The theory around what causes skin purging after you use leave-on exfoliants is that such products “purge” the skin from clogs that form and get stuck deep in the pore, pushing them quickly to the surface. Seemingly overnight, a fresh crop of breakouts dots your skin. As the exfoliant takes effect over several days, the purging tapers off and all is well. Some refer to this phenomenon as skin getting worse before it gets better.
Purging occurs for some people, but exactly who it affects and why it happens remains uncertain. The reasoning why skin “purges” is that effective exfoliants and even some anti-acne ingredients you start using (like retinol and benzoyl peroxide) loosen the gunk in the pore and speed cell turnover, thus bringing the clog in the pore to the surface faster.
This makes sense for breakouts that aren’t red pimples or acne, meaning they’re just flesh-toned clogged pores or blackheads. As salicylic acid penetrates the pore lining, it thins the thick, sticky oil (sebum) buildup as it loosens and reduces the size of clogs residing deeper in the skin. Salicylic acid also improves the shape of the pore-lining, and once the pore is normalized, the backed-up, smaller clog can more easily come to the surface, appearing as new clogged pores (blackheads or white bumps—not acne-related pimples).
Most of these clogs would eventually make their way to the surface, but using a product like a BHA exfoliant has the potential to hasten the process. Once on the surface, ongoing use of the BHA continues eliminating the bump and shrinking enlarged pores.
In terms of purging being about acne (red, swollen pimples), physiologically the premise is faulty. Although improving pore function and killing acne-causing bacteria definitely prevents more pimples from happening, it doesn’t cause existing or new pimples to move through the pore any faster. Pimples don’t come through the pore even though that’s what it looks like.
A pimple forms because, in some instances, the clog in a pore causes the pore lining to rupture, spilling the oil, debris, and dead skin contents into the surrounding skin. Next, acne-causing bacteria that exist around and in the pore begin a feeding frenzy. All this “food” causes the bacteria to multiply, triggering inflammation that worsens until the body responds by producing a swollen pimple (or many pimples) on the skin’s surface.
Does Skin Purging Have to Happen?
Whether purging occurs or not isn’t really something you can control. You can skip using a leave-on exfoliant, but that only sets skin up for more trouble down the road, not to mention losing all of the wonderful benefits exfoliation provides.
Besides, what you might see on skin’s surface after you start using a BHA would’ve shown up eventually, or simply would’ve remained deep in the pore, keeping it clogged and enlarged, possibly becoming cystic acne. It’s actually good to see all this movement, despite the initial distress it causes.
What can also be occurring is that you just happened to start the new product at the same time you would have been going through a new bout of breakouts. This is especially true for women who start using new products around the time of their monthly cycle, when all types of breakouts are more common.
Having said that, some people can be sensitive to using benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or various retinoids. In these cases, experimenting with frequency of use or separating what you use in the morning and at night can get you through the adjustment period. A sensitized response like this doesn’t automatically mean you cannot use such ingredients.
What if I’m Still Breaking Out More Than Usual?
If you’re still breaking out more than usual weeks after you start using a BHA exfoliant, consider what else you're using in your routine. In many instances, one product alone isn’t causing the problem; rather, it's the combination of products that’s responsible.
What to do? If you’re using several products and applying them all at the same time, try applying them at different times or try switching to products with lighter, easy-to-layer textures (go from a cream to a lotion or gel), which often makes a fast difference.