You just started using a new product, and now you’re breaking out more than usual. What should you do? If you’re prone to clogged pores and acne, introducing a new product into your routine can certainly be nerve-wracking. How can you tell whether your skin is purging or your products truly don’t agree with your skin? Is it better to wait it out, or should you stop using your new products immediately? It’s never easy to know for sure what’s causing a breakout, but hopefully this post will guide you in the right direction.
What is Skin Purging and What Does it Look Like?
Skin purging is a process that can be triggered when you start using a new product that increases the rate of skin cell turnover. Because your cells are turning over more quickly, lingering breakouts that might’ve taken weeks (or even months) to surface all start to come up at once. This means that, before it gets better, your acne can actually get worse. It may seem unfair, and skin purging can definitely be a discouraging process. But if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded with smooth, clear skin.
The most common types of breakouts people experience when their skin purges are whiteheads and pustules. They’re similar in that both develop pus as the result of infection, but pustules tend to be more red and inflamed. If someone is already prone to hormonal acne, they may also develop cystic blemishes as part of the purging process.
How Long Does Skin Purging Last?
This is a really difficult question because there is no “correct” answer. How long your skin purges can depend on a number of things, including how many clogged pores you have to begin with and the strength of the product you’re using.
For over-the-counter products, two to six weeks is a good rule of thumb since it takes the skin about a month to fully turn over. That being said, if you have a lot of closed comedones (aka clogged pores), it could potentially take longer for your skin to clear up. Think of it this way: those clogged pores are full of hardened oil, dirt and debris, and it needs to go somewhere. Unfortunately, many of them will surface as whiteheads. This is your skin’s way of “resolving” them.
If you’re using a prescription-strength medication, skin purging can sometimes last longer than two to six weeks, especially if your acne was more severe to begin with. A lot of dermatologists like to wait three months before even seeing a patient after prescribing medication for acne. If you’re using a prescription, it’s important to follow the provider’s instructions and talk to your dermatologist about what to expect in terms of purging. If the purging process doesn’t improve, they can help you make adjustments whether it’s a stronger prescription or different medication all together.
Ingredients That Can Cause Skin Purging
Ironically, the ingredients that typically cause skin purging are also the ones that are best for treating acne. As I mentioned, the ingredients that can cause skin purging are those that encourage your skin cells to turn over in a faster, more efficient way.
Exfoliating acids remove dead cells from the surface of the skin and can be a great tool for achieving smooth, clear, even-toned skin. However, it’s not at all uncommon to get some initial breakouts. While any type of acid exfoliator can cause purging, salicylic acid (BHA) is often the biggest culprit. Because it’s oil-soluble, it can penetrate into the pore lining to help loosen up hardened oil and clear out clogged pores—think of it as a deep-cleaning for your pores. This makes salicylic acid great for treating acne, but can definitely mean purging while all the gunk in your pores is being pushed out.
As frustrating as it may be, an initial purging period is considered normal when it comes to exfoliating acids—but it’ll all be worth it once you get through to the other side!
What to do if you suspect exfoliating acids are causing purging
If you suspect an exfoliating acid is causing skin purging, stay the course and give it time. Purging from exfoliating acids should start to normalize anywhere between two to six weeks. You can also try cutting back a bit on frequency of use. This will slow down the purging process so you aren’t getting as many new blemishes at once, but it will also extend the duration of the purge overall. An easy and effective way to minimize purging activity is to use an antibacterial, anti-inflammatory mask for five minutes a night after cleansing. Rapid Response Detox Masque is perfect for this.
It’s important to note that, for a small percentage of people, exfoliating acids just won’t agree with their skin, and they’ll have to cut them out all together. That said, there are many types of exfoliating acids, and sometimes it’s just about finding what works best for you—type of acid, strength of acid and quality of formulation all make a difference.
Retinol and Retinoids
Vitamin A, the active ingredient found in retinol and retinoids, also works to increase cell turnover. But unlike exfoliating acids, which perform this function on the skin’s surface, Vitamin A works deep within the skin. Essentially, it works from the inside out. Once again, if you have clogged pores, using a Vitamin A product can bring these to the surface and result in skin purging. Another reason retinol and retinoids can initially make acne worse is that they often make your skin dry and flaky at first. This dry skin can trap oil underneath, which may result in more breakouts until your skin adjusts.
Retinoids are a lot stronger than retinol and are usually found in prescription medications. Because retinol is milder, it doesn’t typically encourage new breakouts the way retinoids do, but it’s not entirely impossible.
