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Is My Skin Purging or Breaking Out? A Skin Expert Differentiates Between the Two

After you went through your teenage years, you probably thought you were done and dusted with acne and other less than desirable skin problems. Unfortunately, as you sit and read this as an adult, it's common to still be haunted by bouts of inflammation, zits, enlarged pores, painful blind pimples and of course... skin purging.

While the term ‘skin purging’ may conjure up unpleasant images of large bumps, rashes and gunk being extracted from your pores (as evident on some extremely visual YouTube videos), the real deal isn’t all that gruesome. In fact, you’ve probably gone through a purge episode and passed it off as a regular breakout. Which brings us to the question: how do you tell the difference between a skin purge and normal acne?

To help you and your skin out, we sought the expert help of Biologi Dermal Specialist Lucy Macdougald, to explain the difference, why a purge happens, the signs to look out for and effective treatment so you can get on with your life flaunting clear, healthy skin.

What is skin purging?

Essentially, a purge refers to the reaction some skin has to certain products, specifically retinols and acids. 

“A skin purge is an adjustment phase that occurs when new products speed up the skin cell turnover rate, causing an array of temporary side effects like blackheads and pimples,” Macdougald explains. 

This pushes all hidden commodities to the skin surface, resulting in blockages that cause irritation and breakouts.

“Due to the cellular turnover during a skin purge, the surface layer of skin begins to shed more quickly, so our skin expedites its recovery and pushes everything to the surface.”

The good news is it’s telling you your new products are actually working and the results at the end of the purging period will be worth it. 

What is the difference between skin purging and a breakout?

According to Macdougald, it can actually be quite difficult to tell the difference between the two. 

However, there are two key differences you can keep an eye out for — where on your face the blemishes are appearing and how long they stay around for. 

“During a skin purge, skin cells will turn over at a faster rate, meaning those blemishes will go away quicker, typically within a few days. Breakouts, on the other hand, can last anywhere from eight to 10 days.”

Macdougald warns: “If you get itchy, red or irritated skin at any point then definitely consult a professional because there could be deeper issues at play that might not heal on their own.”

Then, the location of your blemishes might also help you distinguish what’s happening with your skin. 

“If you’re experiencing blemishes in places you normally breakout, then it could be part of a skin purge, however, if the blemishes appear in areas where you don’t normally breakout, it could be an allergic reaction to a product.”

How long does skin purging last?

This all depends on a person’s skin type, age and the products they’re reacted to. 

“For younger skin, it could mean just a couple of days, but for older skin, it can be a couple of weeks. We often find more mature skin takes a little longer to adjust because since the skin is older, it does take a little while to regenerate.”

“A normal purge should only last a full skin cycle, however, a bad reaction can linger on. 

Everyone’s skin is different, but most experts typically suggest a skin purge should be over in about four to six weeks,” Macdougald notes. 

While you might feel like you look your worst during your purge, the key is to never lose hope. “Always persevere through the purging phase because your skin is essentially getting rid of all the bad stuff, and the purge allows time for it to balance itself out.” 

4 steps to dealing with your skin purge

So you know your skin is definitely purging — don’t stress, because Macdougald is here to provide you with some relief on how to best deal with your skin situation. 

1. Patience

“The best way to get rid of a skin purge is patience! Unfortunately, patience can be the best way to let it run its course and detoxify completely. What you’ll usually find though, is your skin will need to go through a detoxing phase where you rid the layers of any toxins that might have built up and a lot of time your skin might get worse before it gets better.” Just keep in mind this is a good thing! 

2. Avoid irritating skin further

“During this phase, you’ll want to make sure you’re not doing anything to further aggravate it. Try to avoid any stripping products (such as harsh cleansers or scrubs) and try not to pick it!”

As tempting as it might be, nothing (we repeat, nothing!) positive will come out of picking your skin or squeezing spots. 

“While your hands might look clean, they are actually homes for a host of bacteria, germs and dirt. This dirt and bacteria can easily be spread when we touch our skin, and as a result, will make any blemishes worse. What’s more, when we pick at our skin and break the surface, we’re allowing all dirt to penetrate even further, thus infecting and irritating skin.”

3. Use gentle products 

“If your skin is going through a purging phase, avoid aggravating it anymore by only using gentle products. Put away any harsh scrubs or cleansers and instead incorporate gentle practices like cleansing your skin thoroughly each day with a gentle cleanser.”

We recommend trying La Roche-Posay's Effaclar Purifying Foaming Gel Anti-Acne Cleanser, The Ordinary's Squalene Cleanser and Biologi's Bc Refresh Cleanser.

4. Less is best

“If you've introduced a new active product into your skincare routine, don’t overcomplicate things.”

Instead, introduce new products using a phased approach. For example, use your new product once a week at first, then every second day and so forth, until you and your skin are comfortable enough to tolerate it on a daily basis. By doing this, your skin has time to adjust to the new active and better incorporate it into its processes. 

Moreover, “don’t overload your skin by introducing a plethora of new actives at the same time. Approach each product with a ‘less is more’ mindset.”

OK, so how long does it take for beauty products to actually work? Here's a complete guide.

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