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NOW READING Help! Am I Purging or Is This a Breakout? (& Why It Matters)
July 24, 2018

Help! Am I Purging or Is This a Breakout? (& Why It Matters)

It happens to the best of us: We finally get our hands on that new skincare product that’s supposed to change our skin … and it does. With a bunch of pimples. What’s going on?!? Here, we help guide you through that all-too important question: Am I purging or breaking out?


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 or breaking out


So what is purging?


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.


rosacea purging or breaking out


OK, got it; then what’s a breakout?


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.


purging or breaking out


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!



Sheryll Donerson got her start as a beauty writer by writing K-beauty reviews for her blog, The Wanderlust Project. These days, she's lifting heavy weights, eating tacos, drinking (too much) coffee and is 1/4 of the beauty podcast, Beauty Beyond Basics (or Triple Bees for short). You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @sheryllrenata.




I recently added a few new products to my regimen, and I was expecting the purging/breakouts because I'm used to them at this point. But I couldn't agree with you more in RELISHING in my skin after the purging slowed down because I want to touch my face at all times now and have to actively slap my hand to resist the urge!


A very clear and helpful explanation: very useful to someone unable to wait a reasonable time between adding new products because NEW SHINY PRODUCTS! Also because it probably means the new VItamin C serum is working, and not that my face is disagreeing with all my completely necessary new purchases...


Incidentally, can anyone recommend a replacement for The Ordinary Niacinamide + Zinc? I’m phasing out their products following the unpleasant opinions their CEO has been expressing of late, but this is the best thing I have for calming down acne.


OMG, @debbie I'm sorry to say that I'm addicted to The Ordinary Niacinamide + Zinc. I too am wanting to leave them because of the CEO, but that serum is LIFE. I do find centella helps a lot (I use the Purito Centella serum), as well as tea tree (Leegeehaam is still a fave, but any tea tree serum will do, especially in sheet masks), but I haven't find something with niacinamide AND zinc. If you find a dupe, please let me know too!


Thank you so much for replying! I’ll certainly try out tea tree and Centella. I’ll hunt around some more for a replacement: I’ve a suspicion that a uk store that used to work with the ordinary/NIOD and then got binned in favour of Sephora might have made a range of dupes...


So, I had a hunt around: Glossier do a serum called “super pure” that has both niacinamide and zinc. I was expecting to find a dupe in the Victoria Health Garden of Wisdom range, which has a good few Ordinary dupes including Squalane, but theirs is niacinamide alone. Maybe I’ll give the Glossier one a go and see how I fare.


Ok, looking into Glossier right now @debbie! And asinusadlyram I forgot about Shark Sauce! I would much rather support her tbh. I\'ve been wanting to get some of this magical elixir for ages but keep forgetting about it. Thanks for jogging my memory!


Shark Sauce! Not available on this site, I'm afraid, but it's GLORIOUS.


Ah excellent I have a sample of that lined up: I shall have to promote it in my massive queue of things to try! Thank you!


This explains so much, thank you Sheryll. I've recently introduced BHAs into my routine, and my skin pops out way more pimples - the angry, aggressive, red, and raised kind. I am hoping this is the purging you mention in the article.


Yup, you're purging. BHA is basically ipecac for pores. Gets ALL the deep stuff out.


It's always difficult to pin point an ingredient that makes people react poorly, especially when some of the beauty products we use have a ton of ingredients incorporated in them; I do always advise that anyone giving chemical exfoliation a try to go very slow and steady. Speaking from personal experience, it's much better to have too little happen and dial your exfoliation up then over exfoliate and spend the subsequent weeks apologizing to your skin lol


Thanks, Sheryl! This explains my mild freakout episode the last time I went for an acid peel :/ I really though I was breaking out from the acid (first time trying) and had visions of my face melting away LOL. Then they started coming off and my face was so much smoother :P


Thanks, Sheryll! This is the clearest explanation I've seen of purge vs. breakout.

I did have to stop using a cleansing oil that was breaking me out -- I knew it was a product breakout because I got multiple blemishes on my cheeks where I almost never break out, and the cleansing oil was the only product I had added recently. I'm still not sure what caused the breakout, but the oil did include Isopropyl Palmitate which has a high comedogenic rating. So I'm going to try a cleansing oil or balm that doesn't include that ingredient or other known acne... Read more


I haven't had any end of days type purging, thankfully, but I always have to remind myself when I introduce a new active product that if something pops up, it isn't the end of the world!!

I am so guilty of not patch testing, though. Thankfully, only one product ever pissed off my skin, and it was a sunscreen!


I haven't purged either, though I did develop a couple rashes from over-testing products. I felt like it was more an ingredient thing (placenta) as well as inundating my skin with too many new products all at once (also a non-patch-testing-sinner). My only problem with sunscreen so far is pilling (which is infuriating after you've done you're whole skincare routine and you have to rush into work).

Also bad at patch testing...

Super helpful article and timely, as I am trying to figure out if a new vitamin C product is causing me to purge! The worst purge I've had was not from a k-beauty product but from biologique recherche lotion p50. That was a solid month long purge that made me feel like I was back in high school. Thank goodness for pimple patches and soothing products.

Resisting the temptation to throw all my new stuff on my face is the biggest test of my will power! I have two possible culprits for my breakout my vitamin C or my cleanser. Hoping it is a vitamin C purge and not a reaction to the cleanser!