Yes, Benzoyl peroxide can cause skin purging in some people. While benzoyl peroxide is helpful in removing acne causing bacteria, it can also cause short term skin purging to occur due to its ability to increase skin cell turnover.
Although it seems counter intuitive, skin purging is a sign that benzoyl peroxide (or any other active ingredient) is working to accelerate your skin’s cell turnover, pushing ‘pre-acne’ to the surface all at once.
In this article, we’ll explore the mechanics behind skin purging, with a specific focus on how to minimize skin purging triggered by benzoyl peroxide. We’ll also provide practical advice to manage purging, benzoyl peroxide’s long-term benefits, how to identify a purge versus a regular breakout, and advice on maintaining a healthy skin barrier when using benzoyl peroxide and other active ingredients that cause skin purging.
What is skin purging?
Skin purging refers to when the skin has a sudden increase in acne breakouts following the introduction of an active ingredient in one or more new skincare products. While active ingredients can help to heal acne breakouts over the long term the active ingredient can speed up the skin cell turnover causing ”pre-acne” underneath the skin’s surface to rise all at once.
What causes skin purging?
Purging in the skin occurs because a new skincare product contains some sort of active ingredient, like Benzoyl peroxide, which accelerates skin cell turnover, by quickly removing dead skin cells, bacteria, and sebaceous oil. While removing dead skin cells and sebum oil can help reduce acne breakouts over time, chemically removing the outer layer of skin will cause clogged pores that have not yet reached the skin’s surface to all reach the surface at the same time. This gives the skin the appearance of a bad breakout, even though all the acne during a skin purge was resting under the outer layer of skin.
What is benzoyl peroxide?
Benzoyl Peroxide is an antiseptic chemical compound used to treat acne, cuts, and minor infections at the surface level of the skin. Benzoyl peroxide works by clearing any bacteria off your skin, preventing it from clogging the pores and turning into pimples.
Benzoyl peroxide also helps unclog blocked pores, and is often cited as an effective acne-clearing ingredient. You can find benzoyl peroxide present in many anti-acne face washes and cleansers. Benzoyl peroxide is also known as Panoxyl, so keep that in mind when you’re scanning product labels.
How does benzoyl peroxide cause skin purging?
Because of the way in which panoxyl (or benzoyl peroxide) increases skin turnover, it’s totally normal to experience some purging in the first four-six weeks of using a new product. Other active ingredients such as salicylic acid and tretinoin can also cause skin purging, so make sure to scan the labels if you’re dealing with an unexpected breakout.
Does benzoyl peroxide always make acne worse before it gets better?
The amount of acne on your skin will likely worsen your acne for a few weeks before you start to see real improvement in clearing your skin.
When most people with acne prone skin begin using benzoyl peroxide they experience a range of different side effects, including dry skin, skin irritation, tightness, redness and yes – skin purging (AKA acne).
A similar risk vs reward can be said of other harsh skin treatments like rubbing alcohol.
However, if you manage to pass the acne purging phase and get to the other side, benzoyl peroxide will probably improve the overall complexion of your skin and reduce the severity of your breakouts. Because Benzoyl Peroxide targets bacteria and sebum, it makes it difficult for the skin to develop large pustules and pimple spots, although you’ll probably still deal with the odd whitehead or blackhead on occasion.
The key to making benzoyl peroxide work is to accompany it with a good diet and good skin hygiene. As I talk about in my eBook, Unmasking Acne, diet plays a massive role in acne management. You can’t rely on skincare products alone to do all the heavy lifting. If you do your skin will breakout the minutes you stop using whatever acne products are keeping you from breaking out.
How long does a benzoyl peroxide purge last?
You can expect a purging breakout from benzoyl peroxide to last around four to six weeks. During this time, you shouldn’t stop using benzoyl peroxide (or whatever skincare product that is causing the purging). Continue using the product and make sure to keep your skin healthy with limited sun exposure, lots of water and a skincare routine designed for your skin. Don’t forget the importance of eating well, too.
If your purging continues past the six-week mark, you might want to consult with your dermatologist or doctor. Typically, most purging phases shouldn’t last more than a month, so you should speak with a professional about either switching to a different anti-acne product or lowering the percentage of benzoyl peroxide used.
Do benzoyl peroxide skincare products cause purging?
You might think that a wash-off product wouldn’t cause purging, but it isn’t the case when it comes to most active ingredients. Even a wash-off cleanser that uses benzoyl peroxide will still have the time to penetrate the skin and clear out impurities, so using a face wash rather than an absorbent treatment won’t prevent your skin from purging.
Can benzoyl peroxide help acne long term?
Yes, benzoyl peroxide can help reduce acne breakouts and heal the skin over the long term. However, it’s important to keep in mind that while benzoyl peroxide kills acne causing bacteria, it also strips the skin of sebum oil.
This is helpful if your skin produces too much oil, but the stripping effect can cause dry, irritated skin depending on your skin type, and the concentration of benzoyl peroxide you use. Furthermore, if you are constantly removing oil from your skin, your skin will naturally begin to produce more oil to compensate, so if you ever stop using benzoyl peroxide you will likely have pore clogging issues in the short to medium term. This is why we recommend following an acne-friendly diet.
The concentration of benzoyl peroxide in face wash usually ranges between 2.5% to 10%. If you have never used benzoyl peroxide before it is highly recommended that you start with a lower concentration for a month or two and then using stronger formulas as needed.
