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If you're just starting to use a new skincare product, your skin might react to it in two ways – it might be purging or breaking out. The former is a good one, albeit an annoying one; the latter is probably a sign that the product is irritating your skin.
So, your skin flaring up isn't always a bad thing – sometimes, it has to go through an ugly phase in order to get to the beautiful one. But how to know if your skin is going through acne purging or irritation? Should you keep on with your new routine or ditch it?
In today's article, we'll be shedding some light on the clear, tell-tale signs that point to a skin purge and an acne breakout, solutions to each one, and more insightful tips. Care to find out? Come along.
What Is Skin Purging?
Purging is your skin's reaction, most commonly in the form of pimples, when you start using a new skincare product – specifically, a product that accelerates cell turnover or that contains active ingredients that do the same. These pimples will usually appear in clusters and will be small, red, and sometimes painful. You may also notice more blackheads and whiteheads.
Skin purging occurs because these products and treatments make the skin shed its dead cells more quickly, pushing sebum, bacteria, and debris out of the pores. This process accelerates the pace at which previously clogged pores, also known as microcomedones, reach the surface and become pimples.
Microcomedones can sometimes cause bumpy skin, but they are mostly not visible. These tiny clogged pores may simmer for weeks, sometimes even months, inside your skin before becoming a pimple, whitehead or inflamed cyst. Other times, they'll disappear without you ever noticing you had them.
With the skin cell turnover accelerated, all these dormant pimples will come to the surface at once; hence the term skin purging. However, it only means your skin is in the process of cleansing and that you need to be patient because the condition will improve.
What Causes Skin Purging?
Skincare products or treatments that speed up skin cell turnover are usually the triggers for skin purging. Those include:
- Retinoids (retinol, retinaldehyde, tretinoin);
- Acids (AHAs, BHAs, or PHAs);
- Vitamin C;
- Benzoyl peroxide;
- Any kind of skin exfoliation, including mechanical exfoliation with scrubs;
- Enzyme peels (usually with fruit enzymes, such as papaya, apple, or pineapple);
- Professional treatments (microdermabrasion, chemical peels, or laser treatments).
If you still need to figure out what causes your skin to purge, check the ingredient lists of all the new skincare products you started using. As a general rule, the first five ingredients on the list make up about 80% of the product, so those are the ones that can cause you problems. So, for example, if glycolic acid is among those top five, it's very likely that it's the culprit of your skin's reaction.
What Causes Irritation or a Reactive Breakout?
On the other side of the spectrum, we have adverse reactions in the form of acne breakouts and inflammation. This can happen if the new skincare product you're using clogs the pores or irritates your skin, leading to more microcomedones or flaring up the existing ones.
This means that the product is damaging your skin rather than helping it and that it is best to discontinue using it. Besides breaking out, your skin can be tight, dry, red, and itchy – these are definitely the signs something is irritating your skin.
The most common skincare ingredients that may cause these reactions are certain plant oils and butters, like coconut oil and cocoa butter, silicones, beeswax, emulsifiers, dyes, and fragrances.
So, How to Know if It's Purging or Breaking Out
As we can see, skin purging can easily be mistaken for acne and vice-versa. This might be confusing, especially when you just incorporated a new product into your skincare routine. Your skin might be saying yay or nay to a product or might be an indication of something totally unrelated to your skincare. Below are three factors that would clear the confusion:
Duration: Skin purging occurs when you commence using a cell turnover product or right after a facial procedure, like a chemical peel or laser treatment. It usually lasts up to four to six weeks. If the breakouts persist beyond this time frame, it's likely not purging but inflammation and acne.
Position on the skin: Skin purging occurs at the places where you often encounter breakouts, like your T-zone. Reactive breakouts usually appear on parts of your face where you normally don't have them, like your jawline or anywhere outside the T-zone. This is a sign that the skin is reacting to something it doesn't like.
Type of skincare product: If the skincare product you've just started using contains active ingredients that are meant for faster cell turnover, it will likely cause skin purging. If it doesn't contain any of these ingredients (like retinoids or AHAs), it's probably irritating your skin and causing it to break out.
How to Deal With Skin Purging
Although you might not be able to prevent skin purging completely, there are ways to speed up the process and make it more tolerable. So, if you plan to introduce a new product into your routine and it contains actives that accelerate the skin cell turnover process, follow these steps to make it more manageable:
- Begin by introducing the product gradually – start with a lower concentration (of a retinoid or alpha hydroxy acid) and don't use it every day, but rather once or twice a week;
- Don't pick your skin – this may prolong the purging process and even leave scars;
- Don't use other exfoliating or drying products in parallel, such as salicylic acid- or benzoyl peroxide-based skincare;
- Use gentle cleansers;
- Make sure your skin is well-hydrated, nourished, and moisturized – use products with glycerin, ceramides, peptides, panthenol, niacinamide, to name a few;
- Use sunscreen daily.
What to Do if You're Still Not Sure What You're Dealing With
If you're still not sure if you're dealing with skin purging or active breakouts, make a short pause and don't use the product for at least a week or two.
Pay attention to how your skin looks and feels after a week or so. If the pimples have subsided, but you still see some unevenness on your skin, you should continue using the product as it was most likely a purge. In the case your skin is much better after a break, smooth, clear, and redness-free, it's a good sign that the product actually irritated your skin in some way, and you should probably stop using it.
Admittedly, skin purging is quite an annoying and unpleasant phase – but it's definitely worth the trouble as it's only a sign that beautiful skin is just within your reach. So listen to your skin and learn the differences between purging and breakouts so that you can give it the best care possible. And yes, be patient since the best things are always worth the wait.
How do you tell the difference between a purge and a breakout?
Skin purging usually starts a week or so after introducing a skincare product that speeds up the skin cell turnover. It only occurs on those parts of your face where you typically experience blemishes, such as your T-zone. If your skin starts to break out outside of this zone, it's likely being irritated.
What does purging skin look like?
Skin purging usually looks like tiny, red pimples that can sometimes be painful to the touch. Also, you'll probably have more than one of these appearing at once, sometimes paired with new whiteheads and blackheads.
How do I know if my skin is purging or reacting?
The best indicators would be the position on the skin as well as duration. Skin purging usually appears on the forehead, cheeks, and chin and lasts only about four or six weeks.
How long does skin purging last?
Skin purging often lasts about a month to one month and a half. If the blemished and acne persist longer than this, your skin is likely having a bad reaction to the new skincare product.
Should I pop the pimples that are purging?
No, you should never pick your pimples and try to pop them. This will only make the purging process last longer, and it might leave permanent scars.