No two words can send a shiver down the spine of a beauty enthusiast like “the purge.” No, not the dystopian horror film — although some might say the skin care version of purging is just as heart-stoppingly scary.

“The term ‘skin purging’ refers to a reaction to an active ingredient that is increasing skin cell turnover rate,” Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson, a board-certified dermatologist, tells Healthline. As skin cell turnover speeds up, the skin starts shedding dead skin cells faster than normal.

The end goal? To expose the fresh skin cells underneath and reveal clearer, younger-looking skin.

Ah, if only it were that easy.

Before these new, healthy cells can cycle to the surface, some other stuff has to rise to the top first, like the excess sebum, flakes, and buildup that clog pores (aka, all the makings of a pimple or two… or 10). This is what’s not so glamorously known as “skin purging.”

“As the surface layer of skin is shed more quickly, our skin is expediting its recovery and pushing everything to the surface,” Mraz Robinson says. She notes a purge period can prompt allkinds of pimples. “It may look different from person to person, but you can get a mix of whiteheads, blackheads, papules, pustules, cysts, and even the tiny ‘pre-pimples’ that aren’t visible to the eye, called microcomedones.”

Dry, peeling skin is also common.

While the purge isn’t ideal, it isto be expected with certain skin care ingredients.

“The most common offenders are retinoids,” Mraz Robinson says. The retinoid family includes everything from retinol (a common prescription for acne-prone and aging skin, which can also be found in over-the-counter products) to topical tretinoin and the oral medication isotretinoin (both of which are prescription only).

You may experience skin purging from exfoliating acids, too.

“Certain facials that involve a chemical peel component may also trigger this reaction,” Mraz Robinson says, “because again, it’s all about a reaction in response to an accelerated exfoliation.”

Mraz Robinson suggests sticking to a gentle skin care routine to avoid further inflammation. That means just the basics: a sulfate-free cleanser, a soothing moisturizer, and sunscreen during the day. And, of course, the retinoid or exfoliator that’s putting you through the purge in the first place.

That’s right: It may be tempting to stop using said retinoid or exfoliating acid altogether, but resist.

“If it’s an Rx retinoid from your doctor, they gave it to you for a reason,” Mraz Robinson says. “Stick through this ‘it gets worse before it gets better’ phase.”

There’s a difference between purging and having a bad reaction to a new topical product. The former is a necessary evil. The latter is… well, unnecessary.

Purging from a productBreakout or reaction from a product
happens where you frequently break outhappens in a new area where you don’t break out
disappears faster than a normal pimpletypically takes 8 to 10 days to appear, mature, and shrink

First of all, irritation from a new product that’s not from retinoids, acids, or peels is likely a case of an allergic reaction or sensitivity.

“If you’re seeing breakouts [or dryness] in an area of your face where you don’t normally break out, it’s probably a response to a new product you’re using,” Mraz Robinson says.

In these cases, it’s best to discontinue use of the new product ASAP — because, clearly, your skin isn’t into it.

Purging “will occur in a more defined area where you frequently breakout,” Mraz Robinson explains. In other words: If you’re prone to cysts around your jawline or occasional flaking under your nostrils, purging will take it to the max.

There’s one good thing about purge pimples, though: “Pimples that arise from purging will appear and disappear faster than a ‘normal’ pimple,” Mraz Robinson says.

Think of purging as the terrible twos of skin care: Your skin may be throwing temper tantrums left and right, but it’s only a phase (albeit a frustrating one).

Since purging occurs when an ingredient attempts to speed up the skin’s natural pace of shedding and renewal, it should only take one full skin cycle to get through the worst of it.

Everyone’s skin is unique, so that time frame can differ from person to person. Generally speaking, dermatologists say purging should be over within four to six weeks of starting a new skin care regimen.

If your purge lasts longer than six weeks, consult your dermatologist. It could be that you need to adjust the dosage and/or frequency of application.

Four to six weeks may sound like a long time to wait for the skin of your dreams. Alas, there’s not a whole lot you can do to change that timeline.

Tips during the purge

  1. Don’t pick acne.
  2. Don’t use drying products, like exfoliating acids.
  3. Get a HydraFacial, if possible, to help remove impurities.

Mraz Robinson’s best advice? “Don’t pick at the acne,” she says. That will only extend the purge period and may even lead to permanent scarring.

“Don’t use products that will excessively dry it out, either,” she adds. Since many spot treatments are actually exfoliating agents (like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide), keep them faraway from purging skin. It’s already in the midst of cell turnover. Any extra stimulation in this department will probably only make things worse.

“Having a HydraFacial may help speed things along,” Mraz Robinson says. This type of treatment essentially “vacuums” impurities out of pores, then infuses skin with targeted serums to treat individual concerns.

But be warned: If you already have sensitive skin, indulging in a facial while purging may be too much for your face to handle. It’s a decision best made with your dermatologist or a very trusted aesthetician.

If you’re considering adding a retinol, acid, or peel to your routine but don’t want to deal with the side effects, you can minimize purging. Dermatologists suggest the “ease in” method.

“For example, during the first week, apply the retinoid two times a week,” Mraz Robinson says. “Then for week two, apply it three times that week, working your way up to daily use.” This, she says, will allow the skin to gradually adjust to the ingredient.

You can follow the same pattern with exfoliating acids; just be sure to start with once-weekly application, and don’t exceed two to three times per week at the most. (Any more than that could lead to over-exfoliating.)

This technique doesn’t apply to chemical peels, however. Those shouldn’t be used more than once a month, tops.

As annoying as it can be, this pesky purging period will allbe worth it once your skin has adjusted to its new routine.

Who knew that clear, youthful skin was waiting just beneath the surface that whole time? (Oh yeah… dermatologists.)


Jessica L. Yarbrough is a writer based in Joshua Tree, California, whose work can be found on The Zoe Report, Marie Claire, SELF, Cosmopolitan, and Fashionista.com. When she’s not writing, she’s creating natural skin care potions for her skin care line, ILLUUM.