Skin purging is a temporary skin reaction to specific ingredients that may cause breakouts, skin dryness, flaking, and peeling. It typically occurs when trying a new skin care product or certain facial treatments.

Many skin care products aim to help people have clear, glowing skin. These products may contain active ingredients that speed up the exfoliation process to renew the skin.

However, as new skin emerges to the surface, congestion such as excess sebum and other buildups will also rise to the surface. This can cause acne, or a minor breakout, aside from dry, flaky skin.

Learn more about skin purging, what it looks like, how it differs from a breakout, and what causes it.

Skin purging may look different from person to person and will depend on an individual’s complexion.

Generally, dead skin cells come to the surface, causing dry, peeling skin. The skin may also adjust to the increased skin cell turnover rate and may become red and irritated.

A range of whiteheads, blackheads, papules, and pustules may appear. Red papules and hard bumps may come in clusters, making the skin’s texture feel rough to the touch.

Skin purging and acne breakout may look the same, but their causes are different.

Breakouts typically occur due to:

Skin purging usually develops when a person incorporates a new product into their skin care routine that causes a rapid skin cell turnover.

In the table below, we compare the different symptoms of purging and acne breakouts.

Skin purgingAcne breakout
whiteheadswhiteheads
blackheadsblackheads
pimples and pustulespimples and pustules
subsides within 4–6 weekscan last for months
located in areas where a person typically gets breakoutscan occur in any area
dry, flaky skin and peelingnodules, cysts, or both
may be tendertypically more painful and swollen

Some skin care products contain potent active ingredients to target various skin issues, such as:

The most common ingredient to cause skin purging is retinol, a form of vitamin A and a widely used ingredient for skin care.

According to a 2016 review, retinol is the mainstay treatment for acne because of its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to prevent the formation of new acne.

Retinol’s ability to promote collagen production makes it the standard treatment for premature skin aging.

Other active ingredients that manufacturers commonly use in skin care products include:

These ingredients shorten skin turnover from 28 days (in young adults) to around 7–14 days.

A person experiencing skin purging should continue using the products and adhere to their skin routine unless they have a severe allergic reaction. It may take some time for the skin to adjust to the new regimen and show improvements.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) recommends doing a patch test for new skin care products on a small area of skin, about the size of a quarter, for 7–10 days.

People with sensitive skin are more likely to experience redness and inflammation with certain active ingredients.

It is advisable to stick to a gentle skin care routine to avoid aggravating the inflammation. A person should use sulfate-free cleansers and moisturizers and wear sunscreen.

They should also not use other exfoliants or products with fragrances and harsh ingredients that may further irritate the skin.

The skin is particularly sensitive and vulnerable at this stage, so a person needs to avoid:

  • touching their face
  • picking on the blemishes
  • peeling off the flaky skin

If an individual’s skin shows signs of an allergic reaction, they may need to stop using the product.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction include:

Symptoms are usually mild and can develop within a few minutes or gradually over several hours.

In rare cases, a person may experience anaphylaxis, a life threatening allergic reaction that requires emergency medical attention.

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. The symptoms develop suddenly and include:

  • hives
  • swelling of the face or mouth
  • wheezing
  • fast, shallow breathing
  • a fast heart rate
  • clammy skin
  • anxiety or confusion
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • blue or white lips
  • fainting or loss of consciousness

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Check whether they are carrying an epinephrine pen. If they are, follow the instructions on the side of the pen to use it.
  2. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  3. Lay the person down from a standing position. If they have vomited, turn them onto their side.
  4. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

Some people may need more than one epinephrine injection. If the symptoms do not improve in 5–15 minutes, or they come back, use a second pen if the person has one.

According to the AAD, a person may continue using the product if milder symptoms, such as skin redness and itchy or puffy skin, subside after 7–10 days of use.

However, if symptoms do not subside, a person should stop using the product and seek advice from a healthcare professional, such as a dermatologist.

The duration of skin purging will vary from person to person. Generally, however, it lasts 4–6 weeks. After 6 weeks, the skin may begin to respond to the ingredients, and a person should be able to see improvement.

The initial symptoms will subside, and the person will notice smoother, brighter skin and a more even skin tone.

A person can minimize the side effects of retinol or acids by slowly easing them into the skin care routine.

They may begin by applying retinol two times in the first week and then increasing it to three times the following week.

For exfoliating acids, a person may start applying them once weekly. However, they should not go beyond two–three times per week, to avoid over-exfoliation.

Moreover, a person should only use a chemical peel, including chemical peel as part of facials, once per month.

Skin purging is different from breakouts and does not require treatment.

However, a person may use products with calming, skin barrier-supporting ingredients. These include:

  • Peptides: Peptides, or polypeptides, restore the skin barrier and improve skin elasticity. Their anti-inflammatory properties help even out skin tone, ease inflammation, and repair damaged skin.
  • Ceramides: Ceramides build the skin barrier, protecting the skin. They also hydrate and moisturize the skin.
  • Hyaluronic acid: Like ceramides, hyaluronic acid holds water and keeps the skin moisturized and plump. This reduces the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.
  • Jojoba oil: Jojoba oil is a lightweight oil that contains vitamins E, D, and A, vitamin B complex, copper, and zinc. These nutrients keep the skin healthy and protect it against free radicals.
  • Aloe vera: Aloe vera soothes, moisturizes, and reduces inflammation in acne-prone skin. A 2021 study showed that using aloe vera gel with ultrasound and a soft mask effectively treated mild to severe facial acne.
  • Oat oil: Oat oil can act as a barrier between the skin and the environment. It also has soothing, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal properties that can help boost skin moisture.

Skin purging is a temporary skin reaction during which the skin becomes dry, red, and irritated and experiences minor breakouts in response to a new product a person has introduced into their skin care regimen.

Certain ingredients, such as exfoliating acids and retinol, promote skin exfoliation to cause new skin to surface.

It can take up to 6 weeks before a person sees clearer, smoother, and brighter skin. However, if the purging worsens and persists beyond 2 months, a person should contact a healthcare professional, as it may be a sign of an adverse reaction.