Is the Concept of Skin “Purging” Total Bullsh*t?

If you ask me, when a product makes you break out, you should stop using it. So I asked someone else.
Publish date:
July 15, 2016
sensitive skin, acne, breakouts, skin purging, Heyday

Ever since I started consulting the internet for skincare research, there is nearly no product-review forum that doesn't have at least one person explaining their initial "purging" phase when extolling the virtuous results after trying a product. Usually it goes something like, At first the purging stage was annoying, but a week later my skin cleared up and now it's great and my skin is so perfect I get marriage proposals from strangers, also I'm pretty sure I'm definitely getting into heaven now despite not formerly being spiritually affiliated with any organized religion!

You get the point. People get awfully smug about passing through the purging stage. Not Crossfit smug, but definitely quite pleased with themselves.

It's like some Extreme Makeover aftermath, the way people talk about pre- and post-purge skin. I, however, come from the school of breakout = my skin is having a bad reaction to this new product, henceforth this product is not for me. Even the instructions on almost any topically applied product tell you discontinue use if you experience adverse reaction. I mean, I'm aware that this is mostly a way for the brand to cover its butt in case someone tries to sue them over a bad experience, but it also kind of just seems like, I don't know... good advice? And isn't a breakout an adverse reaction?

So why are people toughing out an adverse reaction to a skincare product in the hopes that on the other side of the breakout they'll magically have better skin than before? This. Makes. No. Sense.

But also... What if your skin doesn't get better? What if what you thought was a brief "purge" period was actually the equivalent of opening a Hellmouth to zit-hell in which the zit-demons make your complexion their hallowed grounds for all eternity? Marci showed me this story of a beauty blogger who had an adverse reaction to a facial that would literally not quit, and it honestly gave me nightmares (I don't advise clicking that link if you're currently eating).

So I did what any beauty editor would do in times of dermatological ignorance: I asked Jeni Sykes, Head of Skincare and Co-Founder of Heyday spa, "What's the deal with purging?"

So is "purging" a for-real process that can actually yield positive results after an initial breakout reaction to trying a new skincare routine/product?

Sykes: It depends on what you're trying, but a safe rule of thumb is this: purging should really only be associated with exfoliating products. If you have a buildup of debris in your pores (blackheads, bumpy texture, a bumpiness others may not see but you can feel under the skin), or mild breakouts and you want to [clear and smooth it out], you ultimately need that stuff to come out. The thing is, any gunk [that your skin is ready to release] only has one exit. Your skin renews from the bottom up, like grass, so eventually, it literally has to push out the old to make room for the new.

Exfoliation also kickstarts the process of building fresh new skin from below, and this is the skin that's pushing its way up to the top as you go through any possible purging. It takes some time for new skin to get to the top (it's able to renew about once a month, which is why facials are meant to be monthly).

This is why you have to have a some patience when you want to make a big change to your skin. What you see on the surface usually starts a little deeper, and you have to work with your body's ability to regenerate to see lasting change.

[See — this is what I am talking about when I rant about exfoliation, people!]

When trying something new, how can you tell if a breakout is just a purge cycle or a "run for the hills" breakout?

To be honest, there are a lot of people who experience breakouts from trying products that have nothing to do with actual purging, and a lot more to do with the skin being sensitized and reactive from not having a balanced base routine.

Sensitized skin is sort of like the mother of all skin conditions, which can then lead to others, including easy breakouts and reactions to a variety of things. The number of people experiencing sensitized skin has easily doubled over recent decades — it's especially high in urban environments.

With the rapid rise of sensitized skin conditions, people are genuinely having skin reactions and breaking out more often from irritation as opposed to purging or true acne conditions. Unfortunately, a lot of skin reactions are attributed to purging or blamed on a product itself when the issue is the skin's baseline health being out of balance, leading to the sensitized skin condition.

If you're trying product after product and each one makes you "purge" but you never get to [the clear end result], it's time to take a step back and get some help resetting your basic routine holistically.

So it is possible to come out with skin better than it was even more a purging period?

Absolutely. [Consulting a professional to look] at your whole routine and help you build a clear game plan, you can take the plunge together to move some serious stuff out of your skin, knowing you might experience some breakouts for the first two weeks to a month. But if the daily skincare routine you use as you go through this process is tailored to you and starts to address the root cause of what you were concerned with, the purging stage is ultimately a healing process. When your skin has let go of what it needs to, that fresh new skin you've been caring for diligently is finally revealed and you should see seriously improved skin in the end. The key here is that you have to have a smart plan of the products and treatments that are actually right for your skin, and you have to stay consistent with your daily routine to see the results.

If a skincare product solves one skin issue but introduces another (kind of like how some acne treatments cause dryness), with time and adaptation, is it possible that your skin will stop experiencing the negative effect?

Apart from true purging, generally speaking, no. If a product solves one issue but ends up introducing another, you either have to tweak your total routine to get to a balanced result (for instance with retinol, which can have an intense effect at first, levels out as your skin adapts but will always be drying), or it's simply not the product for you.

Well, I guess this also answers my other curiosities regarding sensitive skin: we're doing it to ourselves, folks (well, some of us city-dwellers). Personally, if a product makes me breakout, I stop using it immediately. Also, my skin does that thing where it gets hard-feeling, like it's physically trying to stop absorbing whatever offending topicals I'm assaulting it with, and it seriously creeps me out.

Have any of you had a positive purging experience? Or... just a never-ending purge?