You’ve just made a huge skincare haul and your box of goodies has arrived at your doorstep. You tear the box open and decide to use one of your new products for your nighttime routine. You don’t patch test because, honestly, who has the time. Over the next couple of days, you continue to use the product, but you notice that your skin is getting a bit bumpy. Whiteheads start popping up. Your skin is red and patchy when it wasn’t before. And that’s when you realize that your new product is probably breaking you out … or is it purging? How can you tell the difference?
Well, my lovelies, that’s where I come in.
Purging or breaking out — a problem we’ve all probably dealt with at some point in our skincare journey. Really, both are an outcome we don’t want to deal with when incorporating a new product in our routine, but one of these means that we can possibly continue to use the product while dealing with some temporary discomfort, while the other one means that there is some ingredient that doesn’t really mesh well with your skin and you should definitely stop using it.
Purging is when your skin is working hard to expel a bunch of gunk and junk and gross sh—t that’s been hanging out under the surface for god knows how long. You may get a bunch of acne that was never really there — usually in places you already get acne. Have you ever used a new product and your skin got worse and then all of a sudden it was like angels blessed you personally and your skin is clear and awesome? That’s purging. Any skincare product that focuses on skin cell turnover (hello AHAs, BHAs, vitamin C, chemical peels, and retinol) can cause purging.
I first experienced purging when I started using Retin-A in my mid-20s. My acne was at its worst, and my dermatologist recommended that I use Retin-A, but warned me that it would get much, much worse before it got better. I remember her telling me very specifically that even though my skin would be a hot-ass mess, I still needed to continue to use the product — because yes, my skin would look bad and make me not want to use it anymore but I needed to stick with it.
And listen. She was not wrong. My skin was a disaster for nearly five weeks. My acne was painful and red, and on top of that, my skin was drier than the Sahara. I was peeling and flaking all over the place. It wasn’t pretty.
But then one day, it slowly started to clear up. And then fast forward a couple of weeks and all of my acne was gone. It was like I had a whole new face. My co-workers were constantly asking me what I did and if I was using some sort of new makeup. I was SHOOK, girl, let me tell you. I had no idea such greatness could come out of that hot mess. It’s cliché, but sometimes things do have to get worse before they get better.
You can minimize your chances of purging by slowly introducing chemical exfoliants into your routine — two to three times a week. Once you’ve noticed that you aren’t having any adverse reactions, you can increase your usage. You can also minimize purging by starting off with a low percentage of a chemical exfoliant (5%, for example), and working your way up to stronger products.
A breakout is a different type of beast, though. If you use a product that isn’t an exfoliant of some type and you’re experiencing skin issues, you could be having an adverse reaction to the product, or a breakout. GASP. Breakouts can happen for multiple reasons, but the main ones are 1) pore-clogging ingredients, 2) you are actually allergic to an ingredient, or 3) your skin is irritated because a product is potentially too harsh.
Let’s use myself as an example. When I lived in Vietnam, I briefly drank the coconut oil Kool-Aid and started to use it as a moisturizer. Wrong idea. My skin went nuts, and I suffered from the worst breakout I’ve had in recent years. I had acne everywhere, not just my chin and jawline where I normally break out. It took nearly a year to completely clear and get rid of the associated PIH. So why would this happen? Well, like I said earlier, one of the causes of skincare-related breakouts is how pore-clogging an ingredient or product is. It just so happens that coconut oil is one of the most comedogenic ingredients on the planet … so yeah. Obviously there are tons of people who use coconut oil without any issues, but it’s a no for me dawg.
So if you use a new skincare product and your skin starts to freak out, ask yourself these questions:
1. Is the product a chemical exfoliant or contains some sort of BHA, AHA, vitamin C, or retinol ingredient? Then most likely you are purging and not breaking out. Slow down usage, but keep using the product.
2. Are you allergic to any ingredients? Nuts? Coconut? Ferments? Carefully double check the ingredient list in any products you are using to make sure there isn’t something that you have a sensitivity to. And if you’re still unsure, do a patch test right behind your ear to see if you have any reactions.
3. Where are you breaking out? Are you breaking out where you normally do, or are you experiencing breakouts all over and in random places? Purging typically occurs where you normally get pimples, whereas breakouts tend to happen all over the place.
4. How does your skin look? Are you experiencing only acne, or is your skin red, irritated, and maybe even painful to touch? If it’s acne and whiteheads, it’s most likely purging. But if your skin is irritated and red all over, it’s a breakout.
5. How long have the breakouts lasted? Purging can last up to a month, but will slowly get better during that time period. Your skin takes about one month to completely “turn over,” so to speak. Breakouts start and get worse over time. If you’ve been breaking out longer than a month and it’s not letting up and it’s getting worse, stop using the product.
Do you know your skincare triggers? Have you had to deal with purging or breaking out? Let us know how you dealt with it in the comments!