weeks, your skin will start to clear up.

A skin purge may be in the form of acne – mild or inflamed. It appears like red, small, and tender bumps with or without blackheads or whiteheads.

However, if your skin is not purging but breaking out, the scenario will be different. It will:

  • Cause new clogged pores.
  • Intensify skin irritation.
  • Result in new blemishes in new areas.
  • Cause itching, pain, or rashes.

Unlike skin purging, breakouts cause fresh blemishes and skin issues. And there is very little chance that your skin will get used to the product as most of the time, it causes further damage.

If the purge lasts more than six weeks, it might be a breakout and not purge. In such cases, stop using the product and visit your dermatologist.

Not all products cause skin purging. Products that contain active ingredients that increase the skin cell turnover rate cause skin purging. Let’s now take a look at the products that may cause skin purging.

What Products May Cause Skin Purging?

  • Retinoids (including isotretinoin, retinol, retinyl palmitate, tretinoin, tazarotene, and adapalene)
  • Hydroxy acids (such as malic, lactic, glycolic, lactobionic, mandelic, gluconolactone, and fruit acids)
  • Exfoliants (such as enzyme exfoliants and scrubs)
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Chemical peels and other procedures, such as microdermabrasion and lasers (ingredients used in or during these procedures)

Remember, products that do not contain these active ingredients will not cause skin purging.

The area where your skin is breaking out is also an essential factor to consider.

Purging Or Breaking Out: Check The Areas Where Breakouts Occur

If your skin is purging:

  • Only the pre-existing comedones will flare up.
  • Breakouts appear in places where they usually occur.

For instance, if you always had clogged pores and bumps on your cheeks, skin purging will cause inflammation only in those areas. If the product does not suit your skin at all, it will cause new breakouts in any area and make your existing skin issue(s) worse.

Breakouts may last for several months or years. But skin purging has a certain duration, and it will not continue beyond that period.

How Long Does A Purge Last?

This depends on your cell renewal cycle. The skin cells are constantly replacing themselves. Once you exfoliate the dead skin cells from the topmost layer, the new skin cells replace them. For adults, this cell renewal process takes a month. However, with age, this process slows down. Hence, skin purging should last anywhere between 4-6 weeks.

If your skin does not get better after 6-8 weeks, it means that it is reacting to the new products, and you should visit a dermatologist.

Your skin is very vulnerable during the purging process, so be patient and gentle. Follow these tips to minimize its severity and take care of your skin.

How To Minimize The Severity Of The Purge

  • Avoid touching and popping your pimples.
  • Avoid using harsh chemicals, scrubs, and soaps on the affected area as this can aggravate the issue.
  • When using products with active ingredients for the first time, introduce them to your skin slowly. This will help minimize the effect of skin purging. Use a small amount of the product or use it less frequently. You can increase the frequency later once your skin gets used to it.
  • Avoid exposing your skin to the harsh sun rays during purging. Always use sunscreen and sun protection.

Now you know what to do when your skin is purging. But is there a way to avoid it? We have discussed it in the next section.

Is It Possible To Avoid Or Prevent Skin Purging?

You cannot avoid skin purging completely, but you can prevent it to a great extent. Here are a few things you can do to prevent skin purging:

  • Introduce your skin to the ingredient slowly.
  • Be it AHA, BHA, or retinol, start with the lowest possible percentage of the ingredient.
  • Use it only once or twice a week. If you are using AHA or BHA, use it once or twice in two weeks.
  • Let your skin adjust to the ingredient gradually.
  • If you are using a chemical peel, do not use it more than once a month.

Skin purging may feel uncomfortable, but you will be surprised by the results. Once your skin gets adjusted to the ingredient, it will clear up automatically.

There is nothing to worry about skin purging. All you need to do is protect and take care of your skin during the process. It is imperative that you know what exactly is happening to your skin to help it recover. Hope this article helped in clearing all your doubts.

Expert’s Answers for Readers Questions

How long does it take for the skin to purge?

It may take 4-6 weeks for your skin to purge.

Does the skin purge before it gets better?

Yes. If you have started to use an active ingredient, like retinol, tretinoin, orAHA or BHA, your skin may purge and take out all the impurities before it gets better and clear.

How long does the purging stage of Retin A last for?

For tretinoin, the purging may last for 4-6 weeks.

Do AHAs cause purging?

Yes, AHA, BHA, vitamin C, retinol, or retinoid can cause skin purging.

Is skin purging good?

Yes, it is a small step to get clear and better skin.

Does salicylic acid cause skin purging?

Yes, salicylic acid is a Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) and may cause skin purging.

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Ramona Sinha

Ramona is a journalist-turned-content writer. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature and has been writing for the digital world for over five years. She specializes in writing for Skin Care. She has done a certificate course titled ‘Dermatology: Trip To The Skin’, offered by Novosibirsk State University. She believes that beauty begins with a good skin care regimen and is on a mission to eliminate all toxins from her routine. She helps and guides readers in selecting products and ingredients specific to their skin type/issue. When Ramona is not working, her books and passion for music, good food, and traveling keep her busy.