Vitamin C is one of those skincare ingredients that targets a wide range of skin concerns which makes it an excellent addition to any skincare routine. However, one question I am often asked is whether vitamin C can cause purging. So, does vitamin C cause purging? What is skin purging anyway and why does it happen?
This article will explain what skin purging is and why you might experience it, as well as discuss whether vitamin C causes skin purging or whether something else is going on with your skin.
What Is Vitamin C?
Vitamin C is the most abundant antioxidant in your skin and is essential for the production of collagen.
More collagen = plumper, younger-looking skin.
Antioxidants, like vitamin C, co-exist to protect your skin from free radicals, including the reactive oxygen species (ROS) that are formed when your skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun.
Free radicals cause changes to cellular DNA and proteins as well as causing skin inflammation – all of which can lead to the destruction of collagen and elastin in your skin.
They also increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
Unfortunately, even with the correct application, sunscreens can only block around 55% of the free radicals produced by UV exposure and offer no protection against other sources of free radicals (e.g. pollution).
For this reason, it’s advised to use topical antioxidants, like vitamin C, in addition to your sunscreen.
Even with extremely high doses of oral vitamin C, only a small amount will be available to your skin. So, if you want to keep your skin’s levels of vitamin C sufficient to protect your skin and facilitate collagen production, you’re going to need to add a vitamin C serum into your skincare routine.
What Are The Benefits Of Vitamin C?
As well as its excellent anti-aging and skin protective benefits, vitamin C also:
- Reduces dark marks and brightens skin by preventing the activity of the enzymes required for melanin production.
- Reduces inflammation
- Reduces blood vessel dilation and facial redness
- Prevents the growth of ‘bad’ bacteria (the type that causes skin infections and acne)
- Some derivatives of vitamin C can improve the appearance of acne
- Improves skin texture
- Prevents premature skin aging (when used with sunscreen) by neutralizing free radicals (substances that damage DNA and break down collagen and elastin)
What Is Skin Purging?
Skin ‘purging’ is a term used to describe an acne flare-up (breakout) that happens soon after you start using a new skincare product that increases your skin cell turnover.
Purging will only happen on the areas of your face where you would usually experience a break-out. This is because, while only 0.25% of your pores may be involved in active acne (in severe cases), up to 30% of your pores contain ‘microcomedones’ .
Microcomedones, sometimes referred to as subclinical acne, are the microscopic starting point of an acne pimple. They look like tiny little pouches filled with oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells which eventually lead to blocked pores (comedones) and acne breakouts.
Normally, it takes around 8 weeks for a microcomedone to come to the surface of your skin. However, if you increase your skin cell turnover, they are able to surface and resolve themselves faster.
Unfortunately, this means that multiple acne pimples may appear at the same time and cause a breakout.
The good news is that products that increase skin cell turnover will help prevent future microcomedones (and thus pimples) from forming. This means less breakouts once you’re through the initial purge.
Does Vitamin C Cause Purging?
As the active form of vitamin C is known as ascorbic acid, a lot of people think that it has an exfoliating effect similar to other acids, like glycolic acid and salicylic acid.
However, while vitamin C has a number of benefits for your skin, one thing that it does not do is increase cellular turnover.
This means that if you are experiencing a breakout after adding a vitamin C serum into your skincare routine, it’s unlikely to be your skin ‘purging’ and more likely that you’re experiencing irritation or a reaction.
So, if you’re wondering “Does vitamin C cause purging?” the simple answer is no.
Purging vs Breaking Out
As mentioned, breakouts due to purging should only happen in the areas of your face where you would usually experience breakouts. They will also clear up faster than usual, especially I you continue to use the product.
In comparison, breakouts due to a reaction happen in the areas of your face where you wouldn’t usually experience breakouts, take longer to clear up, and won’t clear up if you continue to use the product.
So what could be causing Vitamin C purging?
Why Might Vitamin C Cause Breakouts?
Unfortunately, even though vitamin C doesn’t cause ‘purging’, some people still experience breakouts. This could be for a number of reasons.
For example, some research suggests that ROS have an antibacterial effect which may help prevent the overgrowth of acne-causing bacteria. However, this research is limited and focused on different skin bacteria.
Most vitamin C products also contain a variety of other ingredients. If any of these ingredients increase skin cell turnover then they may be behind any ‘purging’.
Some ingredients can also be ‘comedogenic’ which means that they are more likely to clog pores and cause breakouts.
Products and treatments that increase skin cell turnover and cause ‘purging’ include:
- Retinoids (e.g. tretinoin, retinol, retinaldehyde, etc.)
- AHAs (e.g. glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, mandelic acid)
- BHAs (e.g. salicylic acid)
- Lasers and chemical peels
- Physical exfoliation (e.g. scrubs, microdermabrasion)
- Acne treatments (e.g. benzoyl peroxide)
What Can You Do To Prevent Vitamin C ‘Purging’?
Although vitamin C doesn’t cause purging, there are a number of things you can try before ruling it out altogether.
- Always patch test! The best way to prevent a reaction to a skincare product is to test it on a small patch of skin first, preferably somewhere representative of where you intend to use it but more discreet (e.g. your jawline or the back of your ear). Apply it daily for at least 5 days and if there is no reaction you are probably safe to use it.
- Look for products with 8-20% vitamin C as research suggests that higher concentrations of vitamin C are no more effective but are more likely to cause skin irritation.
- Use the product less frequently as everyday use may be too much for your skin to handle. Vitamin C has a fairly long half-life (the amount of time it takes for a drug to decrease by half) which means that you should still experience all the benefits even if you only use it every other day.
Summary – Does Vitamin C Cause Purging?
Vitamin C doesn’t increase skin cell turnover which means that it shouldn’t cause ‘purging’. However, it may cause breakouts. There are a few things that you can try before ditching vitamin C altogether but, unfortunately, it may be that it just doesn’t agree with your skin.