Purging is the bane of every skincare fanatic’s existence. Ever tried a new product, immediately experienced breakouts and thrown the product away in despair? Well chances are, you’ve experienced skin purging.
Whilst it’s an occurrence that mystifies even dermatologists, we aim to break down what causes purging, how to avoid it, and what to do should it happen to you.
Scientifically speaking, skin purging occurs when an active ingredient in a product increases skin turnover rate, pushing excess sebum, dead skin cells, and build-up to the surface of your pores, resulting in breakouts.
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This is why it’s particularly common when you add a new exfoliator to your routine or a product with an exfoliant in it.
However, if you’ve not changed any skincare products and you’re getting a reaction, it could be a number of other things. We’ve listed some of these below.
Acne cosmetica: This is a form of acne triggered by the use of certain cosmetic products. These products are known as comedogenic and create small rash-like bumpy pimples. It’s best to look out for products labelled non-comedogenic to be on the safe side.
Inflammation: Mild inflammation causes excess skin turnover and can clog your pores. The worst offenders are mineral oils.
Irritant dermatitis: This accounts for most of the reactions you’ll get from makeup and skincare and it causes an itchy, scaly red rash. Symptoms can make themselves known straight away, but some may take weeks or even months to develop if they are only weak or mild irritants. This can make it tough to identify the cause. Irritant dermatitis can affect anyone but it’s more common in people with sensitive skin or those with eczema or rosacea.
Allergic contact dermatitis: This occurs when a person has become sensitised to an ingredient that has been applied to the skin. A red, itchy rash, sometimes with swelling or blisters, will appear 12-48 hours after the product has come into contact with the skin.
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The reason why skin purging has baffled experts for years – and why you may not have even realised you’ve experienced a skin purge – is that it’s remarkably similar to regular breakouts.
They can take the form of whiteheads, blackheads, and even painful cystic acne. Purging can also present as dry, peeling skin. There are a few differentiators to look out for though.
Skin purging doesn’t usually last as long as a regular breakout, maybe even a day or two compared to breakouts that can take around a week to heal. That said, skin purging can also take a couple of weeks to come out and for your skin to get used to the product.
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Especially if you’ve not used an exfoliator of any kind before, so this timing isn’t an exact science.
Skin purging also tends to trigger breakouts in the places where you already get spots or acne symptoms. For us, this is always on our chin and jaw.
If you’re suddenly getting large breakouts of spots in new places, there’s a strong chance it’s not skin purging. Again, though. It’s not an exact science!
Telling the difference between purging or a breakout is essential to maintaining the long-term health of your skin.
Whilst purging is an indicator that a product is working, if a product is breaking you out more severely, or causing other symptoms, it may suggest you are allergic or sensitive to an ingredient in that product and you need to reconsider your usage of it.
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Any new products or ingredients when added to a skincare routine can cause skin purging but there are some ingredients that are common culprits. Particularly so-called active ingredients.
Retinols and retinoids are among the worst/best, and are often present in acne and anti-ageing products because they help to get rid of blocked pores.
This may sound contradictory but they cause spots in order for them to clear.
Chemical exfoliants can also cause a purging effect, including alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy-acids (BHAs). For example, products like The Ordinary’s fantastic AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution.
You can read more about AHAs and BHAs in our guide to the acids in your skincare.
However, with many ingredients such as niacinamide and salicylic acid, it is less clear whether these can cause purging.
We should note that if you’re experiencing breakouts in new areas, or if you’re experiencing other symptoms of sensitivity such as itching, redness, burning or a rash, stop using the product immediately.
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You likely have an allergy or sensitivity to an ingredient in the product. It may be worth visiting a professional to establish which ingredient you have a sensitivity to in order to avoid this reaction happening again.
If you’re using products that don’t seemingly have any obvious culprits, breakouts can also be caused by products that are simply too heavy for your skin, such as rich creams or thicker foundation that may be clogging your pores.
