Skin Purging vs. Breakout: How To Spot The Difference + Tips
If you ask dermatologists what their must-have skin care products are, chances are a great majority of them will have retinol on the list. Whether you're looking to treat breakouts, ease signs of skin aging, or encourage healthier skin overall, retinol is a multifaceted winner.
However, these benefits come with a catch: The chance of a retinol purge. But, it's not always easy to tell the difference between a retinol purge and an everyday breakout—so here's a helpful guide to differentiate the two.
What is the difference between a skin purge and a breakout?
The obvious precursor to a retinol purge is, of course, starting a new retinol product. This could look like using retinol for the first time or switching to a stronger formula. But are purge pimples all that different? Here's what we know.
It would be convenient if retinol purge breakouts and typical acne looked starkly different, but that's not really the case—instead, the reason behind the breakout is what makes the retinol purge unique.
A typical pimple pops up due to a combination of oil (formally known as sebum), bacteria, dead skin, hormone fluctuations, etc.—however, a retinol purge happens because your skin is in the process of clearing up—which can be hard to believe when you're in the middle of the breakout.
"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.
However, it's completely normal to have an even worse breakout during this retinol purge period than you usually would. What's more, even people who have never experienced acne may see pimples popping up after starting retinol.
Signs your skin is purging.
Let's keep it simple—use the following signs as a checklist to see if your skin is in purge mode. If none of these apply, it may be a typical breakout (but more on that in the next section):
- You just started using a retinoid, retinol alternative, or hydroxy acid. These products encourage exfoliation and skin cell turnover—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 or hair product.
Signs it's a breakout.
Now if you're still unsure, it might be an unrelated breakout. Most sudden breakouts that aren't due to retinol can be attributed to other pore-clogging products, hormonal fluctuations, and general acne triggers. To follow, a few signs it's an average breakout:
- You've been using your retinol for more than two to three months: While most people will only experience purging for a month, others might experience an extended purge. Don't discount the purge possibility unless you've been using your retinol product for at least two to three months. If it's after that, you've probably got a normal breakout—and it may be worth consulting your skin care professional for a different acne treatment.
- You're close to your menstrual period: Many people break out around their period, so if you see an uptick in pimples the week before or the week of your menstrual period, it's more likely due to hormonal fluctuations.
- You just started hormone therapy: If you've recently switched up your birth control method (such as birth control pills, IUDs, etc.) or gone off hormonal birth control completely, your skin might break out. This has nothing to do with your retinol product but can come on suddenly as a retinol purge does. Rest assured, these hormonal breakouts will fade with time when your body adjusts.
- You started using a new product: If you've been using retinol for a few months or more but just picked up a new serum, moisturizer, SPF, foundation, concealer, etc., then you may want to look into that product instead. Stop using your new product for a week or so and see if your skin clears up.
- You're traveling, stressed, or lacking sleep: Occasional acne is a real thing, and it's usually triggered by lack of sleep, traveling, or increased stress. If any of those apply, then you may be experiencing occasional acne, rather than a retinol purge (or both, if applicable).
How to treat skin purging vs. a breakout.
Now that you have a clue as to whether or not your skin is purging, let's get into treatment options. The methods for clearing typical breakouts and purging breakouts are very different, so keep the following tips in mind.
How to treat purging.
Listen closely: When your skin starts breaking out from a new retinol product, don't jump to more actives to treat it. If you toss benzoyl peroxide, AHAs, BHAs, and scrubs onto your new breakout, it will only increase irritation because your skin is more sensitive at this time. Instead, follow these tips:
- Start slow: "I do recommend when adding a product like a retinoid or chemical exfoliant into your skin care routine, you start slowly so your skin has time to adjust," board-certified dermatologist Gabriella Vasile, D.O., FAAD, tells mbg. "Try adding the product in one to two times per week, and gradually increase the frequency if your skin can tolerate it," she adds. So if you dove in head first and started using retinol every day immediately, consider slowing down for the next few weeks.
