Is your skin purging or is it acne? How to tell the difference

There are a bunch of important differences to help you tell these processes apart.

Written by
Lucinda Starr
Medically reviewed by
min read
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So, you've decided to add a new product to your skincare routine. Maybe you've scored a new cleanser, serum or active treatment to help combat your acne breakouts.

After a few days or weeks of using this new skincare product, you might notice your complexion getting worse instead of getting better. So, how can you tell if you're navigating a skin purge or if you're experiencing an acne breakout or reaction?

While skin purging and breakouts might feel similar, there are a bunch of important differences to help you tell these processes apart.

Let's explain the difference between skin purging and acne, what causes skin purging and how long you can expect it to last.

What is skin purging?

Let's start with the basics. Skin purging refers to the process of active ingredients in skincare products boosting your skin's cell turnover and accelerating your skin's natural shedding processes.

With the addition of new active ingredients (such as retinoid creams, benzoyl peroxide or beta hydroxy acids, or even chemical-based exfoliants), our skin cell turnover happens more quickly than usual [1].

The result? Fresh skin cells are brought to the surface, while dead skin cells are flushed away (as well as excess sebum, dirt and bacteria).

It's all about boosting your natural skin cell turnover rate.

The purging process also happens at the same time, as your skin's impurities and blemishes are brought to the surface of the skin. You might also notice peeling skin and even sensitive skin as your complexion adjusts to this new skincare routine and the active ingredients you're using.

As skin purging occurs, you might experience breakouts, blackheads, red bumps or pimples as your skin purges and unclogs your pores underneath. Plus, dryness, redness and irritation are other common side effects of the purging process.

Why does skin purge?

To understand purging, we first have to understand the skin cycle. In short, new, healthy skin cells are continuously replacing old, dead skin cells — and there's a constant process of renewal happening.

This process generally takes about 28 days, although as we get older the life cycle of our skin cells does increase [2][3].

But as we know, fresh skin cells aren’t the only things that pop up on our skin. We also see comedones (blackheads and whiteheads), as well as pimples and acne lesions.

Some of these acne lesions, like cysts and nodules, can take weeks to form and for most of this time, they’re not sitting on top of our skin. They’re growing underneath it, where we can’t see or feel them.

Any product that increases skin cell turnover will increase the rate at which new skin cells are formed and the rate at which acne lesions emerge on our skin. But don’t worry: retinol isn’t creating acne lesions where there were none before, it’s just bringing pre-existing ones up to the top.

Think of it as pressing the fast-forward button on your face: all of those pimples waiting to pop up are now rushing out of your skin, thanks to the active ingredients in your skincare.

How to tell if your skin is purging

If you've added a medical-strength acne treatment into your skincare routine, chances are you'll experience some level of skin purging.

While our skin's natural pace of cell turnover happens roughly every 28 days, active ingredients speed up this process and bring breakouts to the surface [4].

Along with bringing new skin cells and radiant, youthful skin to the surface, skin purging creates a few unwanted side effects. That can include the appearance of clogged pores as well as breakouts such as whiteheads and blackheads.

Typically, a purge will appear mostly on the surface of the skin as small bumps or blackheads.

Plus, you might notice more stubborn breakouts (such as cyst-like pimples) that can take a few weeks to form. But never fear: your skincare products aren't causing these breakouts, they're simply bringing them to the surface at a faster rate.

Another clear sign that your skin is purging can be the peeling, redness or flaking of old, dry skin cells.

That's because chemical exfoliants can cause sensitivity and irritation as your skin adjusts to this new active ingredient.

Is skin purging a good thing?

Absolutely. Think of skin purging like short-term pain for long-term gain.

It's a good sign that your new skincare products are working their magic and getting deep below the skin's surface to target clogged pores and impurities.

If you've been navigating persistent acne or breakouts, using medical-grade skincare that contains an active ingredient can help you reduce the chance of inflammatory acne returning.

While it may be slightly uncomfortable, a few minor breakouts and patches of dryness are totally normal and all part of the skin purging process.

Skin purging vs breakouts: How to tell the difference

So, how can you tell the difference between skin purging or breaking out? While everyone's skin is different, there are a few key signs that can help you tell the difference.

First up, skin purging refers to the detoxifying of the skin. It involves using specialised ingredients that penetrate deep into the epidermis (the outermost layer of your skin) to flush away the toxins, bacteria and impurities causing your skin to break out.

