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Skin Purging vs Breakouts: How to Tell the Difference and What You Can Do to Get Clear Again

It can be a good sign or a bad sign.
Skin purging vs breakout

When you start adding new products to your skincare routine, it's not always smooth sailing. Sometimes, they can trigger acne—but there are "good" breakouts and there are "bad" breakouts.

The good kind are known as skin purging or an initial breakout, and it's worth going through the process because you'll end up with clearer skin.

The bad kind are just ordinary breakouts, and they won't get any better unless you change up your routine.

But how do you tell the difference? In this tutorial, you will learn what causes skin purging, how long it lasts, how to know if your skin is purging or breaking out, and what you can do to speed up the process.

What Is Skin Purging?

Skin purging is an initial bout of acne that can occur when you start using a new, active skincare product that increases your cell turnover.

Certain topical ingredients, such as acids and retinoids, make you shed dead skin cells at a faster rate than normal. This helps to loosen any sebum and debris that are trapped below the skin, inside your pores, and bring them up to the surface.

Normally, it can take weeks—even months—for these pre-existing microcomedones to manifest as visible breakouts. But when you speed up cell turnover, it accelerates this process, causing the blemishes to appear all at once. 

Seeing a bunch of pimples can definitely be alarming, but it's actually a positive thing for your skin to purge. It means that the product is doing its job, and your skin will become much clearer for it. 

What Causes Skin Purging?

Any active skincare products that increase the rate of cellular turnover can cause your skin to purge. These include:

  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid and lactic acid
  • Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as salicylic acid and betaine salicylate
  • Poly-hydroxy acids (PHAs) such as gluconolactone and lactobionic acid
  • Retinol, retinaldehyde and other over-the-counter retinoids
  • Retin-A, Differin and other prescription retinoids
  • Azelaic acid
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Fruit acids and enzymes
  • Acidic forms of vitamin C such as L-ascorbic acid 

If you're not sure whether your product could be a trigger, examine its ingredients list. Typically, the first five will represent about 80% of the formula, so those are the ones most likely to give you issues. For example, if you see salicylic acid listed as one of the first ingredients, it's likely to be the culprit. But if it's near the end of the list, it won't be present at a high enough concentration to have much of an effect.

You can also experience purging after treatments such as:

  • Chemical peels
  • Microdermabrasion 
  • Laser resurfacing
  • Cleansing brushes
  • Exfoliating scrubs

What Does Skin Purging Look Like?

With skin purging, there are typically a few telltale signs to look for:

Acne in Places Where You Normally Break Out

When your skin purges, it's causing dormant pimples to rise up to the surface. So it happens on the areas of your face where you are already used to getting breakouts, or where you've seen or felt closed comedones under your skin. (For most people, this would be the T-zone, since the forehead, chin and nose produce the most sebum.) It is unlikely to be a purge if you start breaking out in new areas, where you've never experienced clogged pores before.

Non-Cystic Lesions

Purging can result in many different types of acne, including whiteheads, blackheads, papules (inflamed pimples) and pustules (inflamed pimples filled with pus). Cystic acne, which involves deep, hardened bumps under the skin that are often sore to the touch, is less typical with skin purging.

Acne That Shows up All at Once

Another characteristic of skin purging is that the acne seems to sprout up all at once, rather than appearing randomly or at certain points in your menstrual cycle. Again, this is because the new treatment is pushing out all the gunk that was previously lodged inside your pores.

Acne That Clears up Faster Than Normal

Unlike regular breakouts, acne that arises from purging has a shorter lifespan. It should heal much faster than usual, with inflammation going down and the contents drying up in a matter of days.

How Long Does Skin Purging Last?

Thankfully, the purging process doesn't last forever. Depending on how congested your skin was, it can range in duration from as little as two weeks, up to a maximum of two months.

If you're like most people, your skin will start to turn a corner after the first month. (This is about the same amount of time as the 28-day skin cycle, during which your skin turns over and regenerates itself.) 

You will gradually start noticing fewer and fewer breakouts, and your skin should become clearer, smoother and less congested overall.

