How to identify and treat skin purging, according to a dermatologist

Reviewed by Dr. Niketa Sonavane

Dermatologist, Trichologist, Expert in Alternative Medicine | MBBS, MD

Written by Sanya HamdaniApr 20, 2021

Forming a skincare routine requires basic product knowledge and a few trial and errors, to find one that you can use in the long run to tackle your skin problems. As exciting as it is to try a new product, you should know that not every ingredient will be loved by your skin. In fact, some ingredients may even lead to what we call skin purging. Have you ever tried a new skincare product with the hope of getting clear and glowing skin, only to be let down by a surprising case of breakouts? You are not alone and these phenomena is called skin purging.

If your skin is purging, it might actually be a good thing - firstly, because it’s temporary and the side effects are shorter than your standard breakout, and secondly, it indicates that the products you just introduced to your face are working. Still, confused? Allow us to make it simple. Ahead, we spoke to Dr. Niketa Sonavane on how to identify skin purging, how skin purging is different from a breakout, and how to treat it effectively.

What is skin purging?

First things first, in order to understand skin purging better, we asked Dr. Sonavane to explain it in the simplest terms. Here’s what she said, “Imagine this scenario. You started an anti-ageing or purifying skincare product hoping to have smooth and glowing skin. But all of a sudden instead of clearing up, your skin throws up a bunch of pimples! Shocking isn’t it? Well, that’s skin purging in simple terms.”

“In skin purging, whiteheads and blackheads that are deep inside your skin start coming up to the surface. Furthermore, they start converting into pimples and you feel like you are having a bad reaction to the product you just started,” she further added.

Why does skin purging occur?

Certain ingredients in your anti-ageing and anti-blemish products work by speeding up your skin renewal process. This means that old skin cells shed faster and are replaced by healthy new skin. While these products speed up the skin cell turnover, they also bring underlying skin congestion to the surface. Whiteheads that lay deep inside the skin and consist of trapped sebum, dead cells, dirt and makeup come to the surface. In skin purging, you may notice that all your whiteheads come up all at once and some of them may convert to inflammatory acne or pimples. Skin purging could look very similar to a regular flare-up, which is why it is difficult to differentiate between the two.

Which skin care ingredients cause skin purging?

All active ingredients that cause skin exfoliation can cause skin purging. The most common ingredients in your skincare products like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as salicylic acid and mandelic acid as well as retinoids like retinol and retinaldehyde can cause skin purging. Besides this, vitamin C and tea tree oil can also cause your skin to purge in some cases.

While skin care ingredients are the number one cause of skin purging, it may also be a result of skin exfoliation with a scrub or cleansing cloth, that is why it is advised to use gentle scrubs that do not contain harsh ingredients. In addition to this, skin brushes and electronic skin cleansing devices may also have a similar effect, especially if you have sensitive skin or the brush is too hard for the delicate skin of your face. Sometimes even cosmetic procedures such as facials, microdermabrasion and chemical peels can cause purging for a brief amount of time. It is important to take good care of your skin during this time and avoid UV exposure as much as possible. Slathering a good amount of sunscreen is obviously a given.

How to identify whether your skin is purging or breaking out?

If you have acne prone skin, it can be difficult to tell if what you’re dealing with is a breakout or a purge. However, here are a few things to look out for. If your product does not contain any exfoliating active ingredients and still gives you breakouts, it is not purging. A sudden appearance of acne after using a skincare product for over 4 weeks also indicates a breakout and not skin purging. If your skin feels itchy and has red spots or patches, it is most likely to be an allergic reaction and not purging. Dry, stretchy skin with burning sensation and redness is likely due to skin irritation rather than purging. To differentiate the two even better, below are a few points given by skin expert Dr. Niketa Sonavane.

Signs your skin is purging

  • The breakout is limited to areas where you already had skin congestion, whiteheads or blackheads.
  • Your breakouts cleared up much faster than your usual acne or pimples.
  • Your breakouts did not leave marks or blemishes on your skin.
  • All the breakouts seemingly started all at once.
  • The breakouts settle down in 2-3 weeks and your skin appears clearer and healthier.

Signs you are dealing with an acne breakout

  • You are having breakouts in new areas on your face which were otherwise clean.
  • Your breakouts take long to heal and feel inflamed and painful.
  • Your acne is leaving marks and blemishes as they heal slowly.
  • Your breakouts are occurring over an extended period of time.
  • Acne breakouts continue beyond 3-4 weeks.

How to take care of your skin when it is purging

When your skin is going through a purge, don’t discontinue the new product that’s causing it, because it just shows that the ingredients in it are working for your skin. The active ingredient is actually removing all the skin impurities trapped in the inner layers of your skin and the purging will stop in about 2-3 weeks.

Follow a gentle skin care routine to soothe the inflammation by using mild formulas on your skin, you don’t want to irritate it further. A sulfate-free cleanser, a skin calming moisturiser and a physical sunscreen during the day should treat the problem soon and take your skin back to its healthy and clear state. Also, during this time continue the product that’s making your skin purge, don’t worry it won’t get worse. However, make sure you give your skin some time to get used to the product. For example, if you have started using a retinol product, begin by using the product once in the first week, twice in the second week, thrice in the third week and so on until your skin is finally ready to use it every other day.

Please do not try any home remedies on your face while your skin is purging. Even the hydrating or soothing ones should be avoided at this time as it can aggravate skin sensitivity and lead to unwanted rashes.

How long does skin purging last?

The duration may differ from one person to the other. Usually, it takes anywhere between a few weeks to a few months for skin purging to disappear from the skin completely. Cell renewal takes place for about four weeks in an adult around 30 years of age. The ingredients responsible for causing skin purging may last the entire duration of the cycle and sometimes a few weeks more than that.

Having said that, if your skin doesn’t go back to normal in a few weeks after starting the treatment or it continues to get worse, it is wise to consult a dermatologist to ensure if the product is safe to continue. If you are experiencing cystic acne, scars or some other severe skin issue seek immediate help without delaying it any further.