A skin purge is a short-term and temporary appearance of spots and has long-term benefits for your skin's overall health.

On the flip side, an acne breakout isn't beneficial to your skin and can actually lead to long-term blemishes and even scarring. Breakouts can occur after adding a new product into your skincare routine and can indicate you're experiencing an allergic reaction.

The other big difference between purging and breakouts is that a purge is likely to go away faster than a typical pimple.

On the other hand, if your skin is breaking out in response to a new product, you might notice blemishes in a new area. Plus, these breakouts can take a lot longer to go away than a regular breakout.

If you notice a breakout from a new product (that isn't purging), it's best to discontinue using this product and swap to a new routine.

If you've been navigating persistent acne or breakouts, it might be worth considering working with a doctor. This way, you can score a customised skincare routine that features products and ingredients tailored to your specific skin needs.

With Software's acne treatment, we connect you with experienced doctors online who will be able to review your skin, create a custom formula and get your products shipped to your door.

How long does skin purging last?

While medical-grade acne treatments can reveal clearer, younger-looking skin, they do come with a few bumps along the way. That's because these products can speed up your skin's natural pace of renewal and skin-cell turnover.

So, how long should you expect a purge to last?

Typically, a purge is likely to last from 4-6 weeks after adding a new medical-grade product into your routine. This includes products and treatments that contain retinoids, hyaluronic acid, azelaic acid and niacinamide.

The key is to be patient for one full skin cycle (roughly 28 days) to let your skin purge through the worst of it.

However, if you do notice purging continues for longer than 6 weeks, make sure to chat to your doctor to find out if adjustments need to be made to your product strength or formulas.

They'll be able to chat you through your next steps, such as reducing the frequency of your treatment or lowering the number of active ingredients in your products.

How do I stop my skin from purging?

Unfortunately, a skin purge is an unavoidable part of using clinical-strength skincare.

However, it's helpful to remember that this purge will be temporary and should take less than 6 weeks to run its course.

While you can't skip purging entirely (it's a sign your products are working!), you can minimise the severity of the purge experience. Keep reading to discover how to navigate this transitional period and get on your way to a radiant complexion sooner.

How to make the purging period easier

A few practical steps you can take to reduce discomfort, peeling and dryness during a purge period include:

Slowly increase your treatment frequency

A great way to introduce a new clinical-strength acne treatment into your routine is to stagger it and slowly increase your treatment frequency.

For example, in the first week, you might use the product once and increase your application frequency after a few weeks.

Avoid picking your acne and purge pimples

While it might be tempting to pop any whiteheads or remove blackheads that appear, it's best to avoid picking any blemishes that appear during a purge (as your skin is vulnerable to damage during this time).

Instead, you can target the areas where your skin is purging with Software's AHA/BHA Pimple Patches.

Not only will they prevent you from picking at your breakouts, but they'll also remove dead skin cells and dry out excess oil to reveal visibly clearer skin in just 2 hours.

Skip drying products

Acne treatments (like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide) are actually drying ingredients that can cause redness and irritation. So steer clear of doubling up with any drying exfoliators or toners during a purge.

Use gentle, hydrating products

Treat your purging skin to a dose of gentle hydration by adding a creamy cleanser and unscented moisturiser to your routine.

Our Ceramide Repair Balm is a great option for morning and night use and can be used in conjunction with your Software formula. It revitalises dull, damaged, and dry skin with an injection of moisture-retaining and nourishing ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and squalane.

Its non-comedogenic formula replenishes and protects the skin barrier, infuses hydration, reduces redness and irritation, and protects against free radicals — and is particularly beneficial for those with sensitive skin.

However, if you feel like you're having a negative reaction to your treatment, it's important to stop using it right away. While it’s uncommon, if you notice that your skin is swollen or inflamed, or if you notice a rash or any blisters, stop the treatment and speak with your practitioner as soon as possible.

Looking for an effective way to treat persistent acne and stubborn breakouts?

Software brings custom skincare to your door, with tailored formulas that are more effective than anything off the shelf.

Simply answer a text-based online questionnaire, upload selfies and share your skin goals with your doctor. From here, your doctor will formulate a personalised skincare formula, which is then compounded by our partner pharmacy and delivered straight to you. You can track your skin results with Software and check in with your doctor at any time.

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