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Is It A Breakout, Or Is Your Skin "Purging"? 3 Signs To Look For

Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty Director. Previously she worked at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and
Is It A Breakout, Or Is Your Skin "Purging"? 3 Signs To Look For
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There's a strange phenomenon called skin purging. If you're unfamiliar with this very specific type of breakout, you'll likely mistake it for traditional acne. Well, we're here to tell you that skin purging is actually quite different—and it's a good thing.

What is skin purging, and how is it different from a normal breakout?

It all starts with a new product. Say you just get a new cream or serum and start using it nightly. A few days later, though? Your skin freaks out.

At first glance, skin purging is going to look like a full-fledged breakout—or even more likely, worse than a full-fledged breakout. However, the trigger isn't going to be your typical ones, be it hormone fluctuations, diet, or sleeping in makeup. In fact, purging breakouts are actually a side effect of your skin clearing up. "Skin purging is a process where blockages within your pores are brought to the surface all at once," says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. Think of it like a going-out-of-business sale for your zits.

"Skin purging occurs both in people who have acne and in people with normal skin," says Zeichner. "It tends to occur to a greater degree if you have acne because there may be more oil and more blockages within the pores to begin with. But it may occur to a lesser degree even in people who do not have acne. If you do not have acne at baseline, there still may be microscopic blockages within the pores allowing for buildup of mild levels of oil. "

So, why is noting the distinction so important? Because you might be tempted to stop using a product when, in fact, it's working. And on the flip side: If you are experiencing a breakout that's unrelated to skin purging, you know that you might actually be going through a reactionary breakout and should stop using said new product.

Here's how you can tell if your breakout is the result of purging:

  • You just started using a retinoid, retinol alternative, or hydroxy acid. These products encourage exfoliation and skin cell turn over—so any issue deep in the pore comes to the top. "Skin purging is most commonly reported with the use of topical retinoids," says Zeichner. "Ingredients like over-the-counter retinol promote skin cell turnover, pushing blockages within the pores to the surface of the skin." If you just started using a product with no cell-turnover-causing actives, like a hydrating serum, it's probably a normal breakout.
  • It happens within two weeks of using a product. Since these actives start working quickly, you'll see your skin purge almost right away. "Once the purging is done, the skin should remain clear," Zeichner assures. If you've been using a product for a month or so, and then have a breakout, it might be another issue.
  • It happens in oilier spots on the face. If you have a shiny T-zone, you'll likely see your skin purge around there—as it's more likely your pores have congestion in that area. If you have a breakout somewhere new, like around your hairline, that's likely not a purge pimple and may be a reaction to something else, like a new makeup product.

So your skin is purging. Now what? In short: Let it ride its course through a full skin cycle (28 days or so). Your new treatment is in the process of working, and with skin care, consistency is key.

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