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A common point of frustration for those on the road to clear skin is the difficulty in figuring out if new products meant to address their skin care issues are actually working or making things worse. Maybe this has happened to you. You buy new skin care products to address specific breakouts. Then you start having way more breakouts than before leaving you confused as to how this happened. This topic is generally discussed as “purging vs. breakouts” but what does that mean exactly? In this post, I’ll breakdown the difference between the two. By the time you’re done reading you should have a clear understanding of the difference (and if you need to throw any of your skin care products out or not).


Before getting into things, it’s important to clarify just what purging means. Purging is the result of rapidly increased cell turnover typically brought on by the use of active ingredients. Active ingredient will contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), benzoyl peroxide and retinoids. Basically, the use of these ingredients in your skin care products is working to clear your breakouts quicker. This can also include bringing breakouts to the surface that you hadn’t previously noticed. Because it can take up to three months for new pimples to appear on the surface of the skin, you may think that these are new breakouts but really they’ve been existing for quite some time. 

Purging is a bit of a necessary evil as it relates to getting clear skin. It happens to everyone adjusting to new active ingredients. You can generally tell when you’re purging by the way it looks. Typically, purging appears as small, flesh-colored or red bumps and often are accompanied by an influx of blackheads or whiteheads. Sometimes this is described as “texture” by clients. As you continue to use active ingredients, and your skin adjusts to them, you will see this breakout pattern subside. 

Another clue that your skin is purging is where these breakouts form. If you notice purging in the same areas that you’d normally experience breakouts, then it’s likely just a purge. However, if you notice new breakouts in new areas then you are likely having a breakout reaction to your skin care products.


A breakout reaction can typically occur as a result of trying new skin care products as well. The primary difference is that a breakout reaction can happen whether there are active ingredients in the products or not. Breakout reactions also often result from trying too many different and new skin care products all at once. This is a major reason many skin care professionals recommend introducing one skin care product at a time. This prevents breakout reactions from happening, or in the event that it does happen, you are able to determine the culprit much quicker. 

Breakout reactions often come with a lot of inflammation, irritation and will appear in areas where you don’t typically get breakouts. These types of breakouts can often be itchy too, especially if you don’t usually experience itchiness with your breakouts. This can look very similar to purging. But, because they are often more irritated and inflamed, there is usually a higher amount of redness and/or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation associated with them.


While it may depend on your age (some of the more, ahem, seasoned population may have a slower cell turnover than the younger population, even with the help of retinoids), purging typically lasts 4-6 weeks. During this time, you may notice an increase in breakouts in your standard breakout areas only. You will notice them start to subside around the 4-week mark. Usually after 6-weeks you’ll notice a significant difference in overall breakouts.


As mentioned earlier, you could have a breakout reaction from any skin care product. So if you notice this type of breakout pattern after trying any new product whether it has active ingredients or not, you want to stop use as quickly as possible to prevent further damage to the skin. A breakout reaction can last as long as you continue to use the product that is irritating your skin.


If after two complete months of using a product you are still purging, you may want to completely stop use. You may also speak with your skin care professional/dermatologist to adjust how you are using the product. If you think you may be having more of a breakout reaction as described above, you want to stop use immediately.


While purging is apart of the clear skin process, there are ways to mitigate it. And breakout reactions are certainly preventable. The best way to manage the purging and breakout reaction process is to:

  1. Introduce new products to the skin slowly: despite what directions are written on the bottle, you want to follow the directions of your skin care professional closely to keep the purging process to a minimum. This may mean using active ingredients on alternate days or just introducing new products in one month intervals.
  2. Stay hydrated: when using active ingredients, it’s common for the skin to become a little dry and further irritation. Using hydrating products helps minimize the effects of this.
  3. Be a minimalist: when using a routine with powerful active ingredients, you want the rest of your routine to be minimal and gentle to not create further irritation or inflammation.

If you have questions about your skin care products or if you’d like a customized routine that can help minimize purging, book a consultation with me here.