How do you tell the difference between your skin getting used to a new product and a full blown breakout? Here’s when to ride it out for the benefit of your skin and when to ditch an offending product

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If you’ve never heard of purging in the context of skincare, it’s not as scary as it sounds – consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk  gives us the definition:

“Purging is a non-medical term generally used to describe breakouts that occur after starting a new skincare treatment or product containing certain active ingredients.”

Chances are you’ve experienced a ‘purge’ if you’ve ever noticed white or red pimples or more meteoric craters surface after introducing a new skincare product that contains ingredients designed to boost skin cell turnover. Some of the most common culprits for provoking a purge are also some of the most beneficial and powerful skincare actives out there, which is confusing, but we’ll come to that. For now, here are some common purging triggers:

  • Retinoids
  • Exfoliating hydroxy acids, such as AHAS, BHAS and PHAS
  • Exfoliants full stop- think scrubs, cleansing brushes, peels and microdermabrasion treatments
  • Vitamin C
  • Benzoyl peroxide (a topical acne treatment)
  • Laser treatments

If you’re a regular around these parts, you’ll be aware that many of the above are administered to clear up spots in the first place, so if they appear to be making breakouts worse, what gives? We turned to Dr Kluk for answers, because getting spots from our spot treatments seems pretty unjust to us.

Signs that your skin is purging

On visuals alone, you’d have to be Sherlock to decipher this one, as breakouts and purging can look the same:

“All spots are essentially caused by the same process. The sebaceous glands in the skin produce too much oil or sebum. This mixes with dead skin cells and gets trapped in our pores. The bacteria that cause spots thrives on this material and activates our immune systems, triggering a cascade of inflammation that results in blemishes.”

I’m struggling to find the positives in an inflammation cascade situation, but if spots emerge after using certain skincare, all may not be lost according to Dr Kluk:

“The reason that certain treatments can trigger an initial breakout or “purge” is that they increase cell turnover. This means that they help us to shed our dead skin cells more effectively in the long run so that they don’t build up and clog our pores. In the shorter term, however, this accelerated shedding, or exfoliation, of dead skin cells may trigger more blackheads or breakouts.

Retinoids  are a good example of a treatment that can have this effect to start off with, but they are incredibly helpful for most people who persevere and any increase in breakouts tends to settle with continued use.”

So it’s kind of a short term pain, long term gain situation whereby spots that would have weaseled their way to the skin’s surface anyway have popped up prematurely. Purging should only last for around a month according to Dr Kluk, while you should start to see the benefits of a using new treatment at around the three month mark, or even earlier, depending on the treatment in question.

MORE GLOSS: The at-home pore cleaner that literally vacuumed up my blackheads

Can you prevent purging?

Not exactly, but you can reduce the ferocity of flare-ups by introducing new products containing active ingredients slowly and choosing lower strength products to begin with before gradually building to higher potencies once you’re skin has adapted. Keeping your skin barrier strong and healthy will help matters (see our guide to  building up your skin barrier  for advice on this one), as will ensuring you always use an SPF between 30 and 50 during the day and opting for gentle, anti-inflammatory skincare to offset any aftereffects of punchy active ingredients. Skin expert Paula Begoun  also advocates keeping this simple to avoid overloading your skin:

“If you’re using several products and applying them all at the same time, try applying them at different times (for example, apply one product in the morning, the other at night) or try switching to products with lighter textures (go from a cream to a lotion or gel), which often makes a world of difference.”

Signs that your skin is breaking out

Even the experts admit that the line between breakouts and purging isn’t always clear cut, as Dr Kluk indicates:

“If you’ve started a new skincare routine or introduced new makeup and your skin is breaking out, this could just mean that the ingredients or product formulation are not suitable for your skin and are aggravating the underlying acne process. Other lifestyle factors, such as stress, diet and hormone fluctuations  may also contribute. If in doubt, I’d recommend consulting an expert if you can, as it can be difficult to get on top of on your own. If things aren’t going in the right direction after a month of treatment, or are getting worse, seeing a dermatologist could really help. If, however, you are seeing cysts, scars or feeling unwell, it is important to seek more urgent attention as your treatment may need to be adjusted sooner.”

If you’ve not reached the SOS stage but you’re seeing spots and are on the fence as to whether it’s an acne attack or purging, playing the elimination game could help to determine what’s up. If any new skincare you’ve introduced doesn’t contain the likely purging culprits listed above, chances are your skin is irritated rather than flushing out dead skin cells, as Dr Kluk illustrates:

“Certain skincare products can get trapped in our pores, fuelling inflammation and acne. This is often the case with people who use richer creams or wear heavier makeup and is much more common in those with unnecessarily overcomplicated skincare routines.”

Another telltale sign that an adverse reaction rather than purging is in play is if spots appear in areas that you wouldn’t normally breakout (purging speeds spots to the surface – it shouldn’t cause things to kick off in entire new zones if you see what I’m saying).

When breakouts pretend to be purging

Not all of these breakout vs. purging diagnostics are neat and succinct, for example your skin could be breaking out on account of a reaction to an ingredient within a product that contains actives that encourage cell turnover, thus you could write off an inflammatory reaction or intolerance as a purge. As per Dr Kluk’s advice, stop using any suspected offending products if your breakouts become painful or progressively worse and if flare-ups persist or find new ground, you’re probably looking at a sensitisation issue that isn’t likely to respond to continued treatment. Knowing when to give up and move on is rarely easy, but drawing the lines early on could help to improve your skin down the line.

MORE GLOSS: Pimple patches to clear the most stubborn of spots

Follow Dr Kluk on Instagram  @drjustinekluk