Is Your Skin Purging or Breaking Out?

Often, it's hard to tell whether a new product in your routine is making you purge... or if it just doesn't agree with your skin and is breaking you out. 

Here are the signs that you are probably experiencing a regular ol' breakout:

The Product Is Not Active

If a product does not contain any active ingredients that speed up cell turnover, then it can't cause purging. Think: bland moisturizers; hydrating serums, essences, mists and toners; sunscreens; and foundations, tinted moisturizers and other skin makeup. In other words, anything designed to hydrate, protect or cover is unlikely to be the culprit behind a purge. Cleansers, even if they do contain active ingredients, are not usually a trigger either, since they're only on your skin for a brief moment.

The Product Contains Comedogenic Ingredients

It is extremely common to break out after introducing a new product that contains one or more comedogenic ingredients. Heavy, occlusive ingredients are also problematic because they can seal debris inside your pores and halt your skin's natural exfoliation process. I recommend watching out for oils, silicones, emollients, thickeners and emulsifiers.

Acne in New Areas

If you're suddenly experiencing acne in places where your skin was always crystal clear, then it may not be a purge. For example, you might have started breaking out on your cheeks, where you've never had pimples or clogged pores before. This would indicate that it is a reaction to a problem ingredient in the new product.

Acne That Lasts Longer Than Two Months

With a purge, you will see a marked improvement as the weeks go by, with the process lasting no more than two months. But if your skin gets worse after starting a new product and stays worse, for longer than two months, then it's not a purge—it's a breakout.

The Skincare Edit Recommends

Your Skin Is Irritated

It's normal to experience some irritation when starting a new, active skincare product like an acid or retinoid. However, if you're not using an active product and your skin becomes irritated as well as broken out, it's a bad sign. This would indicate that your skin is having a reaction, not a purge. Fragrances, essential oils, sulfates and witch hazel are some of the most common skin irritants. The reason they can sometimes break you out (in addition to causing tight, red, itchy or stinging skin) is because irritation damages your skin barrier, letting in acne-causing bacteria.

How to Speed Up Skin Purging

Alright, so you've confirmed that your skin is indeed going through a purge. Here's how to make it as fast and as tolerable as possible.

1. Don‘t Quit the Product

The most important thing is to keep going. Unless your skin is becoming too irritated, don't stop using whatever treatment you've introduced that is increasing your skin-cell turnover. Otherwise, you'll be back at square one and won't have experienced the true benefits of the product. 

This is one instance where things have to get worse for a short time before they get better. 

2. Gently Buff Off Dead Skin

Foreo Luna 3 for Combination Skin

Foreo Luna 3 for Combination Skin

Active skincare treatments tend to make you a little dry and flaky at first, since they are increasing the rate at which your skin cells shed off. This can exacerbate the purging problem because the dry flakes can trap or mix with sebum, leading to more breakouts until your skin has adjusted.

One tool that can help is the Foreo Luna cleansing device. Unlike nylon cleansing brushes, it's made from gentle and hygienic silicone—so it won't cause irritation and doesn't collect bacteria. I've personally found it to be extremely effective at buffing off the flakes of dead skin on my skin surface, so that they don't cause further congestion.

It's safe to use as often as twice a day, and there are versions for Normal, Sensitive and Combination Skin (I use the latter).

3. Start Using Niacinamide

Paula's Choice 10 Niacinamide Booster

Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster

Niacinamide can help with purging in several ways. First of all, it helps to clear acne because it has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. One study found that as little as 4% was comparable to 1% clindamycin (a topical antibiotic) for treating moderate inflammatory acne.

After two to four weeks of use, it also lowers sebum production and excretion. So there won't be as much oil on your skin to contribute to breakouts. Meanwhile, it strengthens the skin barrier and reduces dryness, so your skin will be more tolerant of your active ingredient(s).

Best of all, it's non-acidic, non-irritating and safe for all skin types—so it can be added to any routine. Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster and The Inkey List Niacinamide are two of my favourite formulas. (See more in my guide to niacinamide serums.)

