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purging vs breakouts


4 min read

If you’ve recently introduced new skincare products only to experience an increase in blemishes, don’t panic. While a breakout can be a sign a product is unsuitable, in many cases a fresh crop of blackheads or bumps may indicate your skin is purging – and that smoother, clearer skin could be waiting around the corner. But how can you tell if your skin is purging or breaking out? Thankfully, there are some clear signs. This go-to guide to skin purging versus breakouts explains how to spot the difference and determine whether your products are helping or hindering.


Skin purging refers to a process in which certain active ingredients increase cellular turnover and accelerate the skin’s natural shedding process. The aim of this enhanced exfoliation? To remove the dead skin cells that can cause dull, uneven skin and congestion, and promote a radiant, refined and blemish-free complexion.

For most, this is an end result worth pursuing; however, the road to clearer, more youthful skin isn’t without its bumps. With speedier cell turnover and skin renewal, pore blockages are able to be resolved sooner. Unfortunately, this fast-tracked unclogging process sometimes also leads to a temporary increase in whiteheads, blackheads, pimples or tiny pre-acne bumps known as microcomedones. Breakouts can arise, seemingly overnight, while dryness, redness and irritation can also be quite common during a skin purge. 


The best way to minimise the blemishes that can accompany the purging process is to take things slowly. This means introducing retinol and chemical exfoliants gradually, using once or twice a week before increasing frequency as tolerated. While it can be tempting to throw everything at your skin at once, it’s also smart to introduce products one by one and space out applications. For example, you might try using exfoliants in the morning (followed by broad-spectrum sun protection) and retinol at night.

While skin is purging, it’s often a good idea to simplify other steps in your skincare routine. Use a gentle, soap-free cleanser, then alleviate dryness with a minimalist moisturiser. Formulated for dry, sensitive skin,  Toleriane Sensitive Facial Moisturiser is a pared-back, non-comedogenic hydrator with soothing La Roche-Posay Thermal Spring Water and NeurosensineTM to reduce visible redness. Free from fragrance and alcohol, it quickly restores hydration with shea butter and glycerin.


As mentioned, the main ingredients that can lead to skin purging are those that speed up cell turnover. These include chemical exfoliants such as alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids and popular anti-ageing active, retinol (Vitamin A). When first introducing these ingredients, you may experience breakouts as your skin’s exfoliation and turnover processes get a kickstart. However, cell turnover is beneficial to the skin, noting anti-ageing, anti-acne and skin radiance benefits. Skin purging is temporary and may only last a few weeks. With a unique ability to hone in on dirt and oil and exfoliate pores from within, salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that is an ingredient that increases cell turnover to assist with acne prone skin by prompting a skin purge, helping to micro-exfoliate and remove the blockages that lead to breakouts. It is a key ingredient in La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar range for oily and acne-prone skin.


There are a few ways to assess whether a new product has caused you to break out, or if your skin is just purging. Firstly, look at the ingredients. If you’ve recently started using a product containing retinoids or chemical exfoliants such as glycolic or salicylic acid, there’s a good chance your skin is feeling the purge. These ingredients work quicker by helping bring impurities to the surface and small red bumps can actually be a sign the product is working.

If, on the other hand, your products are free from these ingredients, you’re probably experiencing a regular breakout. This might occur if you use a formula that’s too rich for your skin, add too many different products at once, or as a reaction to a fragrance ingredient or another potential irritant. Regardless, a sudden increase in blemishes indicates your skincare routine for clearer looking skin might need rethinking. You may benefit from discontinuing use of certain products, or paring back a complicated, multi-step regime. The next thing to look at is the breakout itself. A breakout caused by purging will often be smaller, more superficial and occur in a group in the same area the skincare was used. Blemishes will also tend to arise in areas you are prone to break out, and less so in new and unusual places.


Purging might sound like a pain and no two individuals will have the same response to the introduction of exfoliating ingredients. Some may experience no blemishes while others will see an increase. For the latter, the benefits of chemical exfoliants and retinoids – namely a less congested, more refined and radiant complexion – will usually outweigh any side effects experienced as the skin adjusts.

The expression that things need to get worse before they get better applies perfectly to skin purges. If you can wait out the adjustment period, the results are often well worth it! But how long exactly do you have to wait? Unfortunately, there is no precise answer to this. It will depend on factors such as the strength of product you’re using, and your overall skincare routine.

Any irritation from skin purging should be temporary and resolve itself in the same amount of time as a standard acne-prone breakout, or sooner. If your skin doesn’t settle after a few weeks, or if your breakouts are severe or worsening, seek the guidance of your GP or dermatologist. Breakouts have various triggers and there may also be hormonal, health and lifestyle factors involved. A healthcare professional will be best placed to assess your skin situation holistically.

*N=52, 4 week study, applying 1x /day on face, counting lesions by the dermatologist.


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