Here's How to Tell If Your Skin Is *Actually* Purging

It could just be a breakout.

When you hear the word "purge" the first thing that may come to mind is a well-known horror television series, but if you're in the skincare world, you may know it as an equally dread-inducing reaction to a new ingredient. While this reaction may look like a breakout, skin purging isn't acne and, as such, shouldn't be treated equally.

To better understand why our skin purges, how to tell the difference between acne and a temporary reaction, and how to treat your skin if it does purge, we tapped three board-certified dermatologists.

What's the difference between purging and breaking out?

While they may look similar, there are several indicators that set the two apart. "What distinguishes them is mainly context and timing," says Manhattan-based Daniel Belkin, M.D. "Purging occurs with the start of a new acne medication — classically a topical or oral retinoid."

If you have acne, you're typically familiar with where and when you break out. So, if you regularly break out on your jawline, for example, but you've started using a new skincare product on your forehead and are noticing a bit of a reaction there, it's likely your skin purging and not your regular acne. "Thinking about the location, pattern, and how long it lasts will give you some information," says Michelle Henry, M.D., a New York-based dermatologist. "Then think about the ingredients — if it's not a retinol or something exfoliative, then it's probably not purging."

Why does skin purge?

"While we do not know the true prevalence of skin purging, it does seem to be common with several skincare ingredients like retinoids, hydroxy acids, benzoyl peroxide, and other chemical exfoliants," says Shereene Idriss, M.D, aka Pillow Talk Derm. She explains that while our bodies take time to produce new skin cells and shed dead ones, ingredients like retinol and tretinoin have been shown to speed up the process and at times lead to skin purging.

Dr. Henry furthers that these ingredients speed up the exfoliation process, so while your skin has a natural cycle, exfoliants accelerate that cycle, push up congestion, and create temporary inflammation.

Person examining their skin
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How should you treat a skin purge vs. a breakout?

If your skin is purging, Dr. Henry suggests pushing through with the treatment you're using. However, she says that if you're experiencing an aggressive purge, she'd recommend scaling back on the frequency of that treatment while continuing it nonetheless. "Use gentle skincare, go slow with whichever product we think is implicated in causing this, and have patience," she says.

For breakouts, Dr. Idriss suggests treating them as you typically would, pointing out that hydrocolloid patches are great at sucking gunk out of a pimple. For larger, more painful breakouts, Dr. Belkin says you can pop into your dermatologist's office for a cortisol injection. "That should clear it up by the next day," he adds.

Is it possible to prevent purging?

"It's hard to know whether purging will happen for you when you start a new acne medication," explains Dr. Belkin. However, Dr. Henry says that if you're prone to skin purging, you should begin slowly when incorporating new exfoliants into your routine.

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