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Skin Purging vs. Breakout (How To Tell The Difference)


Have you started using a new skincare product and suddenly getting breakouts? I get asked all the time if this is skin purging, or, is the new skincare product causing a bad reaction?

9 out of 10 times I believe it’s a reaction to the product, not an actual skin purge.

I know that some skin care experts and companies (even natural skincare companies) would love you to believe your skin is purging. But, majority of the time, I believe your skin is breaking out because something in the product is irritating your skin.

An ingredient or mixture of ingredients could be causing a reaction, clogging your pores, or is too drying or too rich. Eventually your skin might adapt to the product and balance out, other times it will continue to get worse.

In today’s video and blog post I want to share the guidelines I follow to know for sure if it’s a skin purge, or an adverse reaction to a product.

I always feel terrible when I hear stories of people having bad skin reactions to products, but they continue using it for months because they’re told their skin is purging. They’re instructed to continue using the product, and eventually it will get better. Many of these people come to me asking if they are doing something wrong because they’re not getting the results they should. They actually blame themselves, which is terrible.

The reality is, not all skincare products work the same for everyone, and knowing the signs and symptoms of a skin purge vs. breakouts can equip you to make the best decisions for your skin.

Find out the difference between skin purging and breakout.

What is skin purging?

The theory behind skin purging is sometimes when you start using a new skincare product containing active ingredients, the product can speed up cell turn over so much that everything clogging your pores comes to the surface, forming pimples and breakouts.

In essence, you’re purging the dirt, debris, sebum build up, and dead skin cells from your pores, which can temporarily cause pimples and breakouts. Once newer skin comes to the surface and your pores have been cleared out, the purging will stop and your skin will be clearer than ever before.

If you are going through skin purging, you will be told to just continue with the product you are using, that your skin can get worse before it gets better. As long as you continue and push through the purging phase, you’ll get to the other side and your skin will be better than ever (hopefully!).

This purging process starts within days of starting the new skincare product, and can last a few weeks as your skin is clearing out and newer skin cells are coming to the surface.

Purging usually happens in areas of your face where you are prone to getting breakouts. Many times we have clogged pores and pimples forming under our skin we don’t even know of. If you get visible skin congestion on certain parts of your face, you can expect those areas to have the most purging.

What active ingredients cause skin purging?

Common active ingredients that can cause purging are exfoliating acids like AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid, etc), BHA (salicylic acid), and retonoids/retinols. These ingredients exfoliate the skin (dissolve the build up of dead skin cells, dirt, debris and sebum from the surface of your skin and/or your pores), and stimulate new skin cells to come to the surface.

You are more likely to get a purge from using a chemical exfoliant (AHAs or BHA) than a physical exfoliate (like a scrub or mask). The reason why is because exfoliating acids (especially salicylic acid), work deeper in your skin and pores, and the products you use that contain exfoliating acids (like a serum, toner, treatment product), are usually formulated to be used a lot more regularly than a scrub or mask. An exfoliating scrub or mask you use once a week won’t cause a purge like an exfoliating serum or treatment product you use every day.

Can oil cleansing cause skin purging?

Yes, for some people, oil cleansing can cause an initial skin purge. This would only happen when you start oil cleansing for the first time, not if you have already been oil cleansing regularly for a few months or years (or suddenly switching to a different oil or product).

The oil cleansing method involves applying/massaging oil on your face, and then removing it with a damp wash cloth.

Oil has the ability to loosen and dissolve build up on the surface of your skin, and can help loosen sebum that’s clogging pores.

Using a damp washcloth to remove the oil from your skin is also gently exfoliating your skin. If you are oil cleansing once or twice a day, every day, this cleansing method can stimulate an initial skin purge because of the exfoliation and stimulus of your skin.

If you’re starting to oil cleanse for the very first time and suddenly you’re getting a few pimples in areas of your face that you normally get a breakouts, this could be a purge.

If your skin gets red, itchy, dry, or raw – this is a reaction to the product, and not a purge (and you should stop using the product).

If you get patches of tiny raised bumps on parts of your face, or all over your face, this too is an adverse reaction to the product. In most cases I would stop using the product, but if the patch of tiny bumps is really small, you could push through and see if it clears up on it’s own.

