How to Tell If You’re Purging or Actually Just Breaking Out

K, I got some important news for ya: Despite what your frantic internet search history might be telling you, breaking out after starting a new skincare product isn’t always a sign that your skin is “purging.” Nope, according to dermatologist Ranella Hirsch, MD, skin purging really only happens when you begin using two types of ingredients: vitamin A (aka retinoids) and hydroxy acids (like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid)—i.e., “active” products that speed up your cell turnover. And even though skin purging has a lowkey terrifying name, it isn’t anything to be scared of—the breakout is only temporary and it’s actually a sign that your products are doing their job.

The issue? There’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to skin purging—the most common being that all reactions to new skincare ingredients are a sign of purging (spoiler: they’re not!)—which is why I got Dr. Hirsch to break down everything you need to know about what causes purging in the first place, how to tell if you’re dealing with a regular ol’ breakout or a legit purge, and more.

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What is skin purging?

One more time for the people in the back: Skin purging happens when you introduce a new product to your routine that increases cellular turnover, like retinoids or chemical exfoliants. That’s because when you speed up your skin’s process of shedding dead skin cells, you also push oil and bacteria from deep within your pores to the surface of your skin, often leaving you with a new crop of whiteheads, blackheads, or cysts.

Keep in mind that these same zits would have made their way to your face with or without a retinol or chemical exfoliant—the natural process just takes longer. “In a normal circumstance without medicine, you’d see that zit on your face in three or four weeks,” says Dr. Hirsch. “But when your skin purges, acne symptoms that were already forming are just being shown the exit sign sooner.”

What’s the difference between skin purging and breaking out?

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According to Dr. Hirsch, the biggest misconception about purging is that people have started to use it as an umbrella term for any type of reaction to a new skincare product, when in reality, they could just be breaking out from stress/hormones/life, etc. Remember: Purging refers to the very specific process of speeding up cellular turnover with active ingredients, and, in turn, pushing your zits to the surface sooner. While breakouts are, you know, breakouts.

So even though that new niacinamide serum or new sunscreen might be causing you to break out, it isn’t technically causing you to purge. In reality, it might just not agree with your skin type, whether that means it’s too heavy, or irritating, or filled with an ingredient your skin doesn’t like. Or, you could just be coincidentally breaking out!

That’s why derms stress the importance of slowly adding products to your routine to minimize the risk or irritation, and to help you figure out which products are the problem-causers. Patch-testing is also a great option, especially if you have a history of skin sensitivities, as is booking an appointment with a dermatologist who can help you find the best products for your skin concerns.

How to tell if your skin is purging or breaking out

In general, these are the three things you want to look for when determining if your skin is purging or breaking out:

1. Check the ingredients

Again, the only way your skin will truly purge is if you’re using an ingredient that increases cellular turnover. If your product is free of retinol or chemical exfoliators, you’re just breaking out—not purging—and that breakout can either be coincidental (stress! hormones! maskne!), or because the formula isn’t right for your skin and potentially clogging your pores.

2. Pay attention to location

“Purging leaves you with the type of pimples that you would have expected to see anyway, which means they’re also going to be in the same area where you usually get pimples,” says Dr. Hirsch. So if your zits are popping up in areas that you rarely—if ever—break out, you probably aren’t purging, but instead just breaking out from the product itself.

3. Track the duration

Since purging is just accelerating the life of your already-formed, below-the-surface zits, you can expect a purge to be temporary and last just a few weeks (but more on that below). Look out for zits that last longer than three-ish weeks, though, which Dr. Hirsch says are unlikely to be a result of purging and might be a sign that your product isn’t working for your skin.

How long does skin purging last?

Even though purging is frustrating, it’s good to keep in mind that it’s only temporary and usually only lasts a few weeks, says Dr. Hirsch. And because purging is a result of starting retinoids or actives—i.e., ingredients that eventually help keep pores clear and unclogged—you should expect to see calmer skin after the purge ends (basically, it can get worse before it gets better).

If you’re using an over-the-counter product (like one of my fave picks below), it’s not a bad idea to schedule an appointment with your derm to touch base on your symptoms, progress, and dosing (fun fact: how much of an ingredient you’re using also plays a big role in whether or not you’ll purge). It is your face, after all, so you might as well have a professional on your team, right?

What helps with skin purging?

K, you’re probably not going to like this answer, but the best thing you can do for purging skin is to leave it alone—that means no picking or popping, pls. As long as you’re seeing normal symptoms associated with purging—i.e. nothing super painful or irritating—it’s best to stick to your treatment plan and ride it out.

But if you’re dealing with new inflammation, redness, itching, or burning, go see a derm—for real. “If you’re dealing with anything more than your usual zits you know and love, it isn’t purging and is likely a sign of irritation, which is addressed differently,” says Dr. Hirsch. If you’re still unsure, schedule an appointment with your derm before you do anything.

The final word

Even though the term “skin purging” is thrown around a lot, Dr. Hirsch stresses the fact that it’s not that common. Folks who are starting vitamin A or hydroxy acids for the first time might notice an increase in zits (again—these bbs only pop up in areas you usually break out and last around two weeks), but trust that it’s only temporary. And if you’re dealing with traditional breakouts or irritation, work with a dermatologist who can help you determine (A) what’s causing the reaction and (B) how to curb it.

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