Whether a skincare routine consists of three products or thirteen, recent research indicates that face products account for 60% of the total profit in the beauty industry and are projected to reach $180 billion — an increase of over 30% — in the next five years. This is mainly due to an influx of advertising on social media and a well-informed consumer base.
What does this mean for you? There are more products than ever to choose from, so you may be inclined to try something new. However, regardless of these current industry trends, it’s essential to update your routine regularly to coincide with your current age, lifestyle (think medication, sun, etc.), and climate.
While change can be useful, there’s an undesirable side effect that can come with using a new product: skin purging. Not to worry; there’s no need to toss out all your lotions and potions just yet. Here are ten answers to the top questions about skin purging so you can manage the process while benefiting from your new skincare routine.
1. What is skin purging?
Whether you’re tired, hungover, sick, have been overeating, or took too much sun, it’s going to show up in your skin. While it’s essential to take care of your complexion from the inside out by drinking enough water, eating a balanced diet, etc., skin purging materializes regardless of these good habits.
This topical reaction occurs when introducing your skin to a new product. All of the dirt, oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells that have been harboring beneath your skin are brought to the surface, which leads to breakouts — otherwise known as purging. “Skin purging is definitely an area where there is a lot of misunderstanding,” says Laura Marinelli, PhD, Microbiologist and Scientific Advisor at Ellis Day Skin Science. “The term purging technically refers to a process in which the skin cells are stimulated to turnover at a faster rate, leading to the increased shedding of older cells and the production of newer, fresher-looking skin. However, this can also lead to a temporary increase in blemishes and pimples, as the new cells, which are formed in the deepest layers of our skin, rise to the surface and bring with them any excess sebum and any blockages that may have been forming in your pores.”
2. What ingredients can cause your skin to purge?
According to Marinelli, purging should only occur when starting a product with an active ingredient that increases cell turnover. It shouldn’t, however, occur with products such as non-exfoliating cleansers, moisturizers, etc. “If you do see an increase in blemishes, especially in an area where you don’t normally break out, it’s likely that your skin is not reacting well to one (or a combination) of the ingredients, and you should probably discontinue use,” advises Marinelli.
Some people have more sensitive skin than others, so their purging process may be more intense. If you’re unsure about what type of skin you have or which products to use, meet with a dermatologist or esthetician before beginning your purge. While there are copious products and chemical procedures that can precipitate purging skin, as Marinelli noted, the ones that promote purging contain actionable ingredients that exfoliate the skin. In addition, many of them also kill bacteria, tighten, and soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles which is what makes them so desirable. Ingredients and treatments to look out for include:
- Lactic Acid
- Glycolic Acid
- Benzoyl Peroxide
- Retinyl Palmitate
- Vitamin C
- Chemical peels
- Laser treatments
3. Purging vs breakout — what’s the difference?
The breakouts that occur through purging are only temporary — this is just due to the adjustment phase. Eventually, the skin will clear and look better than ever. Even so, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a skin purge and a breakout, yet there are some definitive characteristics. “When your skin is purging, the irritation will be located predominantly in a defined area where you already have frequent breakouts,” says Natalie Pergar, Lead Skin Care Trainer for Eminence Organics. “Skin purging usually clears up much faster than a pimple or reaction. If you’re experiencing a breakout, you’re likely seeing irritation in new areas where you don’t often get pimples.”
Of course, traditional breakouts aren’t reserved for those with acne-prone skin alone. You have to consider whether or not other potential factors such as diet, current stress level, hormones (teen years, monthly cycle, perimenopause, menopause, etc.), medication, and hygiene habits are causing your skin to break out. Face mapping is one way to help you determine the root of the problem. For example, if you’re consuming too much sugar, a breakup could show up in your cheek area. If your forehead is broken out, it’s possible that you have digestive problems, aren’t sleeping well, or are stressed.
4. What does skin purging look like?
The reaction from purging is slightly different from a traditional breakout. Typically, you’ll see blackheads and small flesh-colored bumps that lie just below the surface of the skin. Characteristics of traditional acne breakouts, however, also include pustules, deep cysts (sore bumps underneath the skin), and nodules. The tricky part is that purging can sometimes have a few of these side effects as well.
5. Is my skin purging or reacting?
Reactive skin is different from purging skin or a breakout. “When the skin is reacting, this is the immediate result of a treatment or product that typically involves redness, heat, and an uncomfortable sensation,” says Geneva-based dermatologist, Dr. Luigi L. Polla, founder of Forever Institut and Alchimie Forever. “Purging is not an immediate reaction to anything, but within a couple of days, the skin will also show redness, but with the addition of a breakout.”
6. How long does skin purging last?
Keep in mind that the skin takes approximately one month to completely renew itself. While it’s possible your complexion will improve over those 30 days, you may have pimples that are so deep below the surface, they won’t show up for closer to eight weeks. If at that point you don’t see significant improvement in your skin, consider booking an appointment with a dermatologist or esthetician to reevaluate your skincare routine.“When incorporating any new skin care product, I always advice my patients to wait two to three months to see results as it can take time for the skin to get adjusted to the product and for the benefits to appear,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD; MDCS Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery Centers; and
Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at New York Presbyterian Cornell.
