Purging or pimples? Spot the difference

Purging is a normal, common and temporary skin response that can happen as your skin adjusts to certain products.

To fully understand what purging is and why it happens, it’s important to remember that congestion (whiteheads, blackheads, papules, pustules etc.) doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, pimples start forming below the surface of your skin weeks before you see anything.

Products that accelerate cell turnover speed up our skin’s natural exfoliation process – hardened dead skin cells get sloughed off the top and new baby skin cells rise to the surface. When you use a product that accelerates cell turnover, it can cause congestion that is already brewing below to come to the surface faster. Think of it like cleaning out the pipes: the stuff causing blockages is already there, it’s just being forced out faster than it normally would. 

While purging is very common, particularly with strong retinoids, not everyone will purge. If you aren’t prone to breakouts, then there won’t be much in your pores that needs clearing out. If you don’t purge, that doesn’t mean the product isn’t working.

Oftentimes, purging is confused with a negative reaction to a product. So how do you know if you are purging or having a reaction? There are four key signs to look out for. 

The product. Only products that are capable of increasing cell turnover, such as retinoids and some strong exfoliants or peels, can cause purging. Things like cleansers, moisturizers and sunscreen cannot cause purging because they do not influence cellular turnover. If you use one of those products and notice any irritation, this is a reaction. 

The location. Since purging is just clearing out what is already there, you will only experience purging in areas you normally breakout. Purging does not cause new breakouts in new places.

The onset. While purging does cause breakouts on a faster timeline, it still does not happen overnight. The purge will start a few days to 2 weeks later. If you start experiencing bumps, redness or irritation within a few hours, this is most likely a reaction. 

The duration. The breakouts come up quickly, but they also tend to resolve themselves faster than normal. 

Some tips to get over the purge:

  • The most important thing to keep in mind if you start purging? Let it happen. If you discontinue using a product every time you start purging, you will more than likely never get over that initial hump.
  • Let the product causing the purging to be the star of the show while you adjust. Don’t use any other exfoliants or irritating products. Instead, the rest of your routine should be focused on hydration and barrier support.
  • If you’re using a retinoid, sandwich it with a thin layer of moisturizer before and after. Make sure you are applying the retinoid itself on dry skin and allow it to fully dry before your next product.
  • Go slow and build up. Like, really slow. If you’re using a retinoid, start by incorporating it 1-2 nights a week for a few weeks before adding in another night.