Is your skin purging or just breaking out? | Ask Doctor Anne

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I often get questions like “I have started using this new Q10-Serum from XYZ and now I get lots of breakouts on my chin – is this purging or should I stop the product?” that make me realize that skin purging is a thing we really need to talk about. Because while certain types of skincare products can cause your skin to purge, many others can’t, but will instead just make you break out.

 

Everything you need to know about skin purging
Is this purging?

 

Confusing? Purging leads to breakouts, but not every breakout you get is a sign of purging. How you can figure out if you are purging or the new product just makes you break out, how the purge can be prevented and what you need to do if it happens, that is what we will talk about today.

And if you have a question I didn’t answer, tell me in the comments below so I can get back to you.

 

 

What is purging?

Skin purging is a temporary skin reaction to specific ingredients that causes breakouts often accompanied by dryness and flaking.

To understand why it happens, you need to understand the life cycle of a breakout. Long before you see a breakout as pus filled lesion on your face, it starts by changes deep inside the pore, too small too see, called microcomedones. These microcomedones ripen and travel to the surface over the course of weeks until you finally see them as “new breakout” – only that it isn’t actually new, but has been developing for quite some time.

Once you introduce a product that speeds up cell turnover, the skin cells start to travel to the skin surface quicker, taking with them all the microcomedones that had already formed, meaning that instead of spread out over several weeks, they all come to head over a short period of time. You basically get as many breakouts as you would anyway, but not over a period of six months, but six weeks, meaning there are more breakouts on your face at the same time.

I like to compare it to deep cleaning your room: When you start pulling away the furniture from the walls, it suddenly looks a lot worse than it did before due to everything that was hidden underneath, but that doesn’t mean there is more dirt. It is the same amount of dirt, you just see it all at once now.

 

Woman touching her chin with clogged pores and breakouts
Is this purging? Or just new breakouts?
Image by Kjerstin Michaela Noomi Sakura Gihle Martinsen Haraldsen from Pixabay

 

Which ingredients trigger purging?

Only ingredients that speed up cell turnover can trigger purging, as only those make the microcomedones come to head faster. Ingredients with no effect on cell turnover will not cause purging, even though they can make you break out if the product doesn’t agree with your skin – we will dive into that in a bit.

Products with retinoids, chemical exfoliants or benzoyl peroxide have a chance to cause your skin to purge, but ingredients like Vitamin C, Q10 or peptides do not. So if you, like the person in the comment, use a Q10 serum and start breaking out, this is not purging. It just makes you break out.

 

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Eye Serum and Night Cream
Products with retinol have a chance to cause purging

 

Does everyone get purging?

At the same time not everyone that uses a chemical exfoliant or a retinoid will experience purging – there is a chance that you do, but it doesn’t have to happen, and if you don’t purge, it doesn’t mean the product isn’t working for you. If you started using a retinoid and no purge happens, that is great news – you are one of the lucky ones. Maybe you didn’t have too many microcomedones in the first place, maybe you introduced the product slow enough, maybe you are just blessed, whatever the reason, the purge doesn’t have to happen inevitably and is probably much rarer than the online community makes you believe.

 

Shocked about what you read on fragrance in skincare products?
I don’t purge – is my skincare not working?

 

How can I tell the difference between purging and irritation?

Aside from purging, there is another reason why your skin might react with an increase in breakouts to the introduction of a new product, and that reason is irritation. If a product irritates your skin, it gets inflamed and the barrier function gets worse, meaning you are more prone to breakouts. (More info: Damaged skin barrier – the five steps you need to take now)

To make it even more complicated, products that cause purging are often quite irritating, meaning both the purge and the irritation can happen at the same time. But is there a way to distinguish between the two? Yes.

As we already learned, purging is caused by breakouts that were there, but not yet visible, coming to head quicker. That means that the breakouts you get from the purge are located where breakouts usually show up for you – if I tend to have breakouts around my t-zone, the purging will happen in the t-zone. If pimples pop up in areas where you didn’t get breakouts before, it is most likely not the purge, but irritation. Irritated skin is also inflamed, often itchy and in general tender to the touch, while the skin during the purge has more breakouts and might be drier, but shouldn’t itch or hurt.