How often should I use benzoyl peroxide face wash?
You should start out using benzoyl peroxide face wash 3-4 times per week, no matter what concentration you use. This will minimize the chances of severe purging and give your skin a chance to acclimate to the new ingredients. Once you are sure there is no adverse reaction to using the benzoyl peroxide face wash you can start using it as part of your daily skincare routine.
What other skincare products should I use with benzoyl peroxide face wash?
You should make sure to moisturize daily with a sensitive skin friendly, non-comedogenic moisturizer and non-comedogenic sunscreen. No matter what type of benzoyl peroxide product you use it will make your skin more sensitive in the short term, so it’s important to protect your skin with both moisturizer and sun protection in order to mitigate the chances of peeling skin or sun damage.
What are the differences between skin purging vs. normal acne breakouts?
Normal acne will form all over the face at different times, whereas skin purging typically sees acne erupt all over the face (or wherever the topical agent was applied) within a short period of time (typically 24-48 hours).
Below is a list of several ways to tell if acne formation is “natural” or triggered by a “purging ingredient”
Here are a few ways you should be able to tell the difference between a normal breakout and a purging breakout:
1. Acne breaks out in unusual spots
If your pimples are in the same places where you typically break out, you’re probably purging. Purging pimples can resemble anything from whiteheads to cystic acne, depending on the type of acne you typically deal with.
If you’re seeing pimples in areas where you never normally see pimples, it’s unlikely that your skin is purging. You’re probably instead dealing with a pore-clogging ingredient in one of your skincare products. This is especially the case if your pimples are whiteheads or closed comedones.
2. All your breakouts start at the same time
If your skin breaks out in pimples at the same time following the use of a specific skincare product, it’s probably a purging phase. If your spots are everywhere from your chin to your forehead and your jawline (and they’re all similar in size, shape, color and the same acne type) your skincare product is probably to blame.
3. Your skin heals at the same time
Acne triggered by a purging breakout will clear up super fast in comparison to “normal” breakouts. The inflammation will typically die down faster too (due to the increase in skin cell turnover), so if you notice your blemishes healing at a relatively similar rate and recently started a skincare product with an active ingredient, like benzoyl peroxide, its safe to assume the initial breakout was due to purging.
Are there any other skincare ingredients that cause curging?
Purging isn’t unique to benzoyl peroxide – it can be caused by most acids, including salicylic acid, lactic acid, glycolic acid, azelaic acid and retinol. These skincare ingredients are all potential purge-causers due to their ability to rapidly turn over the skin cells. Hyaluronic acid is one of the only acids that doesn’t cause purging – it’s a hydrant, so there’s no active exfoliation or deep cleaning taking place.
You can also experience purging following chemical peels, certain types of face masks, microdermabrasion and deep exfoliation treatments. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to prevent a skincare purge except sit it out and wait for it to pass.
How to reduce the severity of skin purging
Unfortunately, there’s very little that you can do to prevent skin purging. You should try your best to see the positive side of a purging outbreak – it means that your skincare product is working and that you’ll soon be enjoying blemish-free skin and less frequent breakouts.
The only certain way to reduce purging is to stop using the skincare product causing it. But I wouldn’t recommend doing that, unless the skincare product is causing other unwanted side effects such as irritation and redness for a prolonged period of time (more than 6 weeks.) In my view, if you’ve invested in a skincare product, it’s best to let the purging phase pass. Once it’s passed, you can move on to the next stage of the process: clean and clear skin.
Is It possible to speed up skin purging?
The best way to get through skin purging as quickly as possible is to stick to your skincare routine (specifically the product with the active ingredient causing the purging) as much as possible. The duration of skin purging is largely dependent on the type of ingredient being used, its strength, the skin type of the person using the product, and the frequency with which they use it. While it is not really possible to “speed up” skin purging, you can definitely make it last longer by using your skincare product inconsistently.
What should you avoid when your skin is purging?
It’s a good idea to lay off any harsh treatments (such as acid exfoliators, microdermabrasion, chemical peels or chemical face masks.)
If you’ve decisively determined that the cause of your breakout is a purge related to your new skincare product, do not stop using the product until your skin adjusts to the new routine.. If you stop using the product, you’ll undo all your progress and begin purging all over again when you start afresh.
You should only stop using the skincare product if you begin to develop a new type of acne that you haven’t experienced before, such as whiteheads or cystic acne. Whiteheads might mean that the product is comedogenic and causing your pores to clog, while new cystic or severe acne might mean that your skin is sensitive and having an inflammatory response to the ingredients.
No matter what, if you have a “severe” response stop use immediately and consult a dermatologist.
Your skin is going to be pretty sensitive when it’s purging, so the best thing you can do is to moisturize, wear sunscreen, and follow a low inflammation diet to minimize inflammatory acne and accelerate the healing process..
Frequently Asked Questions
Typically, benzoyl peroxide will cause acne breakouts to get worse for 2-3 weeks, and then will steadily clear the skin for 2-3 months. However, the actual amount of time it takes depends very much on the individual and their lifestyle habits.
Because purging is increasing the speed of cell turnover and ultimately accelerates the healing process it will not leave behind dark spots, hyperpigmentation, or scarring.
No, you can buy benzoyl peroxide products over the counter, but if you have moderate to severe acne it is recommended you consult a dermatologist before using a skincare product with an active ingredient.