What is Skin Purging and What's Causing it?
Have you ever felt catfished when trying a new product that had rave reviews? On the package, your product swears that it’ll get rid of all your acne. Yet once you put some on, your skin starts freaking the f*ck out. What the heck is happening? Well, it might be your skin purging. The keyword is might. But what is skin purging and how can you tell if it’s purging or something more concerning.
- Skin purging is caused by active ingredients that trigger skin cell turnover
- Your purging breakouts are expelling underlying congestion
- If purging lasts more than four to six weeks, you may want to try another product instead
What is Purging?
Skin purging refers to the breakouts caused by products like exfoliants and retinoids (1). Ever heard of the phrase: if there’s a problem, you got to nip it right at the bud? The same principle applies here. Your skincare products are bringing the congested gunk right to the surface before eliminating the acne.
Purging Causes and the Science Behind It
Here’s the catch: not all skincare products are supposed to cause skin purging despite what the Internet likes to say. Only active ingredients that trigger cell turnover can cause purging (1).
Common active ingredients that cause cell turnover are (2):
- Benzoyl Peroxide
- Acids (glycolic, salicylic, lactic, etc.)
- Vitamin C
It’s exactly this skin cell turnover process that helps you get clear skin. Acne is usually caused by the accumulation of dead skin cells and sebum blocking your pores. As it is, your skin already renews itself every 28 days (1). However, if you are oily and acne-prone like me, you know that 28 days is too long.
Enter your chemical exfoliant or retinoid. These products speed up your skin renewal process, shortening your acne’s life cycle and preventing that dead skin cell blockage that leads to acne in the first place (1). So don’t be afraid if your skin is purging! You just got to wait it out. The product isn’t creating acne. One, it probably means that your skin had some underlying congestion. (You would’ve seen it later anyway, the acne was just lurking underneath) Two, purging is a signal that your skin is exfoliating effectively.
Purging or Something Else?
If I had a nickel every time someone incorrectly assumed their skin was purging, I would be a millionaire. There’s a huge difference between skin purging and a product just irritating the sh*t out of your skin.
First, you always want to patch test new skincare products to avoid allergic reactions.
- Check the ingredient list and watch out for irritants such as fragrances and sulfate
- Apply a bit of the product to your inner elbow (make sure it’s clean!)
- Cover the patch with a bandaid and let it sit for a day
- Check for irritation (redness, itchiness, burning)
- Test on your face
If your new product doesn’t pass the vibe check, you might want to roll with another product. See if there’s any demand among your friends and family for your mostly unused product.
I will note that active ingredients, particularly acids, can be irritating. However, this is up to your own discretion whether or not the product is worth it. A massive rash that makes me want to cry? No thank you. But a little dryness? I can definitely tolerate it for the greater good.
The biggest difference between skin purging and your regular breakouts is the timing. Remember how I said that purging is caused by the acceleration of skin cell turnover? This also means that your purging-related breakouts should have a much shorter lifespan than your regular acne. If your breakouts are lasting longer than four to six weeks, the product might actually be f*cking up your skin instead of healing it (1).
Another factor to keep in mind is the location of your breakouts. Since purging is supposed to expel what’s already there, you should see your acne form at your usual places (1). If you suddenly have zits on your forehead, it’s not purging. If that’s the case, I would probably replace that skincare product.
Finally, double-check that there’s a skin-renewing active ingredient in the formula. Your cleansing oil or whatever is not supposed to cause purging.
If you’re sure your skincare product is compatible with your skin, purging is just a natural part of the process. Just wait it out. From my experience, I know that this stage is particularly frustrating. But you can’t make time pass by faster! I like to think that my skin is going through a deep clean.
Written by Jessica Lu