7. How can I properly purge?
According to Melanie Kingsley, MD, Director of Cosmetic Dermatology and Laser Surgery at Indiana University Dermatology and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, there are mild to aggressive methods of purging your skin, so you need to choose an approach based on your own skin sensitivity. “ It is not one program that fits all in this case,” says Kingsley. “Many times people feel they need to be super aggressive to get the best results, however, this is not true. Being too aggressive can be harmful to the skin and actually make it look worse.”
Kingsley personally recommends a gentle approach. Start a chemical exfoliator (for example tretinoin/retin-a) slowly, a small pea-sized amount every other night. Then after two weeks, if tolerating well, you can increase to every night. “It will turn the skin cells over more quickly, but this method helps prevent too much irritation and reactivity — and the results are still very good,” she explains.
8. What should I do when my skin is purging?
While being patient is the best thing you can do during the purging process, there are a few extra initiatives you can take to support your physical and mental health, which in turn are good for your skin.
- Be Mindful of Your Diet: If you’re already a healthy eater, great! Otherwise, you may not become an overnight success story — and that’s ok. However, clean eating (think: nothing from the inside aisles of the grocery store) can help support your purge. This also includes avoiding or limiting fast food, alcohol, complex carbs, and sugar.
Of course, just like a skincare or purging routine, there’s no one-size-fits-all diet, so consult your doc on that one. Even so, the Mayo Clinic suggests that eating a diet high in skin-friendly, antioxidant-rich foods such as orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, tomatoes, berries, legumes, salmon and other oily fishes, and nuts can have a protective effect.
- Book a Facial: Whether you see a dermatologist or an esthetician, a good facial can calm and soothe your complexion, open clogged pores, and safely treat existing blemishes. Many doctors and technicians also like to incorporate high frequency into the treatment. This professional machine administers a safe and gentle high frequency electrical current that can reduce acne-causing bacteria. It’s not uncommon to see an improvement in your skin within a day or two.
- Manage Your Stress Levels: Studies indicate that stress has been suspected to induce acne flare ups due to an acceleration of stress-related hormones such as cortisol. This causes the sebaceous (oil) glands to work harder than normal. The additional oil that’s being produced mixes with dead skin cells and bacteria, which causes breakouts that aren’t related to the purge. This can be frustrating because you may not realize the difference between the two.
While it’s easier said than done, make an effort to schedule periodic check-ins with yourself so it’s easier to manage your stress levels. Deep breathing exercises, meditation, exercise — whatever it takes to calm your mind.
9. What should I avoid doing when my skin is purging?
The skin purging process is frustrating, but you don’t want impatience to tempt you into doing one (or more) of the following purge setbacks.
- Popping pimples: While you may feel inclined to throw on a Youtube video and walk yourself through a pimple-popping session, don’t do it. Not only is it an easy way to spread bacteria and cause additional breakouts, but you also run the risk of causing irritation and acne scars.
- Overdoing the makeup: While you don’t have to go cold turkey, cutting back on makeup during a purge is favored because it gives your skin a chance to breathe. It can also speed up the process because you’re not introducing additional dirt, oil, and bacteria into your pores. If you simply must wear cosmetics, keep it light and stick to oil-free products.
- Quitting: Remember the guidelines mentioned above when it comes to how long the purging process lasts. Your skin needs to purge entirely to obtain good results. If something seems amiss, speak to a skincare professional.
- Overdoing It: Remember, the ingredients that spark a purge can be a bit on the harsh side — especially for those with sensitive skin — so you don’t want to overdo it.
When you’re stripping the skin of its natural oils, it’s going to react by producing even more oil as a self-defense mechanism, resulting in additional breakouts. “I often see patients doing too much for their skin, which can actually make it worse,” says Kingsley. “So if your purging approach is not working and your skin keeps breaking out, I recommend stopping all of the products and switching to a gentle simple regimen, like CeraVe wash and moisturizer. Then make an appointment with your dermatologist to discuss the best regimen specific to your skin.”
10. Is skin purging good?
You know that fantastic feeling you get when you purge your closet of unwanted clothing? Sure, the process is a drag, but the result makes it well worth the time and effort. The same is said for skin purging. Yes, it’s a good thing despite some of the annoying side effects that come with it. However, if you remain patient, and follow the purging rules (read: not overdoing it), you will see an improvement. Yes, your skin has to worsen before it gets better, but purging is a necessary evil if you want to attain a clear and glowing complexion.
Remember, it’s also possible that your breakouts are caused by using too many products at the same time; in this case, it may be wise to do a hard reset, according to Marinelli, as your skin microbiome may need a break altogether.
“The Skincare Industry is Booming, Fueled by Informed Consumers and Social Media” CNN Business, May 2019.
Laura Marinelli, PhD, Microbiologist and Scientific Advisor at Ellis Day Skin Science.
“Natalie Pergar, Lead Skin Care Trainer for Eminence Organics.
“Acne Face Mapping Can Reveal the True Cause of Your Breakouts,” Health.com, January 2017.
Dr. Luigi L. Polla, founder of Forever Institut and Alchimie Forever.
Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD; MDCS Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery Centers; and Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at New York Presbyterian Cornell.
Melanie Kingsley, MD, Director of Cosmetic Dermatology and Laser Surgery at Indiana University Dermatology and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the Indiana University School of Medicine
“What are the Best Foods for Healthy Skin?,” Mayo Clinic, December 2019.
“Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging,” NCBI, June 2014.