- Add hydration to your routine: When you start using a retinoid, your skin may become drier for the next month or so. While you may think this is "drying out" your acne, it's actually not going to help the purging process. See, dry skin produces more sebum (to compensate for the lack of hydration), which can lead to clogged pores. The answer is to have a hydrating serum and moisturizer in your routine to balance it out. Vasile's recommendation: The Community Sixty-Six Hydrating Oil-Free Gel Moisturizer.
- Double-check your products: It's not uncommon to overhaul your skin care routine all at once, including new retinol, moisturizer, SPF, etc. While purging is unavoidable, you can limit the pore-clogging products in the rest of your routine to avoid even more new breakouts. To be sure, run the ingredient list through this pore-clogging ingredients checker from Acne Clinic NYC. Not every flagged ingredient is guaranteed to break you out, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
How to treat a breakout.
Different kinds of pimples call for different types of treatment. Keep the following protocol in mind if you're dealing with a sudden breakout that's not retinol-induced:
- Whiteheads and blackheads: Opt for retinol treatment (yes, even if it might cause a purge). You'll want to start low and slow with a gentle retinol serum that you only use once or twice a week. You may not need a stronger retinol product, but if this doesn't work, know there are other options out there (like prescription-grade retinoids). You can also use an exfoliating face wash with salicylic acid to clear out the dirt oil stuck in your pores, but be sure to leave it on for a minute or two for the exfoliant to work its magic.
- Pustules and papules: For this kind of acne, you'll want to follow the tips above. However, you may benefit more from a prescription-grade retinoid, if your dermatologist recommends it. You'll also want to use spot treatments like hydrocolloid patches or cream formulas with salicylic acid.
- Cystic acne: For this kind of hormonal breakout, you'll likely need a bit more than the steps above. You can consider swapping out your salicylic acid wash for a benzoyl peroxide cleanser (again, leave it on for two minutes before rinsing it off), but be sure to moisturize your skin well afterward as this ingredient can be drying.
If you're not sure what kind of pimples you have, this guide will help.
What does skin purging look like?
Skin purging typically looks like more pimples of a similar variety than you were already experiencing—meaning those prone to whiteheads may get more whiteheads, those prone to cystic pimples may get more cysts, etc. However, those who have never experienced acne may also see some breakouts form when starting retinol treatments.
Does skin purging look like tiny bumps?
Skin purging can look like tiny bumps, which are clogged pores. When you start a new retinol treatment, your skin brings the dead skin and underlying pore clogs to the surface at a quicker rate, resulting in more breakouts at once. But don't worry, the retinol purge doesn't last forever.
How long is the acne purging phase?
The retinol purge can last anywhere from a few weeks to two months. This will be different for each person and you shouldn't give up on retinol if your acne hasn't cleared by the end of two months, as some people take longer to adjust to the new treatment.
Purging vs. irritation?
Purging will look like an increase in breakouts, while irritation may also include redness, sensitivity to even gentle skin care products and may also include itch.
What do you do while skin is purging?
If you're experiencing a retinol purge, don't start using more actives. Stay away from AHAs, BHAs, and physical exfoliants for now, as the retinol will make your skin more sensitive to those potent ingredients. Instead, work on keeping your skin hydrated, space out the evenings you use retinol, and work on decreasing inflammation.
How do you calm down skin purging?
You can calm down skin purging by spacing out how often you use your retinol treatment if you haven't already. When you first start out, use retinol once or twice a week and gradually increase the use if your skin can tolerate it. In addition, use hydrating, soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, aloe vera, calendula, and panthenol in your other skin care products. The key is to limit your exposure to AHAs, BHAs, fragrances, and physical scrubs while your skin is adjusting to the retinol.
Retinol is a fantastic ingredient with plenty of worthy benefits, including its ability to treat many kinds of acne. However, your skin may begin to purge when you first start using retinol or transition to a stronger product, resulting in more breakouts than usual. If this happens, don't immediately start using harsh actives—instead, work on soothing the skin, hydrating your skin barrier, and spacing out your retinol treatment nights if need be. Want to learn more about retinol and acne? Take a look at this guide.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.