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Am I purging or breaking out?

Skin purging is a temporary skin reaction to specific ingredients that cause breakouts, dryness, flaking, and peeling. 

Many skin care products aim to help people have clear, glowing skin. These products may contain active ingredients that speed up the exfoliation process to renew the skin. 

As new skin emerges to the surface, congestion such as excess sebum and other buildups will also rise to the surface. This can cause acne or a minor breakout, aside from dry, flaky skin. 

What does skin purging look like? 

Dead skin cells come to the surface, causing dry, peeling skin. The skin may also adjust to the increased skin cell turnover rate and may become red and irritated. 

Purging vs. acne breakout 

Skin purging and acne breakout may look the same, but their causes are different. 

Breakouts typically occur due to: 
• Clogged pores 
• Stress 
• an allergic reaction 
• Irritation 

A range of whiteheads, blackheads, papules, and pustules may appear. 

Skin purging usually develops when a person incorporates a new product into their skin care routine that causes a rapid skin cell turnover. 

What causes skin purging? 

The most common ingredient to cause skin purging is retinol, a form of vitamin A. 

Other active ingredients that are commonly used in skin care products include: 
• alpha hydroxy acids 
• beta hydroxy acids 
• glycolic acid 
• salicylic acid 
• lactic acid 
• vitamin C 
• benzoyl peroxide 

These ingredients shorten skin turnover from 28 days (in young adults) to around 7–14 days. 

What to do if purging?

A person experiencing skin purging should continue using the products and adhere to their skin routine unless they have a severe allergic reaction. It may take some time for the skin to adjust to the new regimen and show improvements. 

It is recommended to do a patch test for new skin care products on a small area of skin for 7–10 days. 

People with sensitive skin are more likely to experience redness and inflammation with certain active ingredients. 

It is advisable to stick to a gentle skin care routine to avoid aggravating the inflammation. You should use sulfate-free cleansers and moisturizers and wear sunscreen. 

You should also not use other exfoliants or products with fragrances and harsh ingredients that may further irritate the skin. 

Your skin is particularly sensitive and vulnerable at this stage, so you should avoid: 
• touching your face 
• picking on the blemishes 
• peeling off the flaky skin 

When to stop using a product? 

If an individual’s skin shows signs of an allergic reaction, they may need to stop using the product. 

Symptoms of an allergic reaction include: 
• a rash or hives 
• small red spots on the skin 
• an itchy, stinging, or burning sensation 
• red itchy or watery eyes 
• Cracked skin 
• Puffy, raised areas of skin 

Symptoms are usually mild and can develop within a few minutes or gradually over several hours. 

How long does purging last? 

The duration of skin purging will vary from person to person. Generally, it lasts 4–6 weeks. After 6 weeks, the skin may begin to respond to the ingredients, and a person should be able to see improvement. 

The initial symptoms will subside, and you will notice smoother, brighter skin and a more even skin tone. 


Skin purging is different from breakouts and does not require treatment. 

However, a person may use products with calming, skin barrier-supporting ingredients eg. aloe vera, jojoba oil 

It can take up to 6 weeks before you see clearer, smoother, and brighter skin. However, if the purging worsens and persists beyond 2 months, you should contact a healthcare professional, as it may be a sign of an adverse reaction. 

• Acne resource center. (n.d.). 
• Buchanan, P. J., et al. (2016). Retinoids: Literature review and suggested algorithm for use prior to facial resurfacing procedures. 
• How to test skin care products. (2021). 
• Rodan, K., et al. (2016). Skincare bootcamp: The evolving role of skincare. 
• Zhong, H., et al. (2021). Efficacy of a new non-drug acne therapy: Aloe vera gel combined with ultrasound and soft mask for the treatment of mild to severe facial acne.

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