The Independent Pharmacy

Acne Purging vs Breakout: Know The Difference

Scott McDougall
Scott McDougallMPharmDirector & Registered Manager

Reviewed on 3 Oct 2023

Acne is an incredibly common skin condition that affects people of all ages. While mild acne can be managed with over-the-counter products, moderate to severe cases often require prescription medications. However, starting a new acne treatment can sometimes be challenging and impact your life. Many people experience what's called "purging," leading to the understandable concern - is my skin purging or just breaking out? It's completely natural to feel a mix of hope and apprehension during this time?

Distinguishing between acne purging and breakouts is critical. If it's purging, you need to be patient and let the treatment run its course. But if it's a real breakout, you may need to switch products or adjust your skincare regimen.

Understanding the different types of acne can help you address the problem correctly, leading to brighter skin and increased confidence.

Acne Purging vs Breakout at a Glance

Aspect Acne Purging Breakout
How it looks Small white and red bumps;
mostly where you've used the new
cream or treatment
Bigger, painful bumps; can appear
anywhere, especially where you usually
get pimples
How long it lasts 2-6 weeks (happens when your
skin is getting used to a new product)
Keeps coming and going
until you figure out what's causing it
Why it happens Your skin is quickly getting rid
of old cells because of the
new product
Many reasons: stress, certain foods,
using the wrong skincare products, and more
Where it shows up Forehead, cheeks, chin
(mainly where you put the new product)
Anywhere, like the jawline, neck,
and even back
What you should do Stay patient, be gentle with your skin,
don't pick at it, and keep using the product
unless it burns
Might need to change your creams
or products, and maybe see a skin expert
if it doesn't go away
Will it come back? Usually just happens once
when you start a new product
Can come and go, especially
if you don't know what's causing it

Acne Purging vs Breakout: The Direct Comparison

Appearance

Acne purging and breakouts can look similar at first glance, with increased red bumps and pimples. However, purging tends to cause uniform congestion, affecting the entire area where you applied the new treatment. Breakouts often appear more sporadic in your usual problem spots.

Purging often results in whiteheads and small raised red bumps on the skin, known as papules. True breakouts are more likely to induce nodules or cysts - larger, swollen, painful pimples that feel like knots under the skin. Purging usually appears where acne is common, like the forehead, cheeks, and chin. Breakouts can crop up in less typical places like the jawline or neck.

Duration

The duration and timeline provide another useful distinction between purging acne and regular breakouts.

At The Independent Pharmacy, we understand how trying the process can be. Typically, purging might last between 2-6 weeks as your skin adjusts to the new treatment. During this time, it's renewing its cells more rapidly than usual. The timeline can vary based on your skin type and the strength of the acne treatment. Sensitive skin may purge for a shorter period, while those using prescription retinoids may purge for the full 6 weeks.

In contrast, acne breakouts are not tied to a predictable set timeline. They persist indefinitely until you find a way to modify your skincare routine, diet, stress levels, or other contributing factors. Breakouts also tend to be cyclical in nature, with random flare-ups and periods of clear skin.

Additionally, purging is generally a one-time event that occurs when first starting a new product and going through the initial adjustment period. With breakouts, new pimples can continuously crop up.

Causes

Understanding the underlying causes of purging versus breakouts can help differentiate the two.

Purging happens when certain acne treatments, like retinoids or benzoyl peroxide, make your skin renew itself faster. The increased rate at which your skin sheds old cells pushes out clogged pores, dead skin, and debris faster than usual. However, it takes about 4-6 weeks for this rapid skin renewal process to stabilise, leading to the purging phase. But keep in mind that not everyone will experience purging, even when using these treatments. The likelihood of purging depends on your skin and its current condition.

In contrast, acne breakouts have many other potential root causes like hormonal fluctuations, diet, stress levels, genetics, unsuitable skincare products, or environmental irritants. Breakouts are a reactionary skin response while purging is part of the skin's natural (yet accelerated) adjustment process.

