Purging vs Breakouts - when to stop using your skincare
What is the difference between purging and a breakout? Both of these include a sudden occurrence of acne on your skin. Acne occurs when your pores become blocked with dead skin cells, sebum and bacteria.
Purging isn't a scientific term, but is commonly used to describe a period of time where your skin goes through a breakout while adjusting to a new skincare product. Purging can be quite common especially with products that contain certain actives in them that help boost skin cell turnover. Your skin cycle renews about every month, but certain actives can speed this up - which will in turn bring up any microcomedones (acne invisible under the skin) to the surface much quicker than it normally would. Here are some actives and treatments that speed up cell turnover and may cause a purging reaction:
- Retinoids (Retinol, Adapalene, Tretinoin, any Vitamin A derivative)
- Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA)
- Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA)
- Vitamin C
- Physical exfoliation
- Chemical peels
Purging doesn't always happen when using or doing these treatments, however often times it can mean that the product you are using is working effectively at speeding up cell turnover which may help improve skin texture, hyperpigmentation and smooth out fine lines and wrinkles.
How long does purging last?
Purging usually lasts for one month and you'll be able to see noticeable improvement in your skin's condition by the end of it. Acne resulting from purging usually comes and goes away quicker than regular breakouts. It's very essential to monitor your skin while using products with these actives.
While you may initially get more acne, you should not be getting acne in places you normally don't break out in. For example, if you typically get acne around your jaw and forehead and you notice more acne around these areas when using a retinoid, you may likely just be purging. If you start getting acne on your cheeks when you never get it there, it may simply be a breakout and the product you are using isn't suitable for your skin.
Know when to call it quits
It's important to stick with the product for at least 4 weeks before deciding on quitting it. If you see no improvements after 6 weeks and have been breaking out nonstop, stop using the product altogether.
As someone with acne-prone skin myself, I have been prescribed Adapalene (aka Differin) by a dermatologist. Differin is a retinoid that speeds up cell turnover and in theory is great for people with acne. I remember using Differin religiously for over 12 weeks (yes, 3 whole months) and my skin just kept getting worse and worse. I naively didn't see my dermatologist because I assumed this purging stage was normal and it would eventually get better. I ended up going to a different dermatologist after 12 weeks who told me that I should have stopped using it if my skin saw no improvement after 6 weeks. I was left with lots of scarring and hyperpigmentation (PIE), which could have been avoided had I stopped using Differin earlier.
- give an active ample time to work (~4 weeks)
- monitor your skin's condition closely
- stop using the product if you've seen no improvement/worsening of acne after 6 weeks of continuous use
- getting acne where you normally don't get it? > likely a breakout, not purging
- getting acne while using a new product without actives that speed up skin cell turnover/exfoliate? > likely a breakout, not purging
- Do not overwhelm your skin with multiple new actives at the same time. Introduce one first and introduce it slowly by using it once every few days instead of daily.