How to tell if your skin is breaking out or just purging

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“It will get worse before it gets better” is not an expression one typically likes to hear, especially when the topic is skin. But alas, skin purging is a very real thing that happens to many of us. 

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And while purging skin does indicate the effectiveness of exfoliants and acne-fighting ingredients getting deep into the pores and bringing gunk quickly to the surface (good), it can also set off alarm bells and falsely lead us to believe our products are reacting badly with our skin (bad). 

And so, we spoke to Desiree Stordahl, Paula’s Choice Senior Research & Education Manager, on how to identify the difference between a purge and a breakout so we’re never mistaken again.

When it comes to the physical appearance of both reactions, Paula says that “true acne will look more like red, swollen pimples”, while purging will look “more like bumps/whiteheads and in some cases, blackheads”. 

However, an important factor to understand when assessing the two is that the real “difference comes down to physiology”.   

Regular acne breakouts are formed as the response to a clog in a pore which “causes the lining to rupture, spilling the contents—oil, debris, and dead skin—into the surrounding skin”. 

Following this “the acne-causing bacteria in and around the pore begin a feeding frenzy; triggering inflammation that results in a red, swollen pimple on the skin’s surface.”


Purging on the other hand, “brings the clog to the surface, which is why it looks more like congested bumps, whiteheads or blackheads”. 


The unclogging of pores that would have made their way to the surface eventually, or “fast-tracking your way to clearer skin” as Paula puts it, isn’t anything to worry about. But a blemish no matter what the cause, is never fun.

A purging phase when using new products particularly “BHA or anti-acne products such as retinol and benzoyl peroxide” is not guaranteed to happen to all. If you do, however, find your skin purging, expect the adjustment period to last “two to four weeks”. If symptoms persist, consult a doctor or dermatologist to ensure you are not reacting.

Main image credit: @ashleygraham

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Comments 29

  1. My skin purged when I first tried facial oil. The pimples were close to the surface & unlike my usual zits. The rest of my skin looked & felt so good that I persevered, & I’m glad I did! Facial oils, especially rosehip oil, has made a dramatic improvement to my complexion.

  2. not really something that I normally have to worry about but I have woken this morning with a sore pimple right on my lip line….ouch. I guess thats purging for some reason. Time to get out my lip scrub.

  3. Interesting! Never thought of it as my skin having a purging state. This reminds me – I seem to have become intuitive of when my skin ‘feels’ like it needs an bit of exfoliating and I did it this morning.

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