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Starting a new skincare product? You need to know about purging and breakouts

Have you ever taken the plunge to start a new skincare brand or product only to experience a skin flare up or breakout episode? While seemingly disheartening, confusing and not to mention inconvenient there’s two simple explanations to explore before swearing off a brand or product entirely – purging and regular breakouts. Getting to the root of this cause is important because one is signalling to keep going while the other is a stop sign. 

We explore purging versus regular breakouts so you know when to hold faith in your skincare journey or when to call it a day.

The difference between purging and regular breakouts 

Purging is the term used to describe your skin simply adjusting to an active ingredient that is increasing skin cell turnover rate. When adjusting, it’s common to notice dry or peeling skin, excess sebum or skin build-up (causing pimples) ... and while inconvenient these are signs of the product actually working to replenish new, healthy cells at the surface of your skin. If you’re experiencing purging this is a good sign to persevere with the product as it’s working just as intended. We can't help but think of the old and rather annoying saying – no pain, no gain! 

Note: Pimples caused by purging usually occur in the same locations where your breakouts already occur 

A regular breakout describes your skin reacting to a product due to its ingredient base. When reacting you might notice clogged pores (causing pimples), irritation and even allergy-like symptoms. While clogged pores (causing pimples) can be recognised easily, you can also determine irritation and allergy-like symptoms rather quickly after using the product. With an ingredients list spanning the length of a paragraph it’s hard to know exactly which ingredient/s you’re reacting to, but in a bid to help, we explore this later for you (read: Where to from here..., below). 

Note: Pimples caused by a regular breakout occur in new locations too, extending above and beyond the location of which your breakouts typically occur already

What causes purging? 

Plain and simple, purging is caused by an increase in skin cell turnover (the rate at which skin cells are shed and replaced). As this rate is increased, the entire skin cycle is accelerated meaning that excess sebum, flakes and skin build-up that clog pores are also brought to the surface at a rapid rate – resulting in skin purging and therefore the inconvenient breakouts. It’s important to remember that the gunk that has caused this breakout episode has been brought to the surface by the product, however not caused by the product itself. The good news is that once most of this gunk (sorry!) is removed, the skin should develop into a better condition than when you started the product!

What ingredients cause purging? 

As purging is caused by an increase in skin cell turnover, this means that purging can be caused by ingredients that aim to do just that. Active ingredients that increase skin cell turnover include: 

  • Hydroxy acids AHA, BHA, glycolic, lactic, malic, mandelic, salicylic, lactobionic acids - gluconolactone; fruit acids) 
  • Vitamin C
  • Retinoids (retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, isotretinoin, retinyl palmitate) 
  • Benzoyl peroxide

What to do if your skin is purging 

While it might be tempting to avoid using a product that is causing purging altogether, a better way to progress through this phase is to continue using it however using it less frequently. For example, with a retinol-based product it’s recommended that when you start this product, it be introduced into your skincare routine slowly and built-up over time to help manage the changes in your skin and therefore the purging process. 

Stick to a gentle skincare routine to avoid further inflammation during this phase – a gentle cleanser, a soothing moisturiser and sunscreen. Plus, as counter-intuitive as it seems, the product causing the purging.

Where to from here? The ‘ease in’ and introduce ‘one product at a time’ methods 

When adding in a product known to increase skin cell turnover it’s best to use the ‘ease in method’. For example, during the first week, apply your retinol just two times. In week two, apply it three times, and so on, until you’re comfortable with daily use. This allows the skin to gradually adjust to the ingredient. The same can be applied to exfoliating acid products too. 

When starting a new skincare brand or a number of new products, another great method to test responsiveness is to follow the ‘one product at a time method’. By introducing one product at a time, you're able to isolate the reaction and determine if you’re experiencing purging or regular breakouts. If you’re experiencing regular breakouts, this also helps you to isolate and note the ingredients list. Then, if you introduce another product later and experience regular breakouts again, you can look for consistencies in the ingredients list across multiple products and begin to isolate ingredients that you may be sensitive to. 

While both drawn-out methods it’s absolutely worth it to get to know your products, understand your skin and isolate any skincare sensitivities that you may have. Plus, now you know when to have faith in your skincare or when to simply call it a day! Because skincare is an investment.