Developing an effective skincare routine is a process that takes time. While a simple cleanse and moisturise may cut it, many of us are constantly on the lookout for new products, brands and active ingredients to target specific skin concerns. Whether you are treating rough texture, fine lines, or acne, there is no one product that will work for everyone.
When introducing a product, it’s important to keep an eye on how the skin reacts, if at all. Hopefully, the skin will steadily improve with a new product, however certain actives such as retinol or chemical exfoliants can induce a “purge” period in the skin. These ingredients increase the rate of cell turnover, so can temporarily result in a flare up of acne. While your instinct in the face of increased breakouts is probably to halt the product-in-question ASAP, the key to dealing with a skin purge is actually to continue use. In time, the hidden breakouts deep within the skin should clear out, leaving a smooth, blemish-free complexion.
Of course, there are more reactions that your skin could be having, and purging isn’t actually all that common. Perhaps that moisturiser is too heavy so is clogging your pores, or maybe you have a sensitivity to the fragrance in that new fancy essence. If it isn’t a purge and your skin is just reacting badly to a new product, your best bet is to halt the new product immediately.
So, on the search for clear, healthy skin, should you quit that treatment or persevere? When it comes to new products, knowing how to recognise different types of reactions will ultimately allow you to keep your skin safe, soothed and happy. If your skin is reacting to a new product, here are our top tips for assessing if it’s worth persisting with in the long run:
What Does The Reaction Look Like?
As a purge is just a sped-up cycle of acne, it will look like your usual pimples (or perhaps a bit smaller). Treat these like a normal spot but forego adding in extra harsh active ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide - the combination of ingredients can lead to skin irritation and make them worse. Hydrocolloid pimple patches and patience are your best bet!
You are probably familiar with what acne looks like on your skin, but if induced by a new product the spots are likely to be more inflamed, more cystic and more closely spaced. A noticeable increase in shine or small whiteheads is an indication that the product may be too occlusive, aka pore-clogging.
While it may be hard to tell the difference between a purge and a regular ol’ breakout, an allergic reaction is usually easier (and more uncomfortable!) to identify. Any excessive redness, flaking or rash is a sign that your skin isn’t happy with that new product, and while some active ingredients can initially sting a tiny bit, a product should never be painful to apply. It is always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to skincare, and if you have a hunch that your skin doesn’t feel right using that new product you are more than likely correct.
Where is The Reaction?
A purge is just blemishes coming to the surface earlier than they may have naturally emerged, so a purge-induced-pimple will rear its head in the familiar acne-prone areas. If you are prone to jawline acne expect to see a temporary increase in spots here, though if you suddenly break out on your forehead that’s a clue that it isn’t a purge, after all.
If your new product is too heavy, stripping or harsh, your skin may let you know by breaking out. This will happen wherever you apply that product and may not mimic the regular state of your skin. It’s important to remember that a purge only happens with active ingredients that encourage cell turnover, such as retinol, so being conscious of the ingredients will help differentiate the two reactions.
An allergic reaction will likely happen wherever you apply the new irritating product but may also affect sensitive areas such as the delicate skin around the eyes. When applying harsh products be careful to not accidentally transfer it to unintended areas, such as applying eye cream while still having residual chemical exfoliant on your fingertips or spreading retinol into your lips when applying moisturiser after.
How Quickly Did The Reaction Happen?
While a purge speeds up your natural skin turnover cycle, it will still take a while for breakouts to emerge. For retinols the purge usually starts within a few weeks, but you may also notice positive early results in the non-breakout-prone areas, such as smoother, brighter skin. It’s important to remember that retinol can be harsh, so to avoid this purge and potential irritation it should be gradually introduced starting at once or twice a week.
While a breakout caused by a new product won’t appear instantly, it will likely develop within a few days of use. When trying new products, it’s important to introduce them one at a time, both to ease the skin in and avoid irritation, and to be able to clearly identify any pimple-promoting products.
While irritation can develop over time, an allergic reaction will likely flare up soon after product application. You may even be able to feel the tingling, stinging or heat associated with sensitised skin. If a new product causes irritation use your judgement to assess whether you need to slow down its use, or immediately halt application altogether. Remember: once the delicate balance of the skin has been disrupted it can be hard to restore, so always proceed with wariness!
How Long Did The Reaction Last?
While a purge won’t likely start for a few weeks after introducing a new active ingredient, it can last from 4 up to around 8 weeks. It should subside after a full skin renewal cycle, which can vary with age and skin type. While breakouts will keep surfacing within this time, it’s important to note that after the initial retinol introduction period, all other irritation should subside. Remember to be extra diligent with your SPF if you’re using any form of vitamin A - your skin will be extra photosensitive!
Unlike a purge that will eventually subside, a product-induced breakout will continue to get worse as you keep using the product. You may even start to experience irritation with prolonged use, and general indicators such as uneven texture and redness will let you know that your skin isn’t tolerating that new product well.
As it is not linked to the skin cycle or acne formation, an allergic reaction will likely subside as soon as the product is ceased. However, it’s important to note that sensitivities can develop over time, even to products you’ve been comfortably using for years! A good skincare practice is to constantly monitor your skin for signs of irritation, as there are countless factors that can trigger a reaction. Keeping skin calm and healthy is the bare minimum before even considering more targeted active ingredients.