4 minute read

Is Your Skin Purging or Breaking Out? Here’s How to Tell

Written by
Reviewed by
Dr Ai Nhi Bui & Dr Joseph Santos

The word “purge” associated with your skin can sound scary, but skin purging is actually quite a common thing to experience when treating acne. If you’ve recently started an acne treatment plan or have browsed skincare communities on the internet, you may have come across the terms skin purging, the retinoid purge and acne purging. So what is skin purging and how can you tell if it’s a normal part of the acne journey or if you’re just breaking out? First we need to understand what causes skin purging and what it is to be able to tell the difference between the two.

What is skin purging?

Skin purging refers to a reaction to an active ingredient that is increasing skin cell turnover in order to improve acne. When using prescription-strength acne medications, it’s reasonably common for your skin to get worse before it gets better. You might experience side effects like redness, swelling, dryness, itchiness and more pimples than you had when you started. This can be surprising and terrifying to experience if you’re not expecting it; after all, you started a new skincare routine in order to control and get rid of your acne, not make it worse. But don’t worry - it’s totally normal and typically resolves itself within a couple of weeks. However, it’s always good practice to take progress photos of your skin and always contact your doctor or dermatologist if your side effects are severe.

What causes skin purging? 

So what causes this skin cell turnover in the first place? One of the most popular acne-fighting ingredients is a retinoid. Available in a variety of over-the-counter and prescription-strength acne treatments, retinoids are a form of synthetic vitamin A that boost the rate of skin cell turnover in order to help prevent your pores from becoming clogged and developing into pimples and blemishes. The end goal is to surface and expose fresh skin cells to reveal clearer, younger-looking skin. However, before these new, healthy skin cells can surface, everything else in between has to surface first. This includes dead skin cells, excess sebum and all the buildup of dirt, bacteria and other pimple-causing things

During this process, your skin can become inflamed, swollen and generally break out. While it can be tempting to stop using the products that are causing the retinoid purge, it’s important to continue your skincare regimen exactly as prescribed.

skin purging to clear skin

How long does the acne and retinoid purge last?

Everyone’s skin is different, so it’s important to take note of all the side effects you’re experiencing to share with your doctor so they can help evaluate whether you’re purging or need to change treatments. With that said, purging happens when you introduce an ingredient that speeds up the skin’s natural pace of shedding and renewal, meaning that it should only take one full skin cycle to get through the purge. 

In general, this can take between four and six weeks of starting a new skincare routine that includes a retinoid like adapalene (Epiduo) or tretinoin for acne treatment. If it’s still happening after six weeks, talk to your doctor.

How to tell if it’s purging or a breakout

All spots, whether it’s via purging or a breakout, are caused deep within your skin. Pimples and blemishes consistent with a breakout are caused by oil, bacteria, dead skin cells and buildup in your pores, leading to whiteheads, blackheads, pimples and more severe acne like cysts and nodules. Some skincare products can also get trapped in your pores, which is why introducing new products can cause breakouts. 

So what’s the difference between a skin purge and a breakout?

Skin purging is when your skin is adjusting to the new product. Spots appear where you frequently get them and they go away faster than a normal pimple. Purging is a sign that the product is working and you should continue with the treatment as prescribed. After a few weeks of purging, your skin and acne will have noticeably improved.

Breaking out is when your skin is reacting because it is sensitive to something in the new product. You may get spots in a new area that you don’t typically and they take longer to go away. If your skin is reacting with a breakout, you should stop using the product.

Purging can be a lengthy process, and the journey to clear skin is one that can take several months. However, it’s important to continue your acne treatment as prescribed in order to achieve the best results.

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