Immediate Action Steps

The ideal immediate response differs slightly for purging versus breakouts.

If purging, avoid picking or popping pimples to prevent scarring. Use gentle cleansers, moisturisers from brands like Acnecide or CeraVe, and sunscreen until it passes. Topical spot treatments can provide relief, too. Most importantly, be patient!

Acnecide Moisturiser SPF30
Acnecide Moisturiser SPF30
View Treatment

For breakouts, discontinue the use of any new products that may be causing irritation. Cleanse gently, hydrate the skin, and consider salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide spot treatments to unclog pores. If it persists, make a dermatologist appointment to explore underlying factors like hormones.

CeraVe Moisturising Lotion
CeraVe Moisturising Lotion
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What Is Acne Purging?

Acne purging happens when your skin kicks its renewal process into high gear. Normally, your skin cells replenish themselves around every 28 days. But certain acne medications make your skin work much faster, renewing itself every 14-21 days instead.

While speeding up cell turnover helps clear away the gunk in your pores, it also pushes all that debris to the surface really fast. That rush of dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria causes a surge of breakouts known as purging. Within 4-6 weeks, the purge subsides as your skin adjusts to the increased renewal rate.

What Causes Purging?

The most common culprits behind purging are active skincare ingredients like:

  • Retinoids, which are vitamin A-based products like CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, tretinoin, and adapalene. Retinoids help acne by increasing skin cell turnover.
  • Acids such as glycolic and lactic acid help shed old skin cells. These acids exfoliate dead skin cells and unclog pores.
  • Salicylic acid, which helps remove dead skin cells and can penetrate oily pores.
  • Benzoyl peroxide - an antibacterial that attacks acne-causing bacteria.
  • Certain peptides - special proteins that help speed up skin renewal.

These ingredients clear acne by accelerating skin renewal and shedding the older, clogged layers. But your skin needs time to adjust to the faster turnover, hence the purging phase.

How to Know it's Purging:

  • Breakouts are concentrated where you normally get acne
  • You see more whiteheads (closed clogged pores), papules (small red bumps), and pustules (whiteheads with pus)
  • It's a mild to moderate breakout
  • Breakouts start within 2 weeks of using a new product

Purging lasts about 2-6 weeks. If you have an allergic reaction, bumps appear immediately after applying the product. An absence of results or persisting breakouts after 6 weeks likely indicates an issue with the new product.

What Are Acne Breakouts?

Breakouts happen when three things clog up your pores - dead skin cells, excess oil, and acne-causing bacteria. This clogged mixture is the perfect recipe for pimples.

Mild breakouts often look like whiteheads and blackheads, concentrated around the oily T-zone or forehead/nose/chin area.

Moderate breakouts include small red pimples and whitehead pimples with pus.

Severe breakouts can form deep, painful bumps and cysts under the skin, which is considered cystic acne.

What Triggers Breakouts?

Some of the common causes behind acne breakouts include:

  • Hormone changes during puberty, periods, or menopause. This increases oil production and clogs pores.
  • High stress levels. Stress hormones can kick sebum production into overdrive.
  • Greasy foods like pizza or French fries. These foods can spike blood sugar and insulin, promoting breakouts. We understand the concerns and hearsay about certain foods causing breakouts. While some do report such experiences, it's essential to remember that everyone's skin reacts differently, and there's not enough scientific research to make a blanket statement. Listen to your body and your skin.
  • Using harsh skincare products that clog or irritate pores.
  • Picking at the skin introduces more bacteria into pores.
  • Pollution and sweat can also clog pores and cause breakouts.
  • Genetics. Some people just have overactive oil glands and acne-prone skin types.

How to Confirm It's Acne:

  • They appear randomly, not just where you use a product.
  • Breakouts happen all over, not just in typical acne zones.
  • They keep occurring long-term without improvement.
  • Deep cystic bumps are possible.

Resolving breakouts requires targeting the underlying cause, whether hormonal, dietary, or other factors. Identifying your specific acne type is key for effective treatment.