What to do if you suspect retinol or retinoids are the cause of your new breakouts
When it comes to retinol and retinoids, it’s super important to introduce them into your routine slowly—especially a prescription. Otherwise, you could easily end up with a lot of irritation, which can actually exacerbate your acne. Because of this, a skin purge from retinol can last four to eight weeks. Stay the course and see how it plays out, keeping in mind that it could be even longer if you’re using a prescription retinoid like tretinoin. Vitamin A is a very active ingredient, and in order to achieve positive, long-term change in the skin, you have to be patient. Slow and steady wins the race!
Benzoyl peroxide (BPO) is great for unclogging pores and treating inflammatory acne thanks to its antibacterial properties. It can definitely bring things to the surface for the first few weeks as it breaks up clogged pores, resulting in purging. Like retinoids, BPO is a very active ingredient that can be associated with unwanted side effects like dryness, redness, peeling and even stinging. Once again, you’ll want to introduce it into your routine slowly to avoid irritation (remember, irritation triggers acne). Keep the skin well moisturized to avoid dry skin that can trap oil and debris underneath, leading to more breakouts.
What to do if you suspect benzoyl peroxide is the cause of your new breakouts
When it comes to BPO, your breakouts should start to diminish after two to six weeks. If you’re experiencing a lot of purging after starting BPO, look at the strength you’re using. Percentages can range anywhere from 2.5-10 percent, and studies have shown lower percentages of benzoyl peroxide to be just as effective as higher percentages with fewer side effects. You can also try applying a thin layer of moisturizer to act as a buffer before applying BPO on top. Be sure to bolster the rest of your routine with soothing, hydrating ingredients to avoid negative side effects. If your skin is having a hard time adjusting, there’s nothing wrong with using it just a few nights a week.
How to Tell the Difference Between Skin Purging and a Breakout
If you’re using a new product and getting more breakouts than usual, it can be really tempting to just give up. But if your skin is going through a normal purging process, that’s the last thing you should do. So how can you tell if your skin is purging, or if your breakouts are occurring because a new product doesn’t agree with your skin? While these aren’t hard and fast rules, here are a few tips to distinguish between purging vs. breakouts.
A great place to start is to look at the type of product you’ve recently introduced into your routine. If it contains one of the ingredients mentioned above, your skin could be purging. Also consider the location of your breakouts—are most of your breakouts in the same areas as usual? If a product is wrong for your skin, it’s more likely to cause breakouts in unusual spots. Finally, keep track of how long it takes for your breakouts to start diminishing. If an over the counter product isn’t improving your skin after two to six weeks, you may want to stop using it and regroup. When in doubt, it’s always best to consult with either a dermatologist or esthetician if possible.
If your skin isn’t purging, there are basically two other reasons a new product could be breaking you out. The first is that a product is causing a bad reaction and irritating your skin. Look for signs like redness, itching, stinging/burning, rashes and skin that feels hot to the touch. A reaction can also result in clusters of tiny bumps that make the skin feel rough. This can be mistaken for acne, but is actually dermatitis. The second reason a new product could be breaking you out is that it’s too heavy and clogging your pores. If you have oily skin, you may be more prone to clogged pores and need to be more careful about this. Try not to use heavy products that contain a lot of oils as they may be too occlusive for your skin. If you’re dehydrated, you can try using a heavier moisturizer just a few nights a week until your skin improves.
Once again, it helps to look at the type of product you’re using. Products like cleansers, moisturizers, facial oils, hydrating serums, hydrating masks and sunscreen shouldn’t cause purging. So if one of these is breaking you out, it might not be right for your skin type. I always recommend patch testing a new product to test for a reaction or clogged pores.
Other Possible Causes of Breakouts
When breakouts start to increase around the same time we start using a new product, most of us are quick to blame the product. It makes sense, right? While this definitely can be the case, there are so many factors that may contribute to an acne flare-up. Take a moment to consider other possibilities before you give up on your new product. Here are just a few common causes of acne that could be contributing to an increase in your breakouts:
- You’re using an entirely new routine and didn’t introduce it slowly. This can cause sensitivity and makes it almost impossible to figure out which product you’re reacting to, if any. Stop using everything and go back to your regular routine, then slowly add your new products in one at a time.
- You’re using the wrong foundation. Foundation makeup can most definitely be the cause of bumps, clogged pores and breakouts. Read my list of the best foundations for oily skin—these are less likely to cause issues.
- Internal and external factors. Take a moment to consider whether any other recent changes could be contributing to the increase in your breakouts. Internal factors might include your menstrual cycle, new medications, changes in diet or changes in birth control. External factors might include temperature fluctuations, travel or stress.
As you can see, there isn’t an easy answer to the question, “Is this new product making my skin purge?” I say this all the time, but acne is just so complex, and it can be really difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of a breakout. But if you just started a new product and are experiencing an increase in blemishes, I hope this post gets you closer to determining whether it’s purging or breakouts.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”