There’s a difference between skin purging and having a bad reaction to a new product, but it’s not always easy to tell the difference. If getting to the root cause of a breakout is a concern for you, there are a few key signs to look for to make sure you’re taking the best next steps for your skin.
First, let’s break down what a skin purge actually is.
Skin purging is a temporary response to specific ingredients that trigger cell turnover—resulting in breakouts. The root cause is a new product you’ve introduced to your skin, commonly a retinoid or a chemical exfoliator, where the active ingredients are great at rapidly pushing clogged pores to the surface of your skin. In the case of a purge, your skin tends to look “worse” before it looks “better.” No matter how clear and healthy skin looks on the other side of a purge, a skin purge is nobody’s favorite experience.
Now what if it’s not a purge? What if it’s just very irritated skin or a new breakout caused by a product clogging your pores? If it’s not a purge, you want to know sooner rather than later so you’re not pushing through something that isn’t actually going to benefit your skin in the long term.
Here are some ways that I guide my patients in determining whether their skin is purging. First, purging should ONLY happen with certain ingredients that speed skin cell turnover, so if your product doesn’t have one of those, then it’s not a purge.
Some ingredients that may make your skin purge:
Any Retinoid (ex. Retinol, Retinal, Adapalene, Tretinoin, Retinyl Esters)
AHAs (ex. Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, Mandelic Acid)
BHAs (ex. Salicylic Acid)
Enzymes (ex. Bromelain, Papain)
Ingredients that should not make your skin purge:
Vitamin C (ex. L-Ascorbic Acid, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate, Ethyl Ascorbic Acid)
Centella Asiatica (Cica)
Three other factors that will help you to determine whether it’s a skin purge or something else (irritation/breakout):
DURATION: How long has this been going on? Purging is temporary (4-6 weeks) and ultimately results in clearer skin. Here’s why – not only did that skincare product bring those microcomedones to the surface faster, but those same ingredients (retinoids and exfoliating acids) can also help prevent new future breakouts. So, any breakouts after the purging period should be less severe. In other words, once you get through the purge, your skin should improve. IF your purge keeps going, it’s a sign that it’s NOT a purge- it could be irritation OR the product could be breaking you out (comedogenic). Note: it is possible to have purging AND irritation.
APPEARANCE: A purge can look like whiteheads and blackheads, but it should not look like tiny red bumps—that's a sign of irritation, not purging. If you’re experiencing dry patches or stinging / sensitive skin, that’s a sign of irritation. Sometimes your skin just needs time to adjust to the stronger active ingredient. If you continue to experience dry patches or signs of irritation, that product might be too harsh for your skin.
LOCATION: The purge should happen in areas that you normally break out. If you usually break out on your chin and jawline only, and now you’re suddenly developing breakouts all over your face, that’s not a purge. It’s more likely that the new product is clogging your pores and breaking you out. This is a very personal thing. Yes, there are ingredients that are more likely to clog your pores than others (ex. coconut oil), but whether a product is “comedogenic” or not is a pretty complex, and personal, thing. What breaks one person out might be tolerated beautifully by someone else’s skin.
But, what if you aren’t purging? Does this mean that the product isn’t working?
No! Retinoids work by affecting multiple pathways in the skin, not just through speeding skin cell turnover. So if you started a retinoid with the hopes of treating your breakouts, and you are not purging, it can still be an incredibly effective product for you. For example, retinoids affect inflammatory pathways in the skin, so you might notice your red angry bumps are becoming less and less severe over time without any purging stage.