The beauty equivalent of adding insult to injury, skin purging is a common phenomenon where the introduction of a new skincare treatment doesn’t improve skin—but instead seems to make it worse. Some claim it’s a sign that a new formula is working; others are inclined to believe skin purging isn’t legit. The truth, below.
Why skin purging happens
First things first: Skin purging is definitely real. Though it isn’t a defined medical condition or symptom, “it’s commonly used to refer to the exacerbation of a skin condition when an individual has either had a skin treatment, or started to use a product or treatment which appears to worsen the condition,” says Francesca Fusco, MD, dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology and professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The key word here is “appears,” as the new ingredient isn’t truly worsening the condition.
Rather, think of skin purging as another phase of the treatment process. It primarily occurs when you begin using a skin-resurfacing ingredient, meaning one that either chemically exfoliates skin or speeds up cell turnover or, as is often the case, both. “These ‘purge’ the skin by quickly accelerating cell turnover, resulting in the expulsion of the clogged pores,” Fusco explains.
Skin purging is especially common among those with acne-prone skin, notes Fusco, as many topical treatments for breakouts often involve ingredients that spur cell turnover. The Clear Pure Radiance Oil and Clear Pure Radiance Serum, for instance, target blemishes with a blend of powerful botanical oils, including black willow bark, which has inherent skin exfoliating properties.
Your skin, when left to its own devices, does this on its own—just at a slower pace. The addition of a new, skin-resurfacing ingredient puts this natural process on hyperlapse. And it ultimately pays off. “The goal is to slough off dead skin cells and get healthy, new, hydrated cells to the surface of the skin,” says Tara Parenti, lead skin therapist for True Botanicals. “But with that comes the purging of dead skin cells, sebum buildup, and bacteria that has laid dormant in the skin. It’s a necessary evil.”
Not all skin purging looks the same
The type of skin purging you experience depends on your skin type and concerns. For instance, if you have oily or acne-prone skin, your purging “can be inflammatory in nature, [with] papular and pustular breakouts,” says Parenti. “In skin that has a history of hormonal breakouts, it can arise in the form of cystic acne.”
Meanwhile, those with dry skin can experience a different version of skin purging. It could appear as sensitized skin—meaning skin becomes more sensitive and reactive to products—or in flaking and roughness of the skin, which are signs of increased dehydration. Essentially, a skin purge is a more intense version of the skin issues you typically experience.
Because skin purging appears as your skin’s worst-case-scenario, it can be hard to distinguish between the two. “Generally, the purge is going to occur in areas where individuals typically see their problem areas,” says Parenti. “So for example, if you usually get breakouts on the chin, or on the jaw, you’ll get a purge there times 10.” A new spate of zits on your cheek, then, likely isn’t skin purging.
How to get through it
Skin purges usually last about one full cell-turnover cycle, which in the average person is about 28 days. “The purge can begin within three days of the treatment and it can last anywhere between five days to five weeks, in certain cases,” says Parenti. In those with more mature skin, she adjusts that window to four to six weeks to account for a slower skin cycle.
But in that time, you can help mitigate the effects of a skin purge. Parenti suggests scaling back your skincare routine: First, cleanse with a gentle wash, such as Clear Nourishing Cleanser, which will help keep skin’s protective moisture barrier intact. Then, opt for a soothing moisturizing formula and follow up with sunscreen during the daytime.
Besides that, simply continue using your new product as instructed. “The whole point is to get your skin acclimated to your actives,” says Parenti. “Unless there’s a true and identifiable allergy to something, it’s necessary to go through this.” If your skin is irritated or red, she recommends spritzing skin with Calm Nutrient Mist.
If what you believe to be a skin purge lasts more than six weeks, that’s a sign to regroup. You may need to lessen the frequency with which you’re using the new formula—and if it persists, you may have an unknown allergy. Consult your dermatologist if you think that may be the case.
Barring that, though, it’s worth sticking with your new, active ingredient through a skin purge. Because once it’s over, the results—like clear, glowing skin—are often worth the wait.