Understanding Skin Purging and Breakouts: A Comprehensive Guide

Just started a new routine and lots of tint spots have appeared? This could be a reaction; it could be your skin’s natural cycle or it could be purging. My money is on purging, especially if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin and you’ve just started using an exfoliant or retinoid.

In this article, I’ll delve into skin purging, its causes, and how to distinguish it from routine breakouts and reactions.

What Causes Skin Purging?

Imagine you are cleaning out a messy disorganised clothes wardrobe. You’re taking jumpers, shirts, socks, and everything else and throwing them on the floor behind you as you work your way deeper towards Narnia. This is how a skin acid (like Salicylic Acid), or a retinoid, feels like when it first lands on your skin.

These products work by clearing pores of accumulated debris from the upper layers of your skin (like your clothes in the wardrobe) clearing a space for new sparkly cells to shine through.

In the process of doing this they do two things

1) make a lot of mess (oil, dirt and dead skin) 

2) increase cell turnover – that is the speed at which your skin makes new skin cells and sheds old ones. How? Well, its complex, but one way to think about it is, assume your body like’s a nice thick layer of skin to keep all the badness out and as the skincare ingredient of your choice starts to shed that layer the body speeds up its production of cells underneath to match it.

With all this accelerated skin cell production, and the release of debris and dead skin cells, it’s not surprising that our tiny little skin pores can’t cope with the sudden influx of gunk. They get clogged themselves and we get mini break outs as our bodies try to fight a perceived acne invader. The result, especially if your immune system is already in fight mode (aka sensitive or acne prone skin)  – tiny (almost always itchy) spots.

Welcome to the purge.

Salicylic Acid and Purging:

Salicylic acid is often associated with skincare purging. That’s because it’s really good at its job. As a small molecule it penetrates deep within pores, breaking down clumps of skin cells as it goes, reducing skin oil build-up and throwing behind it a backwash of gunk. This inevitably causes some purging. Over time, it also inevitably causes less blocked pores, less blackheads and less white bumps associated with blocked pores.

Salicylic acid purging can last anywhere from 2-6 weeks since it takes the skin about a month to fully turn over (hello – we have a brand named 28 Day Skin for a reason!) That said, if you have plenty of clogged pores, it might take a bit more time for your skin to get clear. Picture it like this—those clogged pores are packed with stubborn oil, dirt, and gunk, and all of that needs an exit, often appearing as whiteheads. It's your skin's way of dealing with them.

Benzoyl Peroxide and Purging:

Benzoyl peroxide, a prescription-only acne treatment in most European countries, can also induce purging due to its ability to increase cell turnover. When it comes to benzoyl peroxide, your breakouts should also start to diminish after 2-6 weeks. If you introduce it into your routine slowly to avoid irritation (irritation triggers breakouts) you’ll likely have less purging issues.

Retinoids and Purging

When using retinol or retinoids, start slowly, especially with a prescription. Rushing may cause irritation, making breakouts worse. Skin purging from retinol can last 4-8 weeks or more with prescriptions. Why? There’s simply a lot more going on with Retinoids than exfoliating acids due to retinisation (which is a whole post in itself) but if we picture our wardrobe cleaning analogy – exfoliating acids are throwing the clothes on the floor without any care while retinoids are all Marie Kondo - taking them out, folding them nicely and stacking them in rows.

Distinguishing Skin Purging from Breakouts:

It is crucial to differentiate between purging and coincidental breakouts, especially when starting new products. Like a lot of things in life, it’s all about location and timing.

Breakouts caused by acne should not worsen when using products designed to improve acne. If your put Salicylic Acid on your chin, and you get spots on your forehead they’re not from purging. Purging happens where you treat. Location, location, location.

Likewise, patience is key. You need to stick with it for at least 4 weeks. That may seem like forever. If after four weeks it’s still just as bad, take a break and see if things improve. If they do – might have been purging. If they don’t? That might be your skin.

Contrary to the belief that "your skin has to get worse before it gets better," skin purging is not a universal experience. It remains a mystery why some individuals undergo purging while others do not.

Caring for Skin During Purging:

During the purging phase, it is essential to simplify your skincare routine, emphasizing gentle care. Maintain hydration, adopt a healthy diet, manage stress, and consider going makeup-free when possible. Avoid squeezing spots to prevent the spread of bacteria, and always use sunscreen, particularly with potent products like retinol or Salicylic acid.

If things are bad you can try buffering the purging ingredient by applying a thin layer of moisturizer to act as a barrier before applying your skincare of choice on top. You could also give you skin a bit of rest by using the purging skincare just a few nights a week. Keeping it slow and easy is the key to reducing purges.

What Does Skin Purging Look Like?

Skin purging often presents as blackheads and flesh-colored bumps, typically appearing less inflamed than breakouts. While these are common characteristics, acne caused by skin purging may manifest and disappear more rapidly than classic breakouts.


If its not purging, what is it?

When we notice more breakouts after trying a new product, it's easy to point fingers at the product. It seems logical, doesn't it? While it's possible, many other factors could be causing the uptick in breakouts.

The first is a bad reaction, showing as redness, itching, stinging, burning, or rashes. Check if your skin feels hot or if tiny bumps cluster, making it feel rough (it might be dermatitis, not breakouts). We include a free patch test kit with every product to tick skin reactions off the list before you get started with a product (and if it doesn't work out you can return the product for free).

The second reason is that the product might be too heavy, clogging your pores. Avoid oily, heavy products, especially if your skin is prone to this. For dehydration, try a heavier moisturizer a few nights a week. Note that cleansers, moisturizers, oils, serums, masks, and sunscreen shouldn't cause purging. If they're breaking you out, they may not be the right fit for your skin type.

And reason number three is hormones and lifestyle – monthly hormonal cycles will affect your skin massively. Stress leads to the hormone cortisol being released which leads to breakouts. High sugar (high glycaemic index) diets lead to insulin imbalance which again leads to breakouts. Even travel and  temperature fluctuations can play a part in our skin happiness.

The bottom line

Figuring out if a new product is causing your skin to purge isn't a simple task. I often mention this, but it's worth saying again—breakouts are tricky, and pinpointing their exact cause can be tough.

Our 28 Day Skin brand has everything to help you from blue light treatment devices and acne focused skin care to supplements that reduce oil production.




Photos by Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/upset-woman-examining-skin-in-small-mirror-3771830/ Ketut Subiyanto: https://www.pexels.com/photo/anonymous-black-girl-lying-on-stack-of-clothes-in-bedroom-4545965/

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