Skin purging is a temporary skin reaction to specific ingredients that may cause breakouts, skin dryness, flaking, and peeling. It typically occurs when trying a new skin care product or certain facial treatments.
Many skin care products aim to help people have clear, glowing skin. These products may contain active ingredients that speed up the exfoliation process to renew the skin.
However, as new skin emerges to the surface, congestion such as excess sebum and other build-ups will also rise to the surface. This can cause acne, or a minor breakout, aside from dry, flaky skin.
Learn more about skin purging, what it looks like, how it differs from a breakout, and what causes it.
What does skin purging look like?
Skin purging may look different from person to person and will depend on an individual’s complexion.
Generally, dead skin cells come to the surface, causing dry, peeling skin. The skin may also adjust to the increased skin cell turnover rate and may become red and irritated.
A range of whiteheads, blackheads, papules, and pustules may appear. Red papules and hard bumps may come in clusters, making the skin’s texture feel rough to the touch.
Purging vs. acne breakout
Skin purging and acne breakout may look the same, but their causes are different.
Breakouts typically occur due to:
- certain foods
- an allergic reaction
- clogged pores
Skin purging usually develops when a person incorporates a new product into their skin care routine that causes a rapid skin cell turnover.
In the table below, we compare the different symptoms of purging and acne breakouts.
pimples and pustules
pimples and pustules
subsides within 4–6 weeks
can last for months
located in areas where a person typically gets breakouts
can occur in any area
dry, flaky skin and peeling
nodules, cysts, or both
may be tender
typically, more painful and swollen
What causes skin purging?
Some skin care products contain potent active ingredients to target various skin issues, such as:
The most common ingredient to cause skin purging is retinol, a form of vitamin A and a widely used ingredient for skin care.
Retinol is the mainstay treatment for acne because of its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to prevent the formation of new acne.
Retinol’s ability to promote collagen production makes it the standard treatment for premature skin aging.
Other active ingredients that manufacturers commonly use in skin care products include:
- alpha hydroxy acids
- beta hydroxy acids
- glycolic acid
- salicylic acid
- lactic acid
- vitamin C
- benzoyl peroxide
- retinyl palmitate
These ingredients shorten skin turnover from 28 days (in young adults) to around 7–14 days.
What to do if purging
A person experiencing skin purging should continue using the products and adhere to their skin routine unless they have a severe allergic reaction. It may take some time for the skin to adjust to the new regimen and show improvements.
Doing a patch test for new skin care products on a small area of skin, about the size of a quarter, for 7–10 days.
People with sensitive skin are more likely to experience redness and inflammation with certain active ingredients.
It is advisable to stick to a gentle skin care routine to avoid aggravating the inflammation. A person should use sulfate-free cleansers and moisturizers and wear sunscreen.
They should also not use other exfoliants or products with fragrances and harsh ingredients that may further irritate the skin.
The skin is particularly sensitive and vulnerable at this stage, so a person needs to avoid:
- touching their face
- picking on the blemishes
- peeling off the flaky skin
When to stop using a product
If an individual’s skin shows signs of an allergic reaction, they may need to stop using the product.
Symptoms of an allergic reaction include:
- a rash or hives
- puffy, raised areas of skin
- skin redness
- small red spots on the skin
- an itchy, stinging, or burning sensation
- red itchy eyes
- watery eyes
- dry or cracked skin
Symptoms are usually mild and can develop within a few minutes or gradually over several hours.
In rare cases, a person may experience anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction that requires emergency medical attention.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. The symptoms develop suddenly and include:
- swelling of the face or mouth
- fast, shallow breathing
- a fast heart rate
- clammy skin
- anxiety or confusion
- blue or white lips
- fainting or loss of consciousness
A person may continue using the product if milder symptoms, such as skin redness and itchy or puffy skin, subside after 7–10 days of use.
However, if symptoms do not subside, a person should stop using the product and seek advice from a healthcare professional, such as a dermatologist.
How long does purging last?
The duration of skin purging will vary from person to person. Generally, however, it lasts 4–6 weeks. After 6 weeks, the skin may begin to respond to the ingredients, and a person should be able to see improvement.
The initial symptoms will subside, and the person will notice smoother, brighter skin and a more even skin tone.
A person can minimize the side effects of retinol or acids by slowly easing them into the skin care routine.
They may begin by applying retinol two times in the first week and then increasing it to three times the following week.
For exfoliating acids, a person may start applying them once weekly. However, they should not go beyond two–three times per week, to avoid over-exfoliation.
Moreover, a person should only use a chemical peel, including chemical peel as part of facials, once per month.
Skin purging is a temporary skin reaction during which the skin becomes dry, red, and irritated and experiences minor breakouts in response to a new product a person has introduced into their skin care regimen.
Certain ingredients, such as exfoliating acids and retinol, promote skin exfoliation to cause new skin to surface.
It can take up to 6 weeks before a person sees clearer, smoother, and brighter skin. However, if the purging worsens and persists beyond 2 months, a person should contact a healthcare professional, as it may be a sign of an adverse reaction.
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