Introducing too many new products at once or having an over-complicated skincare routine can also result in unwanted breakouts, so try cutting back to a basic skincare routine to establish whether you’re experiencing purging or a breakout.
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If we’re scared you into never wanting to introduce a new product to your skincare routine ever again, please know that hope is not lost!
Whilst skin purging isn’t preventable, per se, it’s very much controllable. The key is to introduce it slowly. Start by using a new product two evenings a week for two weeks, and if you don’t experience a reaction, try three evenings a week. Keep increasing your usage if you experience a minimal reaction, and decrease your usage accordingly.
Also make sure you only introduce one new product into your skincare routine at a time. We’d recommend waiting six weeks before introducing an additional new product to your routine. This reduces the likelihood of your skin experiencing a purging reaction, but also allows you to identify quickly which product is causing the reaction.
It’s also worth checking that you’re not using two products that clash. Sometimes clashing ingredients will merely reduce the effectiveness of the product, but often they can cause a reaction. Some key combinations to avoid include
As always, it’s very important to test products first before applying them to your face. Place a pea-sized quantity of the product to the side of your neck or inside of your elbow and watch for a reaction for 48 hours.
Purging can be uncomfortable and upsetting, especially if you were expecting miracle results from your expensive new cream. Thankfully, there’s loads you can do to minimise the breakouts.
Firstly, a simple skincare routine is vital.
Stick to a gentle cleanser, such as CeraVe’s Hydrating Cleanser (£9.50) or Glow Recipe’s Papaya Sorbet Enzyme Cleansing Balm (£29) and try to avoid any products with fragrances and harsh chemicals.
We have more recommendations in our best cleanser or best cleanser for acne list.
Additionally, if you’re experiencing skin purging it’s beneficial to use a light, oil-free moisturiser that won’t clog your pores.
We love The Body Shop Aloe Vera Soothing Day Cream (£14), which also works to calm red or irritated skin and is the perfect option for sensitive skin. You can get other recommendations in our best moisturiser lift.
It’s also especially important to ensure you use SPF sunscreen during the day to protect against sun damage, as many active ingredients can also increase your sensitivity to the sun.
The Inkey List’s SPF 30 Daily Sunscreen (£14.99) uses mineral filters to protect against harmful UVA and UVB without causing further irritation.
During the summer months, we recommend opting for a stronger formula, such as the Body Shop’s Skin Defense Multi-Protection Lotion SPF50+ PA++++ (£22), which hydrates damaged skin while protecting against sun damage, pollution and signs of ageing.
We’re also big fans of the Super Health Skin Ultralight UVA/UVB SPF 25 from Beauty Pie. This is super lightweight and hydrating, so even doubles up as a moisturiser, and acts as a great primer too.
This is ideal if you want to reduce the number of products you put on your purging skin.
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We touched upon this in Step 1 but to reiterate: Don’t use any harsh physical or chemical exfoliators while your skin is adjusting and purging.
This can cause more purging to happen, or cause a painful reaction.
If you really need to exfoliate, use a gentle physical exfoliator that won’t further aggravate the skin.
We love the Caudalie Deep Cleansing Exfoliator (£20), which has a 97% natural ingredient formula that purifies and restores skin, without leaving it feeling dry and sensitive.
FURTHER READING: Best face exfoliator: Get smoother skin using scrubs from Upcircle, The Ordinary, Nip+Fab and more
And finally, patience is key. Purging will usually last for at least one cycle of the skin, and this is around a month. If it lasts longer than six weeks, slow down or cease use of the product as it may be a sensitivity or allergy.
However, after those six weeks, you should experience the glowy and revitalised skin you’ve been promised! And you can then look to add a new product, should you want to.
After graduating from the University of East Anglia with a degree in History, Katie has gone on to pursue a Master’s Degree in Human Rights at University College London and is currently interning at a legal representation charity. When she’s not poring over books on politics and legal theory, she’s obsessing over cat TikToks, playing with makeup, or prowling ASOS