Is Your Skin Purging? Here’s How to Tell

Skin purging - it sounds less than glamorous, definitely, but might be something that you’ve already experienced without realising. We know - just the combination of the two words ‘purging’ and ‘skin’ can strike fear into the hearts of even the most experienced skincare fanatics, but don’t worry - it’s not as bad as you think. 

Sometimes called the ‘retinol uglies’ because of how often this happens when you start retinol (for reasons we’ll get into later), skin purging is a process that’s surrounded by questions, myths and a few pesky untruths. 

Today, we’re going to demystify pretty much everything to do with this uncomfortable, yet sometimes unavoidable process, and give you the best tips and tricks to push through!

What Is Skin Purging?

First up - what is skin purging? When people talk about skin purging, they’re often referring to the short period of time when breakouts appear or worsen after starting to use certain skincare ingredients. I know what you’re thinking - why would anyone want to put their skin through this?! How long does skin purging last?

Well, there’s good news: true purging doesn’t last forever. It’s temporary and only happens with certain skincare ingredients. Which ones exactly? Acne flare-ups (as they’re called in scientific studies) can happen with skincare ingredients that influence one crucial factor about your skin: your skin cell turnover. 

To put it simply, the only skincare ingredients that are linked to this are the ones that speed up our skin cell turnover, ultimately influencing how our skin behaves and appears. This means that there’s actually only a small group of skincare ingredients that can cause your skin to act this way!

SK-II Facial Treatment Clear Lotion product image on white backgroundSK-II Facial Treatment Clear Lotion
This exfoliating toner uses the combined power of AHAs and BHAs to slough off dead skin cells.

What Causes Skin Purging?

There are a couple of misunderstandings about what causes skin purging - just simply changing your skincare doesn’t cause it. 

We’ve already established that skincare ingredients that boost skin cell turnover are the ones that are linked to skin purging - but what are these ingredients, anyway?

The most common type of skincare ingredient that’s linked to acne flare-ups are retinoids - and this includes your anti-aging retinol serum as well as prescription retinoids such as Tretinoin and Adapalene.

Why? Well, retinoids influence skin cells to behave differently, resulting in the long term effects that retinoids are known for: clearer skin, faded acne marks, and fewer wrinkles - but these benefits do come with a small price to pay. 

By essentially pressing fast forward on skin cell turnover, these active ingredients cause any underlying decongestion to come to the surface faster than it normally would temporarily causing the flare-up or increase in breakouts that many people coin the purge.

Other skincare ingredients that can cause skin purging include exfoliating acids - and yes, that means all of them. Every acid in the AHA and BHA family can cause your skin to purge, especially with regular use at first. 

Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Serum product image on white backgroundElizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum
This concentrated retinol serum is packed with ingredients to support your skin during any purging or adjustment, strengthening your moisture barrier.

Any Tips on How to Prevent Skin Purging?

It seems like there should be some kind of way to get around the skin purge, right? Maybe if you use your retinol sparingly, or apply the thinnest layer of your exfoliating acid? The truth is, there’s no way to slow down or prevent it from happening at all. 

Starting your actives too slowly either prolongs your skin’s purging period, or means that you’re not applying your actives frequently enough for your skin to get real benefits from it. 

Skin Purging Vs. Breakouts: How to Tell the Difference

The number one question people have is whether they’re actually dealing with real purging, or if they’re just breaking out - it can be hard to tell the difference between the two, especially if you’re not sure what you’re looking for. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help tell the difference between skin purging vs. breakouts. 

Remember, if your skin is purging, that’s due to your skin cells literally being changed by a certain skincare ingredient - regular breakouts are caused by skincare not being quite right for your skin, blocking pores and ultimately leading to acne. 

Declaré Anti-Irritation serum product image on white backgroundDeclaré Anti-Irritation Serum
Formulated with Panthenol and Centella Asiatica, this serum is perfect for soothing inflamed breakouts - including those caused by skin purging. 


1) Have I Recently Started Using a Retinol Product or Exfoliating Acid?

