How To Tell The Difference Between Skin Purging and A Breakout

Picture this: You start using a new skin-care product and instead of it solving all your skin problems, you begin breaking out. This phenomenon is called skin purging — and it’s not just you. “The concept of skin purging is completely legitimate,” says Rachel Nazarian, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. Here’s what causes skin purging, how to identify it, and what you can do about it. 

What causes skin purging?

Skin purging can occur any time you begin using certain active ingredients. “There are some medical ingredients that can speed up cell turnover, essentially increasing the rate at which our dead skin cells slough off,” Dr. Nazarian explains. “These include the retinoid class of medications and even beta hydroxy acids (BHA).” Retinol also works by speeding up cell turnover, as do alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA). And overall, this faster changeover is a good thing, as it allows the skin to regulate itself more normally, which can in turn reduce breakouts and minimize lines and wrinkles over time.

“As the cell cycle is regulated from use of certain acne medications, it may clear out some of the pimples that were originally on or slightly under the skin.”

Rachel nazarian, md

However, this newly rapid pace of cell turnover means that initially, there’ll be more dead skin cells piled onto skin’s surface. That temporarily increases the chances of a pore getting clogged. Eventually, your skin adjusts to the new rate of cell turnover, ending the purge and giving you all the benefits of a retinoid or acid without any drawbacks. “Purging may last several weeks, and ultimately is worth working through,” says Dr. Nazarian. 

Another interesting fact about skin purging is that in many cases it’s not actually causing new pimples, but rather bringing up dormant pimples that were already waiting underneath the skin to surface, thus accelerating what was technically already going to happen. This is especially true with products you use specifically for the purpose of clearing up pimples. Explains Dr. Nazarian, “As the cell cycle is regulated from use of certain acne medications, it may clear out some of the pimples that were originally on or slightly under the skin. Remember that dead skin cells, and the clogging the pores from dead skin cells, plus the addition of oil (sebum) are actually part of the main etiology of acne pimples.”

What does skin purging look like?

A cystic pimple on your chin? You’re probably not purging. Though a skin purge can technically appear as any type of acne, it typically looks like “small, red, tender bumps on the skin, and often [can be accompanied] with the appearance of blackheads or whiteheads,” says Dr. Nazarian.

Another consideration is that the new product could cause a flare of other underlying conditions, such as rosacea, which could also appear as small, red pimples. “Because other conditions may mimic acne, it’s important to communicate with your board-certified dermatologist so that you can be evaluated for different reactions that can happen when you start medications — including purging, rosacea flares, irritant reaction, or allergy,” says Dr. Nazarian.

How to deal with skin purging 

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to speed up skin purging or to stop it altogether — short of stopping use of the new product in question, of course. Instead focus on staying diligent with your use of the product and incorporating in tried and true products you already use to help keep the rest of your routine constant. You don’t want to suddenly adopt an entirely new skin-care routine all at once — you’ll wind up irritating the skin even more and might cause a more serious reaction. 

It’s also a good idea to cut down on the amount of active ingredients you are using while you are introducing a new one into your routine. Again, you don’t want to risk through your skin completely out of whack. It’s the life equivalent of moving, starting a new job, adopting a puppy, and getting into a new relationship all at the same time. You’ll wind up stressing your skin out more than it can handle, which could cause a complete meltdown. All good things in moderation, after all. 

Though a new breakout is far from ideal, it’s still worth sticking with the new product — because while purging is temporary, the benefits of a powerful ingredient can go a long way.

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