In general, a purge from oil cleansing would cause pimples, whiteheads, and pustules to come to the surface; and not cause any redness, itchy skin, raised bumps, or texture.

Also, some heavier oils (especially ones that have a very shiny/glossy appearance) can sometimes highlight texture and the appearance of blackheads and enlarged pores. They aren’t causing the texture and pores, just reflecting light on your skin in a certain way that emphasizes the appearance of it.

What about clay masks?

Clay masks are only used once or twice a week (they should never be used more than that), and therefore wouldn’t trigger a purge like using an exfoliating treatment product you’d use every single day.

Clay does have the ability to draw impurities, and clarify the skin, but it’s working on the outermost layer of the skin, which couldn’t trigger a purge.

Most people notice a temporary clarifying effect after using a clay mask – their skin is smooth, pores less visible, pimples less red and inflamed, etc. If you’re getting bad breakouts after using a clay mask, I would think something in that mask isn’t compatible with your skin and is causing an adverse reaction, and best to stop using the mask.

How long does skin purging last?

A skin purge shouldn’t last longer than 2 weeks, at most a month.

Personally, if I started using an exfoliating product and I was still getting constant fresh breakouts after two weeks of use, and my skin looked like it was only getting worse – I would stop using the product. I don’t think that’s a purge.

When I’ve gone through skin purges in the past, even though I was getting pimples or cluster breakouts, there was something about my skin that seemed to be simultaneously improving. It was as if I was getting breakouts, but at the same time I could tell my skin was getting better. Either my skin tone was evening out, or I had less redness or inflammation, or even though I had pimples and breakouts, the skin around the breakouts was getting healthier and clearer.  It didn’t just continue to look worse and worse, but was bad and good at the same time (if that’s makes any sense!).

In all, I think intuitively we just know when something is really messing up our skin, and when something has temporarily thrown things off but will improve. The problem is we’re constantly told to just push through, and if we wait long enough, the miracle will come. There’s a fear of giving up too soon. But, you have to listen to your gut – you know your body better than anyone.

Difference between a skin purge and a reaction to a product?

Knowing the difference between symptoms of a skin purge vs. breakout can help you detect what is going on with your skin if suddenly you’re getting breakouts from using a new skincare product.

I will say that sometimes the symptoms can be quite similar, and the only way of knowing for sure is just giving it some time (like 2 weeks), to see if you are in fact having a skin purge that eventually balances out, or if you are having an adverse reaction that will continue to worsen.

Below I’ve listed some of the signs and symptoms of both a skin purge and adverse reaction to a product for you to know the difference.

Skin Purge:

  • You just started using a skincare product (usually containing AHAs, Salicylic Acid, or Retinoid/Retinol) and you’ve started getting pimples and breakouts within days of starting the product. Sometimes this can also happen when you start oil cleansing for the first time.
  • The pimples and breakouts are on parts of your face where you normally get breakouts or skin congestion (if you regularly get breakouts on your chin for example, if you have a skin purge, you’re most likely going to get the purge on your chin, not on places on your face where you normally never get breakouts).
  • The increase of pimples and breakouts lasts about 2 weeks (no more than a month), and then your skins starts to improve, breakouts clear up and are a lot less frequent.
  • A skin purge causes pimples, pustules, whiteheads, clogged pores to come to the surface of the skin, and sometimes cystic pimples. You can get individual pimples or cluster breakouts.
  • Your skin gets worse before it gets a lot better (the “worst” part should only last 2 weeks, max 1 month, and then should get a lot better).
  • Even though your skin is getting worse and you’re getting more breakouts, at the same time your skin should show some signs of improvement (perhaps as the days go by your skin will be a lot less red, less irritated, more even skin tone, etc).

