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Is That Acne, or Is Your Skin ‘Purging’?

If you’ve ever browsed the SkincareAddiction Reddit page, clicked #skincare on Instagram or lost an afternoon on Youtube watching beauty influencers demo their evening skin routines, you may have noticed the phrase “skin purging.”

Purging is a temporary reaction to certain skincare ingredients. Known triggers include both prescription-only acne creams and over-the-counter cult beauty products. In the corners of the internet where skincare obsessives gather, purging is reliably a hot topic. Many purging posts, often accompanied by photos, come back to the same question: Is this a purge or a regular breakout? And it’s a fair question, because distinguishing between a purge and a smattering of garden-variety acne can be tricky.

I confronted the issue myself this summer: A huge pimple appeared on my cheek shortly after I began using alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), a water soluble acid that’s supposed to improve skin texture. So, I reached out to some experts to understand what purges are, which products cause them, and how tell them apart from pimples.

What is skin purging? And what products can cause it?

“Skin purging” can happen when you begin using a new exfoliant, a category of skincare products specifically designed to increase the turnover rate of skin cells. Without any help, research has found, you naturally shed a full layer every 28 days. Different types of exfoliants speed up this process.

Retinoids, Vitamin C serum, skin peels, and acids such as salicylic, benzoyl peroxide and my AHA solution, are all chemical exfoliants — a sub-category of exfoliants. These products have enzymes and other ingredients that help dissolve the bonds between your skin cells, allowing it to “purge” any gunk. There are two other main groups of exfoliants: Physical exfoliants such as skin scrubs have tiny beads to slough off dead skin. Laser treatment and microdermabrasion are considered mechanical exfoliants. 

A dermatologist might recommend an exfoliant to clear up acne, smooth out fine lines and texture, or fix hyperpigmentation or discoloration. Often, as a result the ingredients or techniques, these products cause your skin to “purge” everything that’s been causing issues, such as excess oil, dead cells and bacteria, before new skin cells can peek through. This can manifest in the form of tiny blackheads, whiteheads, skin-colored pimples and other bumps that look eerily similar to regular old acne. 

Dr. Orit Markowitz, a New York City dermatologist, describes purging as “everything coming to the surface in order to get things more quickly under control.”

How is ‘skin purging’ different from a normal breakout?

Regular breakouts and purging can look very similar, but there are a few ways to tell them apart:

Product: Purging is specific to exfoliants. If you experience sensitivity, irritation, redness or pimples after trying a product that isn’t an exfoliant, such as sunscreen or moisturizer, purging isn’t the issue. For some reason, your skin isn’t compatible with the product. This is something to bring up with your dermatologist.

Appearance: Purges generally trigger breakouts in the same places you usually get zits. If your skin is simply irritated, you’re more likely to experience flare-ups in new areas.

Timing: Purging breakouts tend to clear up on their own within a few days, whereas acne usually takes eight to 10 days. (My AHA-induced pimple went away as quickly as it appeared.) If you’ve started using a new chemical exfoliant, and you get multiple breakouts lasting longer than six weeks, derms recommend reaching out — or ditching the product. It’s best to avoid irritating your skin in order to prevent scarring, among other issues. 

If you’re not sure what type of skin reaction you’re having and it gets uncomfortable, it’s best to see board-certified dermatologist for help, Markowitz says. 

Is there a way to avoid skin purging?

Unfortunately, there’s no good way to avoid skin purging. It’s simply a matter of waiting it out. But there are things you can do to soothe your skin while you’re going through it. Dermatologists urge patients not to pick at pimples, to clean their pillow cases and, most importantly, to ease into whatever product they are using. Instead of applying a new product daily, start with two or three times per week. (Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither are dewey complexions.)

It’s also important to keep your skin extra-moisturized during the process because chemical exfoliants are drying. Forgetting this step could make the purge more uncomfortable. 

If you’re worried and want to ditch the product before its benefits kick in, take it from me: My purge was worth it. I’m hooked on AHA and my skin is smoother and brighter than ever before. 

“A skin purge is a good thing,” Markowitz says. If you continue using the product, you’ll eventually achieve “better looking skin and less acne.” 

Ready to book a dermatologist’s appointment? Visit Zocdoc.

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