What the Heck Is Skin Purging, Exactly?
Dermatologists weigh in on this common phenomenon and explain how to tell the difference between skin purging vs. breakouts.
Spend enough time scrolling through the beauty blackhole on Instagram, and you’re sure to see a post (or 20) about a little something called, “skin purging.” Although not technically a medical diagnosis — thus the quotes — “skin purging” is an increasingly common term used to describe the very real (very common) results of trying a new skin-care product.
Ahead, dermatologists weigh in on this trendy topic and explain what causes it, how to tell if your skin is purging, and what you can do about it.
What Is Skin Purging?
Simply put, “skin purging describes the process of shedding dead cells, oil, bacteria, and debris that’s underneath the surface of the skin,” explains Annie Gonzalez, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Miami. And what does skin purging look like? It manifests as what could easily be mistaken as any old breakout: clusters of small, red bumps and little pimples or pustules. (More on skin purging vs. breakouts to come.)
What Causes Skin Purging?
Although it might sound like something you can do manually (think: squeezing out all of the yellowy yuck from a blackhead), skin purging has nothing to do with your paws (which, BTW, shouldn’t be on your face in the first place). Rather, it’s your skin’s reaction to a new product.
Skin purging occurs when you start using a new product that contains chemical exfoliants such as alpha-hydroxy acids, beta-hydroxy acids, and retinoids, all of which speed up the rate of skin cell turnover (the rate at which you shed dead skin cells and replace them with new cells), says Dr. Gonzalez. It can also happen after in-office procedures, such as chemical peels, that utilize the same types of ingredients, adds Sheila Farhang, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Avant Dermatology & Aesthetics in Oro Valley, Arizona.
To a certain extent, purging is somewhat of a necessary evil; the skin has to bring up all of the gunk in the deeper layers to the surface in order to ultimately get rid of it, says Dr. Gonzalez. And when your skin pushes the sebum, dirt, and bacteria up and out of your pores (so that it can ultimately start producing new cells and begin to clear itself), you’ll likely start to experience what looks like acne or a breakout: clusters of small, red bumps and pustules.
Frustrating as this new crop of blemish might be, remember that it’s not necessarily the product’s fault. “The pimples caused by a skin purge aren’t new, they were always brewing underneath the surface of the skin. The new product just sped up the process,” explains Dr. Gonzalez. (Related: 6 Surprising Things Making Your Acne Flare Up and What to Do About It)
This is also why a skin purge tends to show up in areas where you’re already prone to breakouts: Those are the spots where there are already clogged pores and an excess of oil and bacteria, notes Dr. Farhang.
The Difference Between Skin Purging vs. Breakouts
Ultimately, a skin purge can look very much like a breakout, but it’s the cause that’s different, explains Dr. Farhang. But there are a few key differentiating factors that can indicate whether or not the pimples and bumps you’re seeing are the results of skin purging vs. a breakout caused by, say, stress or hormones.
First and foremost, consider which new products you’ve recently incorporated into your skincare routine. If you’re not using anything that contains those aforementioned chemical exfoliants, it’s very unlikely that your skin is actually purging, says Dr. Gonzalez. (And the same is true if you haven’t added any new items into your product repertoire altogether.)
Another key differentiating factor: Skin purging typically manifests as clusters of small, red bumps and pimples (think: pustules, which are similar to whiteheads) that all crop up at the same time, explains Dr. Farhang. They may be somewhat tender to the touch, but not nearly as painful as a one-off, deeply-lodged, swollen blemish such as a cyst. (Related: What Is Cystic Acne and How Can You Get Rid of It?)
The good news? Breakouts that are the result of a skin purge will heal (read: go away) faster than other blemishes, says Dr. Gonzalez. (Because they’re caused by an increase in cell turnover rate, the healing process also happens faster.) In short, keep an eye on how long your newly-formed pimples last. “A traditional pimple typically takes anywhere from eight to 10 days to appear, mature, and shrink,” she explains. “A breakout from a purge is likely to show up and then disappear in about five days.” The caveat: That’s if you don’t touch it and let your skin heal itself. To that point…
Can You Prevent Skin Purging?
For starters, make sure you’re only trying one new product at a time. You can help minimize the likelihood of a purge by introducing a new product containing the aforementioned active ingredients gradually. Dr. Gonzalez says it’s a smart idea to first do a patch test and try a small amount on your inner forearm; wait at least 24-48 hours to make sure your skin doesn’t react to it. While this doesn’t necessarily mean your skin won’t purge once you try it on your face, it’s a good way to make sure you’re not allergic to the product. (More on this below.)
Once you’re ready to give it a go on your face, she suggests applying less than the recommended amount. Stretch out the time in between applications, too, using products that are intended for daily use every second or third day. How quickly you can increase the amount of product used and how often you’re using it will depend on your individual skin and the product being used. And keep in mind that you still might experience some skin purging, even if you are easing into things. In general, however, you can up the amount and frequency of application once you start to notice some results, along with lessened purging, explains Dr. Gonazlez.
How Should You Treat Skin Purging?
Once a purge is happening, there’s not much you can do except be patient. “You can’t stop the purging process once it has started. At this stage, the skin is very vulnerable and sensitive so avoid touching your face until the pimples heal,” she says. Also important: Keep all of your sheets and pillowcases clean during this time, as they’re a sneaky source of added bacteria, adds Dr. Gonzalez. (Related: The Common Thing You’re Doing During Your Workouts That Causes Breakouts)
Generally, you can keep using the active product that’s causing the purge, but don’t use anything else that contains active ingredients (including products specifically for acne or breakouts). Keep the rest of your skin-care routine super simple: just a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and SPF, advises Dr. Gonzalez. Wait it out and you should start to see an improvement within five to seven days.
There are, however, a few scenarios in which you’ll likely need to completely stop using that said new product. If you’re experiencing redness, irritation, burning, stinging, or rashes, especially if they’re widespread, these are not — I repeat, are not — signs of purging, but rather of an allergic reaction. Discontinue use ASAP, says Dr. Gonzalez.
And if after about two weeks you’re still noticing pimples and bumps, or they go away and then come right back, you’ll likely want to stop using the product, advises Dr. Farhang. It could mean that the product simply isn’t reacting with your skin well, or it’s actually clogging pores and causing chronic breakouts versus a temporary skin purge.
Bottom line: an open line of communication with your derm is always a good idea. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re experiencing a reaction to a new product that has you going 🤷🏽♀️.