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Skin Purging vs. Breakout - How to Tell the Difference

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Ever tried a new skincare product and had your complexion go into full-blown panic mode? Here comes the fleet of blemishes and acne. Yikes! We’ve all been there. How you treat it will depend on whether you’re dealing with a skin purge vs. breakout.

Truth is, new ingredients often produce temporary breakouts. This is known as “skin purging.” Ironically, it might mean your new routine is actually working. Funny way of showing it, right? These said "breakouts" differ from traditional acne flare-ups. In fact, they're more temporary than not and it actually means clear, blemish-free skin is just around the corner.

Not to worry! We’re going to spill exactly how to identify each one, and suggest some effective remedies. Keep reading to get one step closer to fabulous, flawless, radiant skin! 

How do you tell the difference between a purge and a breakout?

Let’s break down the key differences between a skin purge vs. breakout, including triggers and symptoms, to help you identify what you’re up against.

What is skin purging?

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Okay, don't freak out but...purging is a good thing! Your skin naturally renews itself (sheds dead skin cells) about every 27 days or so. Some active ingredients (like retinoids, AHAs, or BHAs) trigger rapid cell turnover within your skin. In other words, they speed up the skin’s natural exfoliation process, causing it to purge.

But temporarily though, let's not forget that. Before new healthy skin can thrive, it has the rid itself of the oil, excess sebum, dirt, and dead skin cells. For some, the most common skincare product that causes the skin to purge are exfoliators or highly active ingredients that boost cell turnover. Skin purging can also abruptly occur soon after a facial or chemical peel. 

So what does skin purging look like

  • Mild to moderate acne symptoms
  • Hyperpigmentation or redness
  • Swelling
  • Itchy, irritated skin
  • Dryness

How does a skin purge vs. breakout vary? For one, breakouts from purging are simply your skin adjusting to something new. But wait: does purging make you break out? Well, let's dive in. For starters, it is said that breaking out in new areas that you haven't normally.

Breakouts likely show up in areas where you don’t normally experience acne. Meaning skin purging refers to breakouts that aren't normally tied to stress, hormonal, or adolescent. Secondly, a skin purge tends to have a longer lifespan than your average breakout — about four to six weeks, according to some dermatologists. Skin purging and unexpected breakouts can look almost identical but there are a few distinct differences between the two.

So while purging can cause a breakout, it’s paving the way for bright, glowy skin on the other side.

Most common ingredients that cause purging

  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)
  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Retinol, Retin-A, Retinoids
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • L-ascorbic acid (forms of Vitamin C)
  • Fruit enzymes
  • Azelaic acid (15% concentration or higher)

What are breakouts?

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Breakouts are what happens when your pores or hair follicles become clogged. Breakouts include blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, and cysts. They also have a longer life span than purging breakouts due to the acne cycle and triggers. Unlike skin purging breakouts, they are typically a permanent reaction to using a new product. A breakout can also be a clear sign of an allergic reaction or irritation from the product formula itself. I

While purging happens when skin is adjusting to a new ingredient, breakouts occur for various reasons, like:

Breakouts appear as raised, discolored (often red) bumps above or beneath the skin’s surface. They can be painful, filled with pus, and mild to severe. 

One of the biggest differences between purging vs. breakouts is that breakouts don’t benefit the skin. Unlike skin purging (which heals skin to form fresher skin cells), typical breakouts tend to leave scars and blemishes in their wake.

There’s no specific period for when they’ll go away. It simply comes down to your skin’s natural cell turnover window. 

The more stubborn breakouts often appear in new areas where acne usually does not occur. This also indicates that it's a reaction to the product and not a purging reaction.

On that note, treatments between skin purge vs. breakouts are also quite different. What can you do?

How To Treat A Skin Purge

The key to overcoming a purge-induced breakout is to stay the course. We get it, once a new skincare product reacts in the way of a breakout spiral, you want to put it in the back of your skincare chamber and start with something new BUT don't! Your skin is adjusting to the actives in your products. Instead, ease up on how frequently you're using the products that's causing the purging breakouts.

For example, if you've added a new exfoliant to your routine, instead of using it twice daily, try using it one 3 to 4 times a week. This way the skin barrier is able to breathe and slowly adapt to the active ingredients. 

We would also recommend to wait at least 45 - 60 days until you introduce your skin to any additional new products. Though tempting considering you would want to clear up the purge breakout ASAP but waiting a month or two is vital for you to see what works for your skin and simply put, what doesn't.

Should things continue to spiral out of control after 4 to 6 weeks, we would advise switching to gentle cleansers and light moisturizers to prevent more skin sensitivity and irritation. Slathering on daily SPF  that doesn't clog pores or leave your skin greasy would be an additional preventative measure to take in order to protect your complexion as it's exposed to hyperpigmentation and UV exposure. 

In a nutshell, the sooner you identify what stage your skin is in, whether it's the purging stage or a common breakout, acting on it sooner than later is ideal. You can adjust your skincare regimen accordingly, and welcome your clean, and clear glow in no time! 

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