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Is Your Skin Purging or Breaking Out? How to Tell the Difference (and What to Do If You Can’t)

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

When you start adding new products to your skincare routine, it's not always smooth sailing. Sometimes, they can break you out!

But there are "good" breakouts and "bad" breakouts.

The good kind are known as "purging" or an "initial breakout"— and it's worth suffering through the process, because on the other side is better skin. The bad kind are just, well, breakouts.

And they won't get any better unless you stop using the offending product.

But how do you tell the difference? Keep reading to find out...

  • What causes purging

  • How to know if your skin is purging

  • What causes breakouts

  • How to know if your skin is breaking out

  • When it could be purging OR a breakout

  • What to do if you can't figure out which one is happening!

What Causes Purging?

Acids, vitamin C serums and retinoids can all cause purging.

Purging is an initial acne breakout that can occur when you're starting a new active skincare product—one that causes your skin cells to turn over more quickly.

Products that can trigger purging include:

  • Hydroxy acids (AHAs, BHAs and PHAs) and fruit acids

  • Retinoids

  • Vitamin C treatments

  • Exfoliating scrubs and peels

  • Enzyme treatments

  • Cleansing brushes

  • Microdermabrasion tools

You can also experience purging after receiving professional microdermabrasion, laser resurfacing treatments or chemical peels.

Purging happens because these products and treatments make you shed dead skin cells faster, helping to loosen trapped sebum and debris. This accelerates the rate at which pre-existing clogged pores (also known as microcomedones) rise to the surface and become blemishes.

Did you know that it can take weeks, even months, for clogs brewing deep within your pores to manifest as visible breakouts?!

When this process speeds up, it can definitely be alarming, because you'll see a bunch of pimples appearing all at once. But it's actually a positive thing to purge. The pimples would have shown up eventually anyway, or the hardened sebum would have remained stuck in your pores, keeping them clogged and inflamed.

If you are indeed purging, it's best to stick things out and continue using the product because your skin WILL improve. It's just a case of things having to get worse before they get better. A purge can last as long as two months, and you should start seeing an improvement by the six-week point, if not sooner. On the other side of a purge is cleaner, clearer skin!

Still not sure this is happening to you? Below, three signs that you might be experiencing purging.

It Might Be Purging If...

  • You introduced a new product that increases skin cell turnover: Again, any product that increases the rate at which your skin cells turn over can trigger a purge. If you're not sure whether your product could be a culprit, examine its ingredients list. Typically, the first five ingredients compose about 80 percent of the formula, so those are the ones most likely to give you issues. For example, if you see salicylic acid listed third, it's probably safe to assume that it's making you purge... whereas if it's the 19th ingredient, it's not present in a high enough concentration to have much effect.