What is Skin Purging?

Skin purging is a term that is often used to describe an acne breakout that happens after beginning new skincare products or after an acne facial.  Skin purging looks like acne- red bumps or pimples on the skin. Whiteheads and blackheads are not caused by purging- in fact, purging clears whiteheads and blackheads. In fact, the main difference between purging and a break-out is the presence or absence of comedones (whiteheads, blackheads, and milia).

The definition of “skin purging” is to remove or get rid of something unwanted on the skin. The skin naturally purges itself every day in a process called desquamation- but this is not what you mean when you talk about the “skin purging process”.  What you and most people mean when you say your skin is purging is that you are having a sudden rapid acne breakout.  The real question here is not the definition of skin purging- rather it is “Is skin purging good for your skin?” In other words, does skin purging make acne go away faster?

Is Skin Purging Good?

Although it is annoying and embarrassing; skin purging is good because it helps clear the skin faster. If you choose to use weaker acne products, you will have less skin purging, but overall it will take longer for acne to clear. So- if you want to get rid of acne fast, plan to experience some purging.

The Science of Skin Purging 

The term skin purging describes the speeding up of an important natural process in the skin called desquamation or keratinization. As you can see in the epidermis image below, the stem cells of the epidermis are at the bottom.  Skin stem cells have baby skin cells that slowly rise to the skin’s surface. As they rise to the skin’s surface they mature and change and push the layers above them higher.  The top layer of the skin loosens its attachments. The pressure from the cells below causes the uppermost skin cells to fall off of the skin.  Each layer of the epidermis has different functions

The desquamation process that you see in this gif image also occurs on inside the lining of the hair follicles (also called pores). This desquamation process in the hair follicle plays an important role in acne.  When the desquamation process inside the pores is sped up acne happens faster than normal and this is what people mean when they say “My skin is purging”. 


Skin Purging Versus Breakout

There are many articles online discussing the difference between skin purging and acne breakout.  The only way to tell the difference is if you started using new exfoliating skincare products on your skin that speed the cell cycle- then it is most likely purging. 

 If you have not recently (in the last 2 weeks) started any new skincare products containing retinoids, hydroxyacids and exfoliants, then it is a breakout.  The best way to tell the difference between purging and a breakout is that with purging you should not see an increase in comedones (blackheads and whiteheads) and with new acne breakouts you will see clogged pores.

Why Is Skin Purging Good?

Skin purging means that the regular cell cycle shown above is sped up by skincare products. In other words, whatever was going to happen to your skin happens sooner than it would without the skincare products. Pimples that would have appeared on your skin’s surface in 6-8 weeks will now appear much faster. Purging usually occurs 2-4 weeks after starting a new acne clearing skincare routine but sometimes it can as early as a day.  It depends upon what stage of acne the hair follicle was in when the new skincare product was started. 

 How To Get Clear Skin Without Purging?

The key to avoiding purging is to start with a low-strength retinoid and do not use hydroxy acids or other exfoliating ingredients at the same time.  Slowly increase the retinoid strength each month.  The exact skincare routine to prevent purging really depends upon your Baumann Skin type- but in general- the more exfoliating products you use- the more purging you will experience.


How Long Does It Take To Purge The Skin?

Skin purging (scientifically referred to as “skin turnover time”) takes 52-75 days in human skin.  On average the purging process takes 4- 8 weeks. How long purging lasts depends upon many factors like age, health, diet and use of skincare products. That means that it takes an average of 2 months for skin to purge and acne to begin to clear.


How To Speed Up Skin Purging?

Ingredients that stimulate the skin stem cells to divide faster will speed up skin purging.  The best skincare ingredients to speed purging are alpha hydoxy acids like glycolic acid or beta hydroxyacids like salicylic acid.  Defensin as found in Defenage 8 in 1 Bioserum will speed purging by activating stem cells in the epidermis.  Its best to take the skin type quiz and make sure you are using the right skin care ingredients for your skin type to make the purging process as easily as possible.


What Skin Care Ingredients Cause Acne Purging Of The Skin?


Retinoids and Skin Purging

The most common skincare ingredients to cause acne purging are retinoids like retinol, tretinoin (Retin A), trifarotene (Aklief), tazarotene (Tazorac), adapalene (Differin).  How long will purging last on Retin A, tretinoin, Tazorac and other retinoids depends upon skin type, the other products in the acne skincare routine, and the retinoid percentage strength. The

retinol purging period for Accutane depends upon how many mg of Accutane per kg of body weight is prescribed.  Basically- weaker retinoids will purge less severely but for longer while the retinol purging period of stronger retinoids will be worse but shorter.

Does Vitamin C Cause Skin Purging?

Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, does not play much of a role in skin purging.  Vitamin C can sometimes cause an acne flare, so we do not advise using it in most acne regimens.

Hydroxy Acids, AHA, Glycolic Acid and Skin Purging

The AHA purging period depends upon the strength of the AHA, the type of AHA, the pH of the AHA products and what other skincare products are in the skincare routine.  This is why it is best to have a customized skincare routine based on your skin type.  You can learn more about customized dermatologist recommended skin care routines here.

BHA and Skin Purging

Salicylci acid is an exmale of a BHA.  It is the best hydroxyacid to treat skin purging because salicylic acid is lipophilic and can penetrate through sebum in the pores.  This helps eliminate whiteheads and blackheads and speed purging.  Salicylic acid is also anti-inflammatory and helps prevent inflammation and pigmentation.


What Other Skin Care Products Cause Purging?

If you think of purging as removing the top dead cells from the skin’s surface, there are several types of products that will do this without causing acne. Hydroxyacids like glycolic acid and lactic acid speed cell turnover time. Growth factors and exfoliating scrubs speed cell turnover and cause skin purging.  Skin procedures such as dermaplaning, microdermabrasion, facials and chemical peels speed skin purging which is why you sometimes see breakouts after these skin treatments.

How to Treat Skin Purging?

Don’t pick. Use anti-inflammatory ingredients. Be patients.  Reduce sugar and dairy from the diet.


What Is The Best Skin Care Ingredient To Treat Acne Purging?

Salicylic acid can get down inside the hair follicles and remove a lot of the desquamated loose skin cells. Removing these dead skin cells that clog pores will decrease the risk of skin purging. Salicylic acid also helps soothe the skin and reduce inflammation.

The Best Skin Care Product To Treat and Prevent Acne Purging

A Salicylic acid cleanser combined with retinoids can help reduce the purging seen with retinoids.  SA reduces inflammation, speeds the cell cycle and clears pores.

Start with low-strength retinoids as part of your skincare routine.  Take the quiz to learn what retinoids are best for your skin type.  Here are examples of low-strength retinoids.


How to Plan for Skin Purging?

My advice is to look at your social schedule and see when the best time to have a breakout is. How you use your retinoid will determine how much purging you get and how many retinoid side effects you will experience.

  • If you need to look great in 4-5 weeks, then suffer through the acne purging as fast as possible and let the cell cycle do its thing.  
  • If you cannot look bad right now, use your retinoid every 3rd night instead of every night.  This will slow down the cell cycle and reduce inflammation.  It will take longer for your acne to clear but you will look better in the short term.  Plan on 6 weeks – 10 weeks for your acne to completely clear. 


Whichever you choose, make sure you use one of the cleansers suggested in your build a regimen information that you will receive after completing the skin type quiz.  Your skin will respond best if you are using products recommended in your personalized skincare routine that is based on your skin type.  This skincare routine will help reduce purging and help you get clear skin fast.  Take the quiz to learn the best skincare routine for your acne-prone skin.

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