What is not a skin purge:

  • Any sort of redness, raw skin, scaly or rough texture, dry patches, irritation, inflamed skin is not a skin purge. Something in the product is irritating your skin and I recommend discontinuing usage.
  • Texture, tiny bumps, “orange peel” skin, enlarged pores, is not purging. This too is an adverse reaction to the product you are using.
  • If the pimples and breakouts continue to get worse and worse 2 weeks after starting a new skincare product, this is most likely not a skin purge.
  • Sometimes your skin needs to adapt to the new product you are using. Perhaps the product is a little richer than what you are used to, and for a few days you get a few white heads or pustules, but they clear up. This is not a purge, but more likely a phase of adaptation. As long as the pimples/pustules clear up and your skin remains blemish-free you can certainly continue using the product.
  • You wouldn’t suddenly get a skin purge from a product you’ve been using for a few months or years.
  • Moisturizers, facial scrubs, cleansing tools, or face masks don’t cause skin purges.
  • Sometime we change something in our diet or lifestyle at the same time we introduce a new skincare product. A change of diet, starting exercise, getting off coffee, stopping certain medications, quitting smoking, a change in climate/season, etc., can all suddenly cause breakouts, and be the source of the “purge.”

Does skin purging mean your skin is detoxing?

No. I personally don’t believe a skin care product can detoxify your skin like your kidneys and liver detoxifies your body. A skin care product can slough off build up of dead skin cells on the surface of your skin, or break up hardened sebum that’s clogging pores. But your skin can never be toxic, and therefore won’t be “detoxified.”

Through bodily processes of digestion and elimination of waste, we do eliminate toxins through our urine, fecaes, breath, and sweat. Sometimes with a change of diet, eliminating coffee, stopping certain medications or drugs, or quitting smoking – there can be an influx of irritating toxins and waste being eliminated through your sweat and skin, which could result in skin rashes, breakouts, and increased sebum production.

Many times when people switch to natural skin care products and all of a sudden they get skin breakouts or acne, they are told not to worry, their skin is “detoxing.” This could very well be a skin purge, or, your skin is having a reaction to the product. If your skin isn’t improving after two weeks of using the product and it continues getting worse and worse, this isn’t some sort of detox, this product is messing up your skin!

I do want to mention one detail that often gets overlooked when you switch to natural products and all of a sudden get breakouts or skin issues. Make sure to look at the whole picture. Have you made any recent diet or lifestyle change? Have you started a new exercise program or recently done a cleanse or fast? Are you pregnant? Many times people start using natural skin care products because they are on a new diet or have made lifestyle improvements that have inspired them to make changes to their skincare routine. Or, they made the switch to natural skin care because they are pregnant and want to use safer products. If this is the case, it might not be the skin care products causing the skin breakouts, but something else you started doing around the same time you made the switch (or the combination of the two).

How to prevent a skin purge?

Normally, it’s the stronger products with active ingredients that stimulate a skin purge.

Knowing this, why not start slow with the new product you are using, and ease into it?

There’s no rush, and sometimes the best way to prevent a skin purge or reaction to a new product is to use it less frequently in the beginning to see how your skin responds to the product.

If you are going to start using a product containing AHAs, salicylic acid, retinoid/retinol – why not just use it once or twice a week in the beginning instead of daily, and allow your skin some time to adjust. Slowly you can increase the frequency of usage as your skin gets used to the product. I truly believe that going in slowly and gently will yield the best results as opposed to going in strong and fast, and hoping for the best!

Also, if you are going to start using a product that could cause a skin purge, don’t start using additional new skincare products at the same time, or make any other changes to your skincare routine until your skin has fully adapted to the new product.

Best to do one thing at a time, and be as gentle with your skin as possible.

And don’t forget…

Before using any new product on your face, make sure to patch test it on the back of your arm or wrist. This is especially important if you have sensitive skin or a history of having adverse reactions to skincare products.

About the Author

Hi, I’m Natasha St. Michael, Founder of Inspire Beauty. I’m also a Certified Holistic Health Coach and Natural Health Educator accredited by the Institute For Integrative Nutrition. I’m obsessed with skin care and self-care. I’m 47 years old, struggled with adult acne until I was 30, and now I’m all about preserving the youthfulness of my skin (and sharing all my tips and tricks). If you have a question about a product or need a recommendation, feel free to contact me anytime.


This blog is for information purposes only. The content is not intended as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Should you have a medical or dermatological problem, please consult with your physician. None of the information or recommendations on this website should be interpreted as medical advice.

All product reviews, recommendations, and references are based on the author’s personal experience and impressions using the products. All views and opinions are the author’s own. 

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