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Skin purging is what happens when you start using a new facial care product with a previously unused ingredient. Although it can look like a breakout, it is actually quite different. Photo: Handout

What is skin purging and how is it different from a breakout? Experts explain how to understand what’s happening to your face

  • If you use skincare products you know that adding a new one with a previously unused ingredient to your routine can cause a reaction – so what is going on?
  • Skin purging is a natural response to the speeding up of skin cell turnover, and plenty of ingredients are prone to causing a purge, from retinol to vitamin C

Changing up your skincare routine, or adding a new ingredient to an existing routine, can be overwhelming for your skin. Various things may happen to it – and one of them is skin purging.

“Skin purging refers to a reaction to an active ingredient that is increasing skin cell turnover rate,” explains Dr Deanne Mraz Robinson, chief medical officer of Ideal Image, a US network of medical aesthetic and wellness clinics.

“As skin cell turnover speeds up, the skin starts shedding dead skin cells faster than normal with the end goal of exposing the fresh skin cells underneath and revealing clearer, younger-looking skin.”

While that sounds like a great thing – which it is – going through a purge can be frustrating, as your skin gets worse before it gets better. Before your skin’s healthy cells are exposed, all the stuff trapped within your pores (like sebum, bacteria, debris, and old dead skin) has to be purged – and the effects of this are visible.

Purging is temporary and a sign that your new product is doing its job correctly. Photo: Handout

Generally, your skin will regenerate every 28 days. When an active ingredient is added to your skincare routine, that process is sped up. This leads to purging, which can look like a combination of blackheads, whiteheads, papules and cysts on dry or peeling skin, and increases sensitivity.

The good news is that purging is temporary and a sign that your new product is doing its job correctly. While there’s nothing you can do to avoid a purge, dermatologists recommend you introduce new ingredients slowly and in low percentages to give your skin enough time to get used to them.

Gentle purging can heal the skin and fight acne. Photo: Handout

Is it a purge or is it a breakout?

A purge can materialise as a variety of breakouts. Though it might look like a new product is causing the symptoms, it’s likely that this was already happening under the surface well before you started using it.

Breakouts can brew under the skin for weeks before popping up on your face naturally. These will usually present themselves as a type of inflammatory acne, like cysts, whiteheads, blackheads and pimples.
Purging can look like a combination of blackheads, whiteheads, papules and cysts on dry or peeling skin, and increases sensitivity. Photo: New Africa –

Occasionally, new ingredients can upset your skin, clog your pores or trigger an allergic reaction, leading to redness, irritation and acne-like symptoms. There are a few signs you should look out for that may help you tell the difference between breakouts and a purge.

First, analyse how long the breakout lasts. Purge-related acne shows up and leaves faster than regular breakouts, so if it lasts longer than six weeks, there’s a chance this new product may not be a good fit for your skin or is doing more harm than good.

Another sign is where the breakouts are. A purge will usually cause them in the areas where you typically get acne, so if you’re suddenly breaking out in places you’ve never experienced acne before, then it may be another kind of reaction.

Herbivore 12% AHA + 3% BHA exfoliating glow serum. Photo: Handout

Skin purging and ingredients

There are some formulas that cause almost everyone to go through a skin purge.

Salicylic acid

This common BHA (beta-hydroxy acid, a chemical exfoliator) is known for its ability to improve acne-prone skin. Its job is to reach deep into your pores and get rid of anything that might be clogging them – but you have to give it a few weeks to really get rid of all of that debris.

Retinol-infused products from Sunday Riley and The Ordinary. Photo: Handout


Probably the ingredient most likely to cause a purge, retinol works by boosting your skin collagen levels to make it look and feel plumper and reducing signs of premature ageing.

“Retinol promotes increased cell turnover, which causes clogging and worsening breakouts,” board-certified dermatologist Michele Farber of Schweiger Dermatology Group says. “This is particularly the case as oil and debris that is trapped deeper underneath the skin comes to the surface.”

Vitamin C serum with sea grape caviar from Cocokind. Photo: Handout

Glycolic acid

This powerful AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid, another chemical exfoliator) helps brighten up your skin, improves hydration levels and has the ability to break down the “glue” that keeps dead skin cells together. To do this, it accelerates your skin’s regeneration speed, leading to (you guessed it) a purging.

Vitamin C

Topical vitamin C brightens skin, decreases the visibility of fine lines, scars and sunspots, and boosts collagen production. This dynamic antioxidant causes mild exfoliating effects, so it’s not unusual to get a few breakouts after introducing it to your skin for the first time.

Everything you need to know about exfoliating

My skin is purging. Now what?

Taking care of your skin while it is purging usually involves waiting for the symptoms to go away naturally. You might be tempted to throw out the new product that is causing it, but think of the purge as a brief stage that leads to healthier, smoother skin.

The process can last from two to six weeks, depending on how congested your skin is, so try to focus your attention on skin balance. Purging and inflammation are closely tied, so it’s important you keep your skincare routine as simple, hydrating and gentle as possible to avoid further inflammation or irritation.

After going through a purge, your skin’s healthy cells are exposed. Photo: Handout
Another way to help your skin is by using products containing soothing ingredients such as cica, allantoin, green tea, ceramides, calendula or azulene. These can help reduce redness and inflammation.

You need to make sure to keep your skin hydrated, since dehydration could lead to excess oil production that could make your acne symptoms worse.