Have you ever heard of the skin purging theory? The claim is that when you first start a new skin care treatment, the initial breakout is a good sign and means that your skin is purging itself of impurities. We spoke with New York City dermatologist Dr. Anne Chapas to find out the truth about this beauty urban legend.
According to Chapas, this theory is false. "The skin's job is to keep things out, not to release impurities from the body. That's why we have a liver and kidneys—they are the organs responsible for detox," she explains.
Many have negative, then positive reactions to products and procedures, but Dr. Chapas says the initial reaction is skin's natural defense system trying to restore the skin's equilibrium (a state of balance in the skin). "Sometimes, when I do a laser procedure or stitch a patient, the body will naturally reject treatment and react, but it's definitely an external thing—a completely different process," explains Dr. Chapas.
Some of our community members have lamented over prescription and over-the-counter retinoids, which some claim break their skin out for two weeks then produce flawless skin. This sort of proves the purging myth, but there's more to it then you think. "It's not uncommon to have a multiple reactions to retinoids—they change the skin's growth rate, increase skin cell turnover, and exfoliate. At some point the skin might normalize after you reduce how much you apply or change other products in your beauty routine, but it's not related to internal purging," urges Dr. Chapas.
There are many health belief systems that believe in detoxification through the skin. "In allopathic* medicine, it's just not something we believe in," says Dr. Chapas. Allopathic medicine, contrasted with homeopathic medicine, believes in the treatment of disease with drugs that have the opposite effect on symptoms. "The skin can detox sun exposure and pollutants as it sheds dead skin cells, but it doesn't release toxins internally. There's no literature to support this claim."
So what do you do when your skin is freaking out and you don't know which product is causing the issue? "Quit everything cold turkey," advises Dr. Chapas. "Makeup, moisturizer, sunscreen—stop everything you're using. Try to use a mild topical hydrocortisone on the skin until your reaction goes down. Start adding products in slowly and use mild, fragrance-free formulas. Eventually, you'll find out what's offending your skin. If your skin continues to react, see a dermatologist."
Dr. Anne Chapas is a board certified New York dermatologist and dermatological surgeon who specializes in laser surgery, in Mohs micrographic surgery for the treatment of skin cancers, and in cosmetic procedures.