We’ve all been there: you start using a new skin treatment that’s proven to reduce acne, but after a week or so of applying the product your skin actually looks worse. New pimples and acne lesions are popping up everywhere, you suddenly have whiteheads where there were none before, and your skin is somehow oilier than ever and so dry that it’s flaking off.
Before you give up and bin your brand-new skincare, wait! You could be experiencing purging, the phenomenon that means your new skin treatment is working just as it should.
There aren’t many scientific papers or studies written about purging—most of what we know about it comes from personal experiences, including our own!
Purging most frequently happens when someone uses retinol for the first time, although it can also occur when using Vitamin C treatments and some acids. ‘Purging’ occurs when our skin starts getting rid of all the comedones and pimples that were forming underneath the top layer—pimples that might’ve taken weeks to emerge, but are now appearing at a rapid rate.
When our skin’s purging, it might suddenly break out in acne or become dry, oily, or flakey (it may even do all of these things at once!). It can be tempting to think that this means your new skin treatment doesn’t work—after all, we want to reduce acne, not cause it. But don’t stress. Purging is common, and it doesn’t last forever. It’s your skin clearing out all of its impurities, and it means that your treatment is working.
To understand purging we first have to understand the life cycle of our skin.
Our skin cells are in a constant process of renewal. Fresh new cells are continuously replacing the old, dead ones. This process generally takes about 28 days1, although as we get older the life cycle of our skin cells does increase2.
As we know, new skin cells aren’t the only things that pop up on our skin. We also see comedones (blackheads and whiteheads), as well as pimples and acne lesions. Some of these acne lesions, like cysts and nodules, can take weeks to form and for most of this time they’re not sitting on top of our skin. They’re growing underneath it, where we can’t see or feel them.
Any product that increases skin cell turnover, like retinol, will increase the rate at which new skin cells are formed and also increase the rate at which acne lesions emerge on our skin. But don’t worry. Retinol isn’t creating acne lesions where there were none before, it’s just bringing pre-existing ones up to the top. Think of it as pressing the fast-forward button on your face: all of those pimples waiting to pop up are now rushing out of your skin, thanks to the active ingredients in your skincare.
Unfortunately, you can’t stop purging. You also can’t predict it: one person might find that their skin purging is really extreme, while someone else may not experience it at all.
Yes, if you stop using your skin treatment, the purging will slow down and stop, but you’ll also be stopping all of the good that the treatment is doing. Particularly if you’re using a prescription treatment, you should continue using it as directed unless your doctor or dermatologist tells you otherwise. If you find that your skin is particularly dry, you can use a light moisturiser throughout the day or moisturise prior to applying your treatment.
The one exception to this is if you feel you may be having a negative reaction to your treatment. It’s uncommon, but if you notice that your skin is swollen or inflamed, or if you notice a rash or any blisters, you should definitely stop the treatment and speak with your doctor.
You can breathe a sigh of relief, because purging is definitely not permanent—it generally lasts around a month to six weeks.
Some people like to wait until they have a spare few weeks on their calendar before they start a treatment that may make them purge, while others don’t mind as much and are happy to let their skin purge as they go about their everyday life.
We won’t blame you if you want to start a skincare treatment over your work break or Christmas holidays when you’re not going out as much, but we also believe that purging, like acne, is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
We’re in the ‘wear it with a smile’ camp. Embrace the purge, understand that it’s simply your body responding naturally to a treatment that you’re giving it, and look forward to the clear and fresh skin you’re going to see on the other side.