Skin purging: breakouts that aren't actually breakouts
Skincare can be confusing. There are no two ways about it. Whether it's the order in which you should be applying your products or differentiating a blackhead from a hormonal breakout, for those beauty novices among us (as well as the professionals!), it can be tricky to know where to start. At the best of times, we humans can be unpredictable, to say the least, and our skin just as much.
Alas, today, we're here to demystify all there is to know about skin purging. And yes, while its namesake movie may be ingrained in your nightmares, said skin reaction won't be. Aka, she isn't here to stay. But more on that later...
I sought out advice from those in the know – consultant dermatologists Dr Shaaira Nasir and Dr Jinah Yoo – who shared and debunked everything about the (somewhat confusing) purge.
But that's enough from me. Instead, welcome one and all and let the class commence...
What is skin purging?
"Skin purging is a reaction when an active ingredient is applied to the skin causing faster cell turnover rate," Dr Nasir tells Cosmopolitan UK. Said reaction may manifest itself with the "appearance of blemishes, blackheads, whiteheads, or even cystic acne," Dr Yoo says, adding that "it's the process of expelling impurities and toxins from the skin."
Some people may even experience "inflammatory spots (pustules and papules), cysts or dry and peeling skin," Dr Nasir says.
So, you'd think it's a good sign, right?
Well, both doctors agree, explaining that it essentially means the treatment you're using that's causing a purge is actually working; the skin is detoxifying itself. As one does after a breakup, IYGM. Just like the good ol' saying goes: it gets bad before it gets better.
What ingredients can cause a purge?
To break it down even further, "active ingredients" as mentioned above, can include retinoids, chemical exfoliants and/or AHAs/BHAs. These can be potential perpetrators of a skin purge.
Retinoids (retinol, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid) and exfoliants such as glycolic acid, lactic acid and salicylic acid can all be found in skincare and makeup products such as your cleansers or serums.
How long can a purge last?
During the initial stages of the treatment, "a purge will last one skin cycle – usually 4-6 weeks," Dr Nasir says.
While Dr Yoo suggests that the length of a purge can vary for all: "It can all depend on the individual and the severity of the reaction but typically, a purge will last for a few weeks."
So, how can skin purging be treated?
Both Dr Nasir and Dr Yoo suggest that a purge is mostly likely prevented by introducing a new product or ingredient slowly. This helps your skin to adapt to the new ingredients with less irritation.
"Twice a week and increased gradually to once daily over time," Dr Nasir says. "The main thing is to keep going with the active treatment as it's working and the purge will pass.
"Using products that can soothe the skin and repair the skin barrier with ingredients such as ceramides, niacinamide and hyaluronic acid can help," she adds.
Anti-inflammatory and calming ingredients are Dr Yoo's recommendations, in particular aloe vera or chamomile. "You may also consider using a gentle exfoliant to help clear away dead skin cells and unclog pores but avoid over-exfoliating, as this can cause further irritation," she explains.
Importantly, Dr Yoo also notes: "If the reaction is severe or causing a lot of discomfort, you may consider reducing the frequency of use or stopping the product altogether."
Other notable takeaways:
Remember: skin purging is not the same as skin irritation or an allergic reaction – it is a necessary part of the process, and should subside within a few weeks.
To minimise the chances of a purge when introducing a new ingredient, first, perhaps opt for a wash-off treatment. This could be a light cleanser or face mask. In doing so, the powerful active isn't sitting on the skin and is, therefore, less harsh.
Don’t pick the spots!
Avoid using products with ingredients that dry out the skin, e.g. benzoyl peroxide, high percentage retinols.
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