Is it Purging or a Breakout?

We obviously reach for active ingredients to treat skin issues because we want to get rid of a skin problem. When the issue is textural – like closed comedones beneath the skin that won’t come out – the idea is that your new routine or new product will take away the bumpiness.

So when you start to see even more bumps and lumps popping up that you don’t remember being there before, it’s easy to freak out and want to throw your routine in the nearest bin. But this strange reaction may actually be purging, and nothing to worry about.

What is purging?

Purging is a period of increased skin turbulence after active ingredients that are removing the upper layers of skin start to reveal deep clogged pores. Without all the usual dead skin in the way, skin cells go through their life faster and the skin thins slightly. This pushes debris to the surface.

While it seems scary to see more pimples pop up, it’s actually your skin ridding itself of the trapped comedones that were already there – which is a good thing!

This resulting ‘purging’ of pimples is a classic case of ‘it gets worse before it gets better’ – your skin will temporarily seem to be getting worse as everything that was stuck in your skin comes to the surface!

Potential causes in your routine would include:

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids
  • Beta Hydroxy Acids

and to a lesser degree:

  • Physical exfoliation
  • Retinoids

If only it were that simple. But not all skin issues after a routine change are harmless purging – sometimes, the new product you’re using could actually just be giving you a plain ol’ breakout after all!

This could be an allergic reaction, an incorrect formulation for your skin type or just a skin preference. The causes of breakouts are so varied from person to person and sometimes surprising it’s not worth going into here.

So then how do you tell purging from breaking out or another bad reaction? Is your new product doing what it’s meant to, or is it making everything worse?

How to tell if your skin is purging

Product – True purging appears only after using ingredients that increase cell turnover.

The root cause of the uptick in acne is the release of closed comedones (oil, skin and hair blockages) that are buried beneath layers of skin. This can only happen when something is doing the releasing! A moisturiser, cleanser, or anything that’s not an exfoliating active should not be causing more acne – if it seems to, it’s probably a breakout instead.

Appearance – Purging should not be red.

Remember that these are trapped comedones. The body naturally reacts to a lot of infected acne with inflammation to send white blood cells over to heal it. The reason why these pimples were hidden in the first place is because they were non-inflamed – so the body didn’t detect that they were there. Most likely they are not infected with a lot of acne bacteria, but rather just clogged or ‘pre-acne’. Exfoliating won’t change this – the new “acne” appearing as part of the purge should be little if at all red or swollen. Think small, mild whiteheads that appear and disappear fairly quickly.

Pain – Purging should not cause pain.

As above – the body hasn’t been reacting to these blockages thus far. If there’s swelling, redness, pain or oozing, as in cystic acne, it’s likely a bad reaction to the product and you should stop use as soon as possible.

Placement – Purging crops up only where there is usually acne or congestion.

Naturally, if these blockages have been sitting beneath the skin waiting to be released, they’re probably where you usually struggle with textural problems. Remember that purging isn’t creating new pimples but releasing existing ones. Beneath acne is pre-acne, clogged pores waiting to become infected and swell. If you didn’t have congestion, poor texture, or acne there already, there certainly shouldn’t be any now!

Length – Purging should only be short-lived.

Whether you see just a single whitehead, or whether you get a huge number of new lesions pop up, either way, purging should be rather short lived, relative to the severity of your texture/acne issues. After a few used, the exfoliating should bring out everything it needed to. When you do get acne, it should resolve itself faster from now on as your exfoliating product helps to clear the blockage earlier, faster and before it becomes infected.

So, if you’ve only ever had a few bumps here and there, and since starting your exfoliant you’ve been breaking out like crazy for 4 weeks in places that have always been clear, here’s your answer! It’s probably not just purging of what was underneath your skin, but rather making new pimples!

Essie