POSTED: 19 Jul 2023

Everything You Need to Know About Skin Purging & What to Do About it!

In your journey towards flawless skin, you may have come across the term skin purging. It’s a concept that often raises eyebrows and generates more questions than answers! In this article we do a deep dive and answer the most common questions such as what causes purging of the skin, is it beneficial or harmful and how do you deal with it?

What is Skin Purging and How Long Does it Last?

Skin purging is a term often used to describe the skin’s response to specific active ingredients that accelerate skin cell turnover. These ingredients remove the superficial layer of dead skin cells and promote the new cells underneath to come up to the surface and replace them. However, this accelerated skin regeneration can temporarily lead to irritation and more quickly bring up existing microcomedones, these are the tiny initial stages of breakouts, to the surface. This usually gives rise to temporary acne lesions such as closed and open comedones (black and white heads) but can also produce papules, pustules and even cysts. For all intents and purposes, purging looks like you’re breaking out.

Skin purging typically lasts anywhere between four to six weeks which is roughly in line with your how long it takes for your skin cells to naturally turnover. During this phase, it might seem like your skin is getting worse but it should settle down and improve after you’ve passed this period. If your breakouts persist beyond six weeks, it may not be a purge but a reaction to the product. Either way, you should consult with your doctor at the first sign of purging so they can advise you on how to manage it.

What Causes Your Skin to Purge?

The main culprits are active ingredients like retinoids such as Retinol, Adapalene or Tretinoin. It’s also caused by exfoliating acids like alpha or beta hydroxy acids. These ingredients can be quite irritating and increase skin turnover which often triggers a skin purge. Other ingredients that can sometimes cause skin purging include Vitamin C, Benzoyl peroxide, Azelaic acid and even chemical sunscreens. People with sensitive or acne-prone skin and those who have never used active products before have the highest risk of getting skin purging.

How to Tell if You have Skin Purging Vs. Breakouts

Its can be hard to tell the difference between skin purging and regular breakouts since they tend to look the same. However, purging generally occurs soon after introducing a new active product into your skincare routine and usually subsides after a few weeks of continued use. Acne breakouts, on the other hand, tend to be pre-existing and triggered or exacerbated by various factors including hormonal fluctuations, stress or using certain skin products. They tend to be long-standing and may persist even if the trigger is removed.

Preventing Purging Skin

It might now always be possible to preventing skin purging entirely. This is because potent active ingredients like exfoliating acids, Tretinoin and other retinoids work in a way that makes purging almost unavoidable especially in people who are prone to acne breakouts. However, there are a number of things you can do to reduce the risk and minimise the severity as well as duration of the purging:

  • Perform a patch test to check for allergic reaction
  • Introduce the new skincare product slowly into your skincare routine (e.g. once a week if Tretinoin or acid exfoliant) then gradually increase frequency as your skin tolerates
  • Start with a low concentration and gradually increase it over a long period of time
  • Support and maintain your skin’s barrier to reduce irritation by increasing hydration and moisturisation
  • Protect your skin from sun-damage and further inflammation with a broad spectrum sunscreen
  • Avoid starting too many active products at once and instead stagger them to get your skin to adapt to each one

How to Deal with Purging

So, even if you’ve diligently followed the above tips there’s still a chance you can get skin purging. First of all remember that purging is a sign that the products are working and so do not quit or give up! You can definitely manage this often daunting phase and it will be worth it!

The below tips should help you safely navigate most purging. However, if you’re experiencing severe discomfort or if the purge seems to be lasting longer, the you should consult with a dermatologist or other skincare professional. If your breakouts are caused by Tretinoin purging or another prescription product, then immediately contact your treating doctor as they will advise you on how to amend your skincare routine to overcome this.

Doctor’s Top Tips

Here’s how you can get through Tretinoin purging (it also works for purging caused by other retinoids, exfoliating acids, Vitamin C and other skincare):

  • Do not pick or squeeze the spots, as this can lead to inflammation or scarring.
  • If this is Tretinoin purging or due to beta hydroxy acid (e.g. salicylic acid) or retinoid purging then you don’t need to do anything else as these already treat acne breakouts
  • If you’re getting hyperpigmentation from breakouts caused by beta hydroxy acid, Tretinoin or retinoid purging then don’t worry, these products will treat it also
  • Use a gentle and hydrating skincare routine to help repair your skin and dampen inflammation during the purging phase. Load up on humectants, and rich nourishing moisturisers to protect and reinforce your skin’s barrier
  • Try reducing the frequency of the product you are using and gradually increasing once your skin settles
  • If you’re on the slowest frequency and lowest dose, try applying a thin layer of moisturiser then applying your product on top. This will slow down absorption and reduce irritation

Is purging a necessary evil?

In a way, yes and no. Skin purging is generally a sign that the skin product is working. However, your skin has not yet adapted to tolerate it well. It doesn’t happen to everyone and when it occurs it is for a transient period. Unfortunately, if you want to use the product you have to push through this phase. There are no short cuts either I’m afraid, but you can do a few things to reduce the chances of getting purging or at least minimise the severity and duration. By using a “start low and slow” approach, your skin will adjust to the effects of the new product and lessen the severity of purging if it occurs. As always, if you’re concerned about purging or starting a new product, contact a dermatologist or other skin specialist.

Check out our online skin clinic If you are interested in prescription-strength skincare for acne, skin ageing, hyperpigmentation and melasma. Book a virtual consultation with us today and let our doctors create a personalised treatment plan for you.


Authored by:

Dr Amel Ibrahim
Aesthetic Doctor & Medical Director
Founder City Skin Clinic
Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England
Associate Member of British Association of Body Sculpting GMC Registered - 7049611

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