Sometimes, the easiest way to tell if you’re dealing with skin purging vs. breakouts is to look carefully at your current skincare routine. If you’ve just started retinol for the first time, or even started a different exfoliating acid, that increases the likelihood that your skin has started the purging process! 

2) Did I Start a Lot of Skincare Products at Once?

In this case, it’s more likely that your skin is breaking out due to an ingredient in one of the new products you started (and that’s if they don’t contain retinol or another ingredient that boosts skin cell turnover.) 

The unfortunate thing with skincare is that sometimes, our skin doesn’t care - certain ingredients can cause breakouts depending on your skin. When you start a lot of new products at once and get new unexplained breakouts at the same time, it’s going to be so much harder to figure out which product could be causing them - so the best thing to do is to introduce your skincare one product at a time!

SK-II R.N.A. Radical New Age cream moisturiser product image on white backgroundSK-II R.N.A. Radical New Age Cream
Featuring superstar ingredient niacinamide, this moisturiser is perfect for helping to soothe and calm skin.


3) Are These Breakouts Happening Where I Normally Have Breakouts?

Anecdotally, skin purging can be identified by exactly where these new pimples are popping up. Since any congestion in your skin is basically getting fast-forwarded, you might notice way more pimples than you usually have in places where they normally pop up. 

However, if you’re finding new breakouts appearing in places where your skin is normally clear, this is a red flag - it’s a potential sign that there’s something about this skincare that isn’t agreeing with your skin, causing these new breakouts. 

4) If My Skin Was Clear Before, Have These New Breakouts Lasted for Longer Than 3 Months?

Something else that indicates whether a product is causing skin purging or breakouts is the length of time - while this isn’t a rule of thumb for everyone, most people find that if they purge, it tends to subside after 12 weeks. I know - that sounds like a long time, but this time frame usually applies to just retinol products, since they’re able to influence skin at a deeper level than exfoliating acids. 


If these unusual breakouts are lasting longer than 12 weeks, it's likely that there’s an ingredient in them that’s incompatible with your skin and that you’re not going through a skin purge. 

What Helps Skin Purging?

If you've been taking a long hard look at your skin (and skin care routine) and think it’s likely that your skin is just purging, here’s what you can do.

One of the best things that you can do is to have patience - I know, this sounds like a lot easier said than done, but according to skin professionals, it’s the number one thing that you can do. Trying to speed things up by using spot treatments and clay masks can actually cause irritation, hampering your skin’s progress.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t skincare ingredients that can help your skin! As your skin purges, it might feel a little more inflamed than usual - ingredients such as Niacinamide, Panthenol, and Centella Asiatica work wonders to help calm this inflammation, reducing redness and ensuring your skin stays healthy during this uncomfortable process.

La Mer the hydrating maskLa Mer The Hydrating Facial Mask
Rich in skin soothing ingredients and La Mer's unique seaweed extract, this mask is perfect for giving your skin a much-needed hydration boost.

Hydrating, soothing treatments like sheet masks can work a long way to temporarily reducing redness and giving your skin an essential hydration boost - anything that hydrates and soothes is perfect for helping your skin during this uncomfortable adjustment period. 

Another major key to supporting your skin and yourself is to not fiddle with your routine too much during this process - and that’s especially true if you’re in the thick of introducing a retinol product to your routine. 

As well as undergoing the skin purging process, your skin cells are basically being influenced and rearranged at a microscopic level. This leads to the common side effects of extra sensitivity, dryness, and peeling skin.

Adding more actives in this mix is a recipe for disaster - to be on the safe side, waiting for your skin to fully cycle through any purging is the way to go before adding other actives to your beauty routine, such as Vitamin C.

The bottom line? Skin purging isn’t necessarily something to fear or even something that lasts forever - with the right tips, your skin will come through a skin purge just fine and in the long run, will be totally worth it!

If you’re still trying to create a skincare routine in the first place, try our skincare quiz. You’ll get a complete skincare routine tailored to your skin type and skin concerns to help you get your Beauty Affairs in order!

Beauty Affairs Skin Quiz

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