Purging Vs. Irritation
Why is my skin reacting negatively to a new product and what does it mean?
We all know that there are so many skin care products and approaches out there, and it can be overwhelming. It’s hard to know whether something you buy will work for you, and it’s no fun to have a negative reaction to a new skin care product. The opposite is supposed to happen!
But when your skin does react in an undesired way to a new product, it’s important to understand whether your skin is irritated from an allergy or sensitivity to something in the formula, or whether your skin is undergoing a purge. This distinction is important, because with the former reaction, the product isn’t a match for your skin and you should discontinue use, but with the latter, your skin may just need some time to adjust, and the product may still work for you.
So first let’s discuss what a “purge” means. A skin purge occurs when your skin has a sudden increase in cell turnover. A new product might speed up the cycle of cell turnover, bringing congestion to the surface and manifesting as new breakouts. When this happens, your skin needs some time to adjust and regulate, and usually will clear up within 2-4 weeks. A purge usually looks like clogged pores or clusters of blemishes that come to a head, and they are generally found in areas that you are most likely to breakout already. Products that might create a purge could include exfoliants, acids, retinoids (and alternatives), Vitamin C, and oil cleansers. Though it can be difficult, if you think your skin is purging rather than irritated, it may be best to keep on using it or take a short break and try the product again.
A reaction to a product that causes irritation is usually due to an allergy or sensitivity to an ingredient in the product. This usually shows up immediately when you use the product, and looks like a rash or clusters of hives or bumps, and can be hot, itchy, burning, red, and/or uncomfortable. This type of reaction can also happen if your barrier function is damaged from overexfoliation or sensitive from a recent exfoliating treatment or sun overexposure. If you break out into actual pimples in areas that you don’t normally get breakouts, this could also signal (but not always) that it’s an irritation rather than a purge, or that an ingredient could be clogging your pores.
When any of these types of irritation occur, most likely you will want to discontinue use. If the reaction was mild and tolerable, you may want to wait a few days and give it another try to ensure that it is causing irritation. If your skin was recently heavily exfoliated or exposed, give it time to heal before trying the product again. If your reaction is extreme or happens several times, it’s likely just not a good match for your skin. Absolutely anything could be a potential irritant for someone, so it can sometimes be tricky to detect the culprit. Some common irritants in mainstream skincare include synthetic fragrance, chemical sunscreens, dyes, parabens, formaldehyde, sulfates, retinol, and acids. In natural skincare, essential oils (particularly in high quantities), certain plant extracts, aloe, and certain preservatives such as Potassium Sorbate can cause irritations in rare cases.
What’s difficult when it comes to skin care is that no single formula will be right for absolutely everyone. Although all of our skin requires many of the same components for health (hydration, moisture, antioxidants, etc,) we all have preferences on how products feel, smell, and work for us. Irritants can be common or completely random. Because of this we sometimes have to test a few things to find our favorites.
So if you try something new and your skin doesn’t react well, notice whether it seems like a purge or an irritation and act accordingly. If your skin doesn’t tolerate a product, give it to a friend to try, and try something else. Take a close look at the ingredient list to see if anything stands out, and keep some notes in case you have similar reactions in the future. If your skin is purging, let it run its course and get through an entire skin cycle of 4 weeks, so you can fully determine if the product is right for you. If it's not a match for your face, you might still be able to use a product on your neck, chest, or body instead without a problem.
Overall, in the bigger picture, skin care should be enjoyable, not uncomfortable. If a product doesn't feel like a good fit, don't force yourself to use it. Creating a skin care routine you love may take a little trial and error, but its so worth it in the long run!
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