4. Switch to Lightweight Hydrators

Versed Dew Point Moisturizing Gel-Cream

Versed Dew Point Moisturizing Gel-Cream

When you increase your cell turnover, the last thing you want to do is layer on a heavy moisturizer or facial oil. All that will do is compress down the dead skin and stop it from shedding naturally—which could slow down the purging process and even weaken your skin barrier.

If you need to moisturize, stick with lightweight gel or gel-cream moisturizers. I love Versed Dew Point Moisturizing Gel-Cream, which is surprisingly hydrating, and Benton Aloe Propolis Soothing Gel, which is full of calming aloe and propolis. (For more options, visit my guide to gel moisturizers.)

5. Apply a Daily Calming and Clarifying Mask

Indie Lee Clearing Mask

Indie Lee Clearing Mask

I don't recommend treating acne from skin purging with any additional active ingredients (other than niacinamide) until the purge has ended. For example, if you just started a retinoid cream, I wouldn't introduce an AHA toner until you're done purging—otherwise, it could be too much for your skin and you won't be able to monitor their individual effects.

However, a daily 10-minute face mask is an easy way to minimize acne from purging without aggravating your skin. Look for masks with both calming ingredients to take down inflammation, and clarifying ingredients to help draw impurities out of your pores. 

I'm a fan of Indie Lee Clearing Mask, which contains bentonite clay, zinc and colloidal sulfur, and Tata Harper Resurfacing Mask, which has willow bark and kaolin clay. (For more picks, see my guide to natural face masks.)

How to Clear a Breakout From a New Product

On the flip side, if you've determined that what you are dealing with is a breakout and not purging, here's what you can do.

1. Go on a “Product Elimination Diet”

If you're able to pinpoint which product triggered the breakout, just stop using it. It's unlikely that your skin will "get used to it" if you continue to apply it. Rather, you could cause serious skin damage from inflammation, sensitivity, and deeper acne that may create scars.

If you introduced more than one new product at the same time, and aren't sure which one caused the breakout, you'll need to go on a "product elimination diet" like Dr. Sandy Skotnicki recommends in her book, Beyond Soap. Stop using the problem products and switch to a basic, gentle routine until your skin clears up. Then, you can reintroduce one new product at a time. Give your skin at least a week to see how it reacts before adding the second product. This is the only way to determine what is working for your skin (or not working!).

2. Use a Gentle BHA

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

If a new product in your routine broke you out badly, then you may need a little extra help in the form of a BHA treatment. Yes, BHAs can cause initial skin purging, but they also happen to be the most effective way to clear and prevent acne. Not only do they exfoliate dead skin on the surface, but they also deep-clean pores, reduce excess oil, calm inflammation and fade post-acne marks.

Betaine salicylate is my BHA ingredient of choice, since it is gentler and more hydrating than salicylic acid. I consider COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid to be the Holy Grail of BHAs—see my in-depth review here.

3. Repair Your Skin Barrier

Kristina Holey Marie Veronique Soothing B3 Serum

Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Soothing B3 Serum

Just like it can help you get through a purge, niacinamide can come to the rescue with regular breakouts—especially if they're accompanied by irritation. Again, it works by reducing inflammation, killing microorganisms and regulating oil production while also fortifying the skin barrier. Oh, and it takes down redness, too!

Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Soothing B3 Serum is a lightweight gel that's great for all skin types, and made without any fragrance or essential oils. For an even higher concentration of niacinamide, try Sobel Skin Rx 15% Niacinamide Gel Serum.

Conclusion

If your skin has gone haywire after starting a new product, I hope this helps you to figure out whether it's truly purging or just a breakout. 

As someone who is constantly testing out new skincare products as part of my job, I've broken out countless times from different ingredients. (Drunk Elephant, which I reviewed here, might be the worst offender!) 

But I've only experienced purging once—and I'm actually so glad that I did! It happened when I first started using my beloved COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid, even though I had been using AHAs for years before that. 

Honestly? It wasn't at all as bad as I thought it would be, and within the month my skin was looking better than ever before. I'm so glad I didn't give up, because I never would have experienced such clear and clean skin! 


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