How to tell if your Skin is Purging (and how to avoid it)

Megan Dominion

It is always fascinating how our skin can communicate with us. It always tells us a lot of things, whether it craves moisture or a boost of brightness, and our automatic response is to throw products onto our face thinking it will solve the problem. Then the next day you wake up, boom! A breakout – but is it?

Ever heard of skin purging? Yes, it can be frustrating but don’t fret, we’ve got you covered!

What is Skin Purging?

Skin purging is the reaction of your skin to an active ingredient that causes cell turnover, causing your skin to exfoliate and bring congestion to the surface. It is a short-term skin reaction to specific ingredients that can result in breakouts, skin dryness, flaking, and even peeling. It usually happens when you try a new skincare product, certain facial treatments, chemical exfoliants, and retinoids.

Products that vigorously speed up the process of skin cell turnover will help show healthier skin cells, but only after you have “purged” all the gunk from beneath your skin. This gunk consists of dry skin flakes, pre-existing buildup, and excess sebum.

Why Does It Happen?

Is skin purging good? Because the product you are using accelerates skin cell turnover, all of the gunk will inevitably rise to the surface of your pores. Purging is a necessary process for your skin to adjust to new skincare products and causes breakouts beneath the skin to the surface, causing the skin to peel. The layers of skin beneath those being shed appear younger, after all, they are newer cells and may have a more even appearance and texture.

However, you must first deal with the skin purging process. As those dead skin cells shed, all the gunk beneath them is pushed to the surface. As a result, a normal skin turnover process that normally takes several weeks is occurring more quickly.

Another question is, how long does purging last? The length of skin purging varies from person to person. However, it usually lasts 4 to 6 weeks. After such time, the skin should begin to respond to the ingredients and show signs of improvement.

Skin Purging vs Breakout

How do we tell whether it’s purging or acne? It’s easy to confuse skin purging for a breakout and disregard the skincare products you’re using, but the two terms are distinct from each other.

So what does a skin purging look like? Irritation caused by skin purging typically occurs where you normally break out, rather than in new areas. Acne bumps, whether inflammatory or non-inflammatory, that are pushed to the surface by this increased cell turnover tend to fade faster than your average zit and last only a few weeks.

On the other hand, a breakout is prominent when it comes to the length of time you’re dealing with them. Acne outbreaks take time to form, become visible, and heal. This process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on your skin type and the type of acne breakout, and can last for months or years if left untreated.

Causes of Skin Purging

While a variety of products and chemical procedures can cause skin purging, the presence of active ingredients is one of the major causes.

What are active ingredients?

An active ingredient in a skincare product or pharmaceutical drug is a biologically active ingredient that can either benefit or put adverse effects on the skin. Alpha hydroxy acid and beta hydroxy acid in exfoliators are one of the most common active ingredients in the market. These exfoliate your skin’s inner layers by making them slightly loose on application and removing dirt and oil. Other ingredients that cause skin purging include the following:

  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Lactic acid
  • Retinyl palmitate
  • Retinol
  • Tazarotene
  • Vitamin C
  • Glycolic acid
  • Salicylic acid

Skincare Products

Chemical peels and laser treatments like microdermabrasion have been shown to have a similar effect. These ingredients are known to cause skin purging because their function is to assist your skin in producing new cells to replace old ones.

Ways to Avoid It

So it all boils down to how to treat skin purging. When it comes to treating your skin throughout a purge, the greatest thing you can do is the least appealing answer anyone wants to hear: you just have to wait it out. When your skin is purging, it is at its most sensitive and vulnerable, and the process cannot be stopped. You must be patient until it heals. Meanwhile, here are some tips you can take to reduce or accelerate the process:

  • When you begin using a new product containing active ingredients, do so gradually;
  • Avoid touching your face and popping pimples;
  • Always keep your bed linen and pillowcases clean;
  • Protect your skin from UV rays;
  • Keep soaps, exfoliants, and products containing harsh chemicals away;
  • Avoid using any products that will dry out your skin;
  • Use products that contain diluted actives or choose a product that does not work too quickly;
  • When your skin is adjusting to a new product that has caused purging, you should avoid using other skincare products simultaneously.

Patience is Key

Again, the process of skin purging differs from person to person. While you may want to accelerate the purging process to achieve better skin faster, the average skin cell turnover rate is about a month. Remember that purging is well worth the wait, and being patient is an important part of the process. Who knew that clear, youthful skin was just beneath the surface all along?

Megan Dominion

Megan Dominion is SILKUP's Managing Editor. She's been down both the curly hair and skincare rabbit holes many times and loves that there's always something new to learn; a new science, method, product or personal experience.