Skin Purging vs. Breaking Out: What’s the Difference?

If you’ve hit a speed bump in your new anti-acne routine, you’re not alone: sometimes, breakouts get worse before they get better. It’s a phenomenon known as skin purging — and while it can be a source of frustration, the good news is that it’s temporary.

So why does skin purging happen, and how can you tell the difference between that and a breakout? Here’s everything you need to know.

A woman with acne that could be either purging or breaking out, says Dr. Sandra Lee

What is skin purging?

While you won’t find the term in scientific research, skin purging is a widely recognized process in dermatology. Sometimes referred to as “acne flaring,” purging happens when a skincare ingredient speeds up natural desquamation — aka the skin cycle.

You remember what the skin cycle is: a skin cell is created deep in the epidermis, then makes its way through the five layers of cells to the surface where it dies, becoming part of the stratum corneum — that tough outer layer that protects us from the elements.

While this entire process takes about 28 days in young adults, the time increases as we age. When we speed up or alter the skin cycle using topical skincare ingredients, any developing acne (like clogged pores or early stage inflammatory acne) makes its way to the surface more quickly than it otherwise would. The result is purging.

Ingredients that can cause skin purging

Any skincare ingredient that increases cell turnover or promotes exfoliation can lead to skin purging. This includes:

  • Retinol: a powerful antioxidant derived from vitamin A that speeds up the rate of cell turnover by stimulating skin to make new cells more quickly.
  • Alpha and beta hydroxy acids: these exfoliants weaken the bonds between dead skin cells on the surface, causing them to shed sooner than they naturally would.

How to spot the difference between purging and breaking out

It can be challenging to determine the difference between purging and breaking out, because the end result is virtually the same: more pimples. It is possible, however, to do a little detective work — here’s what to look for:

  • Timing: The purging period typically begins a couple of weeks in, and can last a month or more. If breakouts don’t clear up after about six weeks, however, it’s likely that your acne is caused by something else.
  • Location: Typically, acne flares happen in the same general area as everyday breakouts. So if your recent pimples are popping up in new locations, chances are it’s not from a purge.
  • Ingredients: As mentioned above, purging is something that happens after using active ingredients like retinol and exfoliating acids. If your new skincare doesn’t contain those ingredients, you’re probably having a breakout or allergic reaction and not a purge.

Can you stop skin from purging?

Time for some tough love: there isn’t a whole lot you can do when skin is going through a purge. On a positive note, know that your skin is getting rid of those inevitable pimples that much quicker. Meantime, follow these tips:

Salicylic Acid Cleanser, BP Lotion, Retinol Serum, Facial Moisturizer Acne System by SLMD Skincare

Dr. Lee’s last word

A lot of patients ask me about skin purging, particularly when they start using retinol, or prescription retinoids. Acne flares from these vitamin A derivatives, or from exfoliants like glycolic acid (or even salicylic acid) are not uncommon in the first several weeks of treatment, as your skin is pushing all of that trapped oil and dead cells to the surface. Essentially, you’re just speeding up the life cycle of any existing pimples that were developing when you began the regimen. We almost always see improvement after six weeks or so, but if not, it’s time to re-evaluate whether the product is working for you.

—Dr. Sandra Lee

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