Are You Actually Breaking Out — Or Is Your Skin Just Purging?

Photographed by Collins Nai.
The plot of the so-bad-it's-good dystopian thriller The Purge envisions a dismal alternate-reality future wherein once a year, every year, as sanctioned by a totalitarian government, all crime is completely legal for 12 hours. And why? Because, the theory goes, it gives people the opportunity to "get it all out," so to speak. All the bad shit rises to the surface; bring the darkness of the underworld to light, and it loses some of its power.
You'll also find this same concept in the world of skin care, though Ethan Hawke is not involved this time around. (No murder, either.) Purging refers to what happens to your skin when you first start using certain exfoliating products that encourage cell turnover — namely, retinoids. Not unlike a society quietly bubbling with rage, the bad stuff lurking in your pores needs to come out at some point. As your skin starts getting accustomed to the retinol, in the first two to four weeks of use, your cell turnover will increase and your pores will... well, purge, and all breakout hell will break loose.
The clearing-out of your pores is ultimately a good thing, and it means the retinol is working; it's only uphill from here. "Think of this as the skin clearing the pipes," says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD. But even though we know that the purging phenomenon is real, there's always that moment of questioning: Is your skin reacting normally to a retinoid you've just started using, or did your acne just get real bad real fast?
"A purge and a breakout are essentially similar," Dr. Zeichner explains. "However, the purge is part of the therapeutic process and improves with continued use of the topical retinoid, then goes away." You can tell the difference because a proper purge generally occurs all over the face at once, whereas the usual breakout usually shows up randomly and individually, and breakouts usually develop when you're not treating your skin. A bad reaction might come in the form of a rash or irritation, but if you just started using a retinoid and suddenly sprouted a colony of zits, chances are it's a harmless part of the purging process.
That said, there are ways to keep purging to a minimum — all you have to do is start your topical retinoids slowly and intermittently rather than all at once, so your skin has a chance to adjust at its own pace. Dr. Zeichner says he doesn't recommend using a retinoid more frequently than every other day, especially in the beginning. And that doesn't mean you won't see results: "It's fine to start using a topical retinoid once a week and advance as tolerated if your skin is sensitive or you want to avoid a purge," he says. As for avoiding Purge Night, good luck with that — you saw what happened to the Sandin family, didn't you?

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