What is skin purging?

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Skin purging is a breakout which usually occurs as a result of using certain skin care products. Products such as retinoids are known for causing skin to purge. These products work by increasing the turnover of skin cells, to shed existing skin and expose fresh skin cells underneath. For new skin cells to surface, excess sebum, and oil are pushed out, manifesting as spots. Essentially skin purging is a way of old skin cells making way for healthier and clearer skin cells to rise to the top.


Why is my skin purging?

Acne treatments such as hydroxy acids and retinoids will speed up the rate at which skin cells turnover, to help clear away dead skin and make way for clearer skin. For this to happen, old skin needs to leave, and does so in the form of spots. This is usually in the form of pimples, pustules, papules, whiteheads, blackheads and cysts. Skin purging is actually a positive sign that treatment is working. The skin is required to bring up the gunk and bacteria that lies in the deeper layers, in order to get rid of it and make way for clearer skin.


What does skin purging look like?

Skin purging is manifested as spots, often comprising of pustules, papules, whiteheads and black heads. Skin purging is often accompanied by skin peeling. It is often sore to touch the area where a purge is occurring.


What causes skin purging?

Skin purging is not the clinical name for this problem. It is usually referred to as 'inflammatory lesions', or 'inflammatory acne'. 

There are some ingredients in face products that can cause the turnover of skin cells to increase. These products include: 

If you use any products that contain any of these ingredients, then it can result in skin purging. 

Skin purging happens because the function of certain products is to increase the turnover of skin cells. This exfoliation process promotes renewing of skin, with the aim of reducing congestion. A result of this is the skin breaking out, known as the purge. Essentially, the purge is the skins way of “cleaning out its pipes”.


Retinol Purge

A retinol purge is a breakout caused by ingredients that promote new skin cells to develop. As a result, bacteria and gunk from the lower layers of the skin are pushed out, manifesting as spots.  


How long does skin purging last?

Skin purging can last from 3 days to 6 weeks. However, the length of time that skin purging lasts is not exact, mainly because everyone’s skin is different.

Most people will find that it will last around two weeks before it clears up. Some of this will also depend on the type of skin you have. If you aren't sure what your skin type is, there are guides online that can help. 


Is it a good thing for your skin?

Skin purging is a good sign that treatment is working. The increase in spots simply mean that the product is increasing the turnover of skin cells, so that the bacteria and dirt from the lower layers of skin are pushed out.

Skin purging means that that your skin is rejuvenating itself and clearer skin is not too far away.


What is the difference between skin purging and breakouts?

Skin purging and breakouts are very similar in nature and it’s difficult to work out whether your skin is purging or breaking out. If you are using a retinoid and experience a sudden crop of pimples accompanied by dry skin, you are likely experiencing the purge. Spots and pimples are not usually limited to one area, and you may find that they do not persist or last too long.

A breakout will usually occur if you are using a new skincare product or makeup that does not agree with you. The time of the month, stress levels and diet can also contribute to a breakout. Breakouts tend to last for month or longer, whilst purging will last for a shorter period of time.

Unfortunately, it is also possible to experience a breakout and purging at the same time. Initially, it can be difficult to work out whether the spots are caused by a breakout or the purge, but you will find that spots from purging will clear up quicker.


What can you do to help your skin?

If you are starting to have problems with purging, implement a gentle skincare routine to avoid any further inflammation. 

  • Sulfate-Free Cleanser - Use something that is gentle and will allow the skin to repair and reduce inflammation. 
  • Soothing Moisturiser – It is important to keep your skin hydrated but try to use one that is unscented. 
  • Sunscreen - Sunscreen is always an important product to wear on sunny days or days with a high UV rating. This will prevent any further damage from the sun’s rays. 
  • Keep using the product. As tempting as it may be to stop using the product which has caused your skin to purge, it does settle and it is a good sign that treatment is working.

If you have been prescribed a retinoid, keep using it even if your skin breaks out. There will usually be a worse period for your skin before it starts to get better. 


The skin cycle

Although you can be frustrated and eager to get your skin better, it is important to understand the 'skin cycle' and how this will affect how it looks. 

Because skin purging is an increase in the skin’s shedding and renewal process, it should get better after one skin cycle. 

Although everyone’s skin is different, there is a usual timeframe of four to six weeks. This starts when you introduce a new skincare regime. 

However, if this process lasts longer than six weeks, you should consult with a dermatologist. It may be that you need to alter your skincare regime to make the process work more effectively. 


How to prevent it from getting worse?

Whilst you are waiting for the purging stage to pass, there are some things that you can do (or perhaps, not do) to stop your skin from getting worse. 

  • Don't Pick - Although there is an urge to pick, this will make the process worse. Not only will it make the cycle last longer, it can also lead to permanent scarring. 
  • Don't Dry it Out - You might be tempted to use a spot treatment, but these often contain exfoliating agents and can extend the process. 
  • Have a Facial - Facials can help to speed the process along because it removes the impurities from the pores. Certain serums to help the healing process. 

If you have sensitive skin, then it is a good idea to seek advice from your dermatologist before you have a facial.  


Can purging be avoided?

If you need to use retinol or other products that can cause skin purging, there are ways you can prevent it from developing.

Start by using the retinoid only a couple of times a week for the first week. You can then increase this to three times the second week. Add an extra day each week until it’s a daily routine. 

If you are using exfoliating acids, don't use them more than two to three times per week. This will help to prevent speeding up the skin cycle. 

Although skin purging can be frustrating, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Once the purge has passed, you should find that your skin will feel and look a lot better. 

As long as you understand your skin type and ensure you are looking after your skin, it will only be a matter of time until it improves. 


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Whilst all of our content is written and reviewed by healthcare professionals, it is not intended to be substituted for or used as medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, please speak to your doctor.