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Skin Purge vs. Breakout: What’s the Difference?

Skin Purge vs. Breakout: What’s the Difference?

Changing up your skin care routine can come with many benefits.

Adding a new product or treatment into your regimen can contribute to clearer skin, added firmness and radiance, fewer visible lines and wrinkles, to start — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an adjustment period. 

Not all blemishes are created equal. What you think may be an ordinary breakout could actually be your skin purging — but how can you tell the difference so you can address (and then prevent) them appropriately? Let’s find out!

What is a skin purge?

A skin purge refers to the four to six-week period after starting a new skin care product where the skin seems to get worse instead of better. While skin purging can happen with any new skin care product, it's far more likely when the product contains the following active ingredients:

  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid, lactic acid
  • Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide
  • Vitamin A derivatives such as retinol and Tretinoin

This purge occurs because of how these ingredients work on the skin. As exfoliants, they help to remove the build-up of dead skin cells that can sit on the skin’s surface. 

With fewer barriers, skin cell turnover can help reveal the youngest, most radiant skin possible. However, because the skin is not used to this unhindered turnover, it can cause a little confusion in the pores, ultimately resulting in a breakout.

Skin purge vs. breakout: How to tell the difference 

There are a few telltale signs to look for that can help you distinguish between a skin purging episode and a breakout. If you're wondering which you're dealing with, here are some questions to ask yourself: 

  • Have you recently changed up your skin care routine?
  • Have you added any new products that contain AHAs, BHAs or retinol?
  • Is there just one blemish, or is your whole face breaking out?
  • Did your blemishes come on quickly, or did they take time to pop up?
  • What do your blemishes look like? Are they blackheads or typical acne papules? Or are you noticing clusters of whiteheads and cystic pustules?

Typically, skin purges come on quickly and stop just as quickly. Purges tend to impact the entire face or occur in patches, mainly appearing as whiteheads or cysts. Breakouts are more sporadic, occurring randomly on the face. Breakouts are also often preceded by pain and may take longer to subside, especially without spot treatment. 

However, the factor that can be the most conclusive when figuring out the skin purge vs. breakout dilemma is looking at recent changes to your skin care routine. If you’ve added AHAs, BHAs or retinol in the last month, you may be dealing with a skin purge. You can always consult with your skin care provider if you’re still not sure.

If it’s not a skin purge, why am I breaking out?

Getting blemishes as an adult can be frustrating, but occasional breakouts continue well into adulthood for some people. They can happen for a variety of reasons.


All bacteria on the skin can trigger breakouts, but propionibacterium acnes (p. Acnes) is often the biggest offender. If bacteria can enter the pores and get trapped there due to excess sebum (the skin’s natural oil), it creates the perfect environment for it to grow and thrive, thus creating a blemish.


Certain foods can also trigger breakouts, especially for people with food allergies. Dairy products, refined carbs, gluten and chocolate can all increase the risk of blemishes. If you suspect your diet is a trigger, it can help to keep a food diary.


How you treat your body can also help reduce or increase the likelihood of breakouts. Not washing your face twice daily, improper hydration and high stress levels can all contribute to the development of blemishes. Not washing your face post-workout is a big contributor to those unwanted breakouts and blemishes. 


Clogged pores and subsequent blemishes can also be triggered by hormone fluctuations — this is why so many teenagers tend to break out regularly. However, our hormones continue to change throughout our lives. Many people find that they will develop breakouts right before a period, after having a baby or during menopause.

What can you do about blemishes?

Neither a skin purge nor a breakout is pleasant, but you don’t have to just sit back and wait patiently for them to go away on their own. Here are a few ways you can keep them from happening in the first place.

Switch to a more gentle cleanser

As tempting as it may be to want to scrub and exfoliate your face when you’re having a breakout, using a harsh or abrasive face wash can actually do more harm than good. A gentle, hydrating cleanser can help soothe the skin while still removing all of the gunk sitting on the top layer of your skin.

Be patient

The skin can be temperamental, but the results will be worth the patience if you're dealing with a skin purge. Most skin purges don’t last long, and the skin tends to look rejuvenated once it’s over. Resist the urge to pick at skin or add additional products to your skin care regimen, as this will likely slow the purging process. 


Even oily skin needs moisture to keep the skin barrier intact. While finding the right moisturizer for your specific skin type is crucial, skipping it can lead to drier skin that isn’t as resilient to breakouts and other skin concerns. You can also look for brightening topical ingredients like vitamin C to help nourish your skin in the meantime.

Wear SPF

While sunscreen itself won’t help with blemishes (and can clog your pores if you don’t wash it off at the end of the day), wearing SPF helps protect your skin in other ways. It reduces your risk of developing signs of premature aging and can also help protect your skin barrier. Stronger skin is healthier-looking skin.

The bottom line...

Skin purge vs. breakout — knowing the difference between them can help you more quickly figure out which you’re dealing with and handle it appropriately. If you’ve changed up your skin care products and are going through a skin purge, or if you’re still having breakouts well into adulthood, we're here for you. 

Book a skin consult with us and one of our advanced practice providers can help guide you toward the right products and treatments to keep blemishes and breakouts at bay. 


Alpha Hydroxy Acids | FDA

Retinoid-Induced Flaring in Patients with Acne Vulgaris: Does It Really Exist? | PMC

Propionibacterium acnes and Acne Vulgaris: New Insights from the Integration of Population Genetic, Multi-Omic, Biochemical and Host-Microbe Studies | PubMed

Understanding the Epidermal Barrier in Healthy and Compromised Skin: Clinically Relevant Information for the Dermatology Practitioner | PMC


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