How BHA Exfoliants & Skin Purging Works

How BHA Exfoliants & Skin Purging Works

Research has shown that a beta hydroxy acid (BHA, also known as salicylic acid) exfoliant can help create a clearer complexion, unclog pores, and renew skin's texture, but some first-time users report experiencing a "purging phase" initially, where they actually have more breakouts. Does the old adage "it gets worse before it gets better" ring true when using a BHA product?


Does BHA Make Skin Purge?

The answer is: Maybe … for some people. Because BHA is oil-soluble, it exfoliates not only on the surface of skin, but also inside the pore lining. That kind of exfoliation can trigger a mass exodus of inflammatory substances and oil that, under certain conditions, can create more breakouts.

Essentially, because salicylic acid helps skin cells turn over at a faster rate, a concentrated BHA formula can more quickly bring pimples to the surface that were already brewing before you started using the product. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it can happen for some people.

The breakouts you see after you start using a BHA would have shown up eventually anyway, or simply would have remained deep in the pore, keeping it clogged and enlarged. In other words, it’s actually good to see all this movement, even though a fresh crop of breakouts can be alarming!

What to Do if a BHA Exfoliant is Causing Breakouts

Our recommendation? Give your BHA exfoliant a couple weeks of once- or twice-daily use before deciding whether or not it’s working for you. If it seems to be too much for your skin, decrease the frequency of use (once a day instead of twice a day, or once every other day). It's highly likely that the "purging effect" is only temporary, and that you'll begin seeing smoother, clearer skin within a short period of time.

Other Causes of Breakouts When Using a BHA Exfoliant

We'd be remiss not to mention that breakouts can be triggered by a variety of factors, including factors unrelated to the BHA itself. For example, if a woman's menstrual cycle coincides with the timing of trying a new product (whether a BHA or another product), you might blame the new product (especially if you’ve never used a BHA exfoliant) rather than realising it's just nature taking its course. That’s all the more reason to give a new product a chance before assuming it’s what made you break out.

It's also a good idea to take stock of what else you're using in your routine. In many instances, one product alone isn’t causing the breakouts; rather, it's the combination of products that is responsible. So, if you're using several products and applying them all at the same time, try applying them at different times (for example, apply one product in the morning, the other at night) or try switching to products with lighter textures (for example, switch from a cream to a lotion or gel), which can often make a world of difference! When breakouts are the concern, it usually takes some experimentation to find the best combination of products—and when and how often to apply each.

How to Treat Reactions from a BHA Exfoliant

If you suspect that you're experiencing an adverse reaction from a BHA exfoliant, stop using it immediately and pay attention to how your skin responds. Although BHA is anti-inflammatory by nature, you may be one of the unlucky ones who is sensitive to it. This is especially true for those allergic to aspirin, as salicylic acid (BHA) is chemically similar to this longstanding pain reliever.

With all that said, if you're not 100% satisfied with any Paula's Choice exfoliant, we offer a 60-day money-back guarantee, and our world-class Customer Service team would be happy to get you back on the right track. We invite you to contact them at your convenience!


About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!