Here’s a scenario that may sound familiar: You invest in a pricey vitamin C serum, cleanser, or retinol, expecting it to work some life-changing complexion magic on your face—but instead you’re greeted by an angry crop of pimples. It’s a double disappointment: not only do you have deal with acne, but you’ve also just dropped your hard-earned cash on another product destined for the skincare graveyard in your bathroom drawer.
But if you consult the internet about your product-induced breakouts, you’ll find Reddit threads, product-review forums, and bloggers advising you to stick with your new regime a little longer. They say these breakouts are triggered by “skin purging,” which occurs when certain products bring hidden bacteria to the surface of the skin. After a few uses, they claim, your skin adapts to the ingredients and clears up, allowing you to reap the benefits that inspired you to buy the product in the first place.
While this may sound like another internet theory you shouldn’t believe, the dermatologists we polled agreed skin purging can indeed happen. Products that contain lactic acid, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and retinol are likely culprits because they’re designed to speed cell turnover. “Acne starts out as what we call microcomedones, which are under the surface of the skin and not visible,” says Arielle Nagler, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Some treatment products increase the turnover of skin and help to reveal these microcomedones earlier, or in an accelerated way.”
That said, not every breakout can be blamed on skin purging. “If you try a new product and you start to break out, it depends on the ingredients as to whether you should stop [using] it,” says Debra Jaliman, MD, New York City-based dermatologist. She warns that Shea butter, silicones, and oil-based products may clog pores. “If you’re using something [with these ingredients], then you could be breaking out from the product itself,” she says.
So at what point should you give up and accept that a new cream or serum is going to cause breakouts no matter how long you wait it out? If you’re using something that contains lactic acid, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or retinol, Dr. Nagler recommends waiting 6 to 8 weeks; after that, if your acne doesn’t improve, it’s probably time to toss it.
But if the product in question doesn’t contain the above ingredients, you may want to stop use sooner. Dr. Jaliman adds that itching, redness, or irritation are signs your skin is simply sensitive to the formula.
“If it isn’t something that’s formulated to help skin turn over and you’re breaking out more,” says Dr. Nagler, “you should stop.”