Another great way to differentiate between the two is the timing: Purging doesn’t happen over night, but within the first one or two weeks after introducing the new product, while irritation often happens way quicker, sometimes even over night. And the purge doesn’t last longer than 4 – 6 weeks, after that period everything will have come to a head and the skin should calm down and get better. Not just back to normal, but to better than it was before. If the period of breakouts and irritated skin lasts for months, it is certainly not a purge.

 

Woman with acne lesions on the side of her face
How can you tell if you are purging if you have acne?
Image by Alexander Grey from Pixabay

 

How can I tell the difference between purging and regular acne?

Now what if the breakouts happen in their usual spot, get slightly worse, then get better, then get worse again? That might not be a purge, but just the regular fluctuation of your acne. The severity of acne can be influenced by so many different factors like stress, weather changes and, quite important, hormones that seeing the breakouts get worse and better without any changes in your skincare routine shouldn’t come as a surprise. So how can you tell if you are purging or if it is just your regular acne throwing a tantrum?

Well, when purging you usually see a variety of stages of inflamed lesions side by side, as they start at different maturation points and just develop quicker. When your acne decides to act up, the stage of the lesions is usually more uniform. But again the best way to tell is time: Purging starts one to two weeks after introducing the new product and shouldn’t last more than four to six weeks, while regular acne isn’t synced with new product introductions, but can happen at any time. Also the lesions of the purge do heal quicker, as they go through a sped up process, while regular acne lasts as long as the lesions usually last you.

 

Skincare and haircare empties for 2022
Don’t use too many things at once…

 

What can I do to prevent purging?

While not everyone experiences a purge anyway, there are a few precautions you can take to reduce the risk of it happening to you. The first thing is to make sure your skin is as happy and healthy as possible beforehand, so well-hydrated and not already irritated by the overuse of actives. The second thing is to introduce products that could potentially lead to a purge slowly. The longer you take to build up to full strength, the slower the cell turnover process will increase and the less noticeable the quicker coming to head of the lesions will be – basically you might be purging, but you won’t notice it as it happens slowly and spread out over time, only a little quicker than it normally would. Which of course means it takes you longer to reach the part where the skin gets better than it was before, but that extra time can be worth it if the thought of your breakouts getting worse before they get better makes you hesitant to start effective treatment in the first place.

 

Variety of skincare products on a bathroom shelf
Gentle skincare is the way to go when introducing new actives.
Image by olga volkovitskaia from Pixabay

 

What do I need to do when I am purging?

But what if you are already purging? Is there a way to make it stop?

No. If you are in it, pushing through is the best option. if you stop the product, the purge will stop as well, but the problem won’t go away – all the microcomedones will just go back to their slow way of progressing and will come to head eventually, just more spread out. Just as a reminder, purging doesn’t happen for everyone and is way less common than you would think, but if you are experiencing it, keep your eyes on the prize, treat your skin as gentle as possible and push through.

 

Is it?

 

TL;DR

Skin purging is a temporary skin reaction to specific ingredients that causes breakouts often accompanied by dryness and flaking. It can only be caused by products that speed up cell turnover like retinoids or chemical exfoliants, as the purge is caused by microcomedones already present in your skin, but not yet visible, coming to head quicker. Ingredients that don’t increase cell turnover, like peptides, Q 10 or Vitamin C, can not cause purging, but they can make you break out for other reasons. Purging happens in the areas where you usually get breakouts and should pass within four to six weeks as all microcomedones have come to head by then and the product you use should have reduced the formation of new ones – if your skin stays worse for months, it is not a purge, but either irritation or general worsening of acne due to anoother cause.

Not everyone experiences purging, it is much less common than you might think, and introducing your actives slowly will reduce the chance even further. If you do purge, the best thing you can do is treat your skin gentle and push through – once it is done, your skin will get better than it was before.

 

Everything you need to know about skin purging
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