These days, exfoliating acids are front and center in many skincare routines. They can be found in many types of products, from at-home peels and serums to toners and cleansers. The benefits of exfoliating acids are broad—they can improve skin texture, fine lines and wrinkles, discoloration, enlarged pores, and breakouts. They can even stimulate collagen production.
Exfoliating acids have come a long way since I first started in the business. Formulas have become gentler yet more sophisticated, and we’re starting to see brands expand beyond just the classic acids such as lactic, glycolic, and salicylic.
Despite all this, it’s still not uncommon for me to get questions from people wondering why they’re breaking out after starting an exfoliating skincare product. In this post, I’ll explain whether or not this is normal, when you can expect it to happen, and what you can do about it. Let’s dive in!
How Do Exfoliating Acids Work?
As a quick refresher, exfoliating acids work by dissolving the bonds that hold skin cells together. This loosens dead cells so they can easily be sloughed off. Regular exfoliation also prompts quicker skin cell turnover. The cell turnover process might be naturally sluggish in those who experience a lot of clogged pores, and it tends to slow down as we age. This is why exfoliation is great for addressing breakouts, dullness, and other signs of aging.
Why Do Exfoliating Acids Make You Break Out?
If you’re new to using exfoliating acids (or just started using a new exfoliating product), it can be normal to experience some breakouts initially.
Basically, there are two reasons this could be happening. The first is that you have clogged pores, and by increasing the rate of cell turnover, the acids are bringing these to the surface to “purge.” The second is that the product doesn’t agree with your skin and is causing some type of irritation or reaction.
1. Purging From Exfoliating Acids
You’re far more likely to break out from exfoliating acids if you’re someone with clogged pores. Clogged pores are small, closed bumps that may be white or flesh-colored. They can be the result of a previous large, pustular blemish where the infection did come to the surface, but some residual oil and bacteria stayed behind within the pore. They can also be the result of dead skin cells falling into the pore lining and getting trapped instead of being sloughed off. This creates a buildup within the pore and can eventually also lead to a red, infected blemish.
Clogged pores are non-infected bumps, so they just hang around and don’t really resolve or come to the surface. But, by increasing the rate of cell turnover, exfoliating acids encourage these clogged pores to come out. This is what can cause that initial purge. Typically, this will result in a whitehead that can easily be squeezed out. Alternatively, there can be some redness surrounding the whitehead. This signals an infection and means you’ve got a pustule on your hands.
If you’re experiencing purging, breakouts should typically be minor and should subside within 2-4 weeks. If you’re someone with a lot of clogged pores, it can take a little longer (closer to 6 weeks) and you may require additional treatments, such as a retinoid. Also, keep in mind that purging typically occurs in areas of the face where you’re already prone to breakouts. If you start getting inflamed breakouts in new areas, it could be irritation instead.
What To Do
If you suspect your exfoliating acid products are causing you to purge, keep going! While it’s not the most pleasant process, it means clearer, smoother skin is awaiting you on the other side. To deal with blemishes as they crop up, turn to spot treatments (just make sure you’re spot-treating the right way). This will allow you to tackle individual blemishes without drying out the rest of your skin.
If you’re experiencing a significant amount of breakouts, you may want to cut back on how often you use your exfoliating acid product. This will make the purge last longer, but it will also slow it down to make it more manageable.
2. Irritation From Exfoliation Acids
If you’re getting lots of red, angry breakouts (especially in areas where you don’t normally break out), it’s likely the exfoliating acid product you’re using is irritating your skin. Additionally, if your “purge” lasts more than six weeks, either the acid product you’re using isn’t agreeing with you or it isn’t improving your skin.
Irritation from acids can be a result of either the formula or user error. The product you chose might be too strong and aggressive for your skin, in which case you can look for a gentler type of acid or opt for a product with a lower concentration of acids. Otherwise, the product may be a good fit, but you could be overusing it. I typically recommend that people exfoliate 2-4 times a week, and it really depends on your skin so some trial and error is necessary.
In addition to breakouts, be on the lookout for symptoms such as redness, itching, burning, or tightness. These can be tell-tale signs that a product is irritating your skin.
What To Do
If you start to suspect irritation, stop using the product immediately. If your breakouts improve, this is a great indication that it wasn’t a great fit for you. If you’re new to exfoliation and not sure where to start, check out my beginner’s guide to exfoliation. If you still need additional guidance, you can always book a virtual consultation with one of our in-house estheticians to get personalized product recommendations for your skin type.
Finally, exfoliating acids aren’t the only products that can make you break out. Learn which other ingredients can cause purging.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Her hands-on experience as an esthetician and trusted skin care expert has created a real-world solution — products that are formulated for nine different types of skin so your face will get exactly what it needs to look and feel its best. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”