Skincare Tips for Purging and Breakouts

For Purging Acne:

  • Use gentle face washes like Cetaphil or Acnecide to cleanse without irritating.
  • Apply lightweight, oil-free moisturisers that won't clog pores.
  • Protect skin with sunscreen while it adjusts to treatment.
  • Avoid scrubs, toners with alcohol, and fragranced products that can sting.
  • Spot treat with sulfur cream, which dries up pimples, or tea tree oil, which kills acne bacteria. You can also use benzoyl peroxide, a topical medicine that fights acne, in low concentrations.
  • Stay hydrated and find stress relievers like yoga.
  • See a dermatologist if purging lasts over 6 weeks.

For Acne Breakouts:

  • Cleanse with acne face washes containing salicylic acid, which exfoliates dead skin cells, or benzoyl peroxide to kill acne bacteria.
  • Use leave-on creams like retinoids (such as our Differin 0.1% Cream/Gel), which are vitamin A creams that renew skin faster, or benzoyl peroxide to prevent clogged pores.
  • Look for oil-free, non-comedogenic moisturisers and sunscreen that won't block the pores in your skin.
  • Spot treat with sulfur cream, salicylic acid, or tea tree oil.
  • Ask a dermatologist about prescription creams or medications such as Doxycycline For Acne, Minocycline 100mg MR Capsules, Oxytetracycline 250mg Tablets, or Tetralysal 300 (Lymecycline) Capsules.
  • Modify your diet, reduce stress, and make other lifestyle changes.
  • Visit a dermatologist or esthetician for professional breakout help.

We truly believe in the uniqueness of every individual, and so is our skin. While one solution might work wonders for someone else, it's okay if it doesn't for you. Always prioritise your comfort and listen to what your skin is telling you. It's a journey of understanding and patience.

What Can You Do to Maintain Clear Skin?

Build a Gentle Skin Care Routine

Sticking to a consistent daily skincare routine is so important for preventing future breakouts and keeping skin clear after purging is over. The main steps should include:

  • Washing your face each morning and evening to remove oil, makeup, and gunk that clogs pores.
  • Exfoliating 2-3 times a week to slough off dead cells and help prevent pimples.
  • Applying sunscreen every morning to protect from sun damage and dark spots.
  • Using overnight acne creams several nights a week to stop clogs and pimples.
  • Toning and masking weekly to deep clean pores and refresh skin.
  • Visiting a skincare specialist monthly to help clear blocked pores.

Choose the Right Skincare Products

When buying skincare products:

  • Read the ingredient list to avoid alcohol, fragrance, and oils that might block your pores.
  • Look for labels like oil-free, non-comedogenic, and fragrance-free.
  • Pick products with acne fighters like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.
  • Ensure cleansers aren't too harsh or drying for your skin type.
  • Do a patch test before using a new product all over your face.

Seek Out Expert Help When Needed

See a dermatologist or esthetician for:

  • Severe breakouts not improving with drugstore products.
  • Acne concentrated along the jawline, lower cheeks, or neck.
  • Breakouts lasting over 3-6 months with no improvement.
  • Signs of scarring or dark spots left after pimples.
  • Sudden adult acne out of nowhere.

We always advocate for self-care and understanding. If you're ever in doubt, it's a good idea to seek advice from a dermatologist or skincare professional, especially if you have sensitive skin or previous experiences that have left you concerned.

Bidding Bad Skin Goodbye

We know firsthand how challenging and emotionally draining acne purging and breakouts can be. It can sometimes feel like an uphill battle, but with understanding and persistence, there's hope. You're not alone in this journey, and there are ways to navigate through.

Understanding the differences between purging versus breakouts gives you clarity on how to respond. Is your skin just adjusting to new treatments and needs more time? Or is it a cry for help to reevaluate your skincare routine and lifestyle habits?

With insight into the causes, visible signs, and ideal solutions for both scenarios, you now have a battle plan tailored to your skin's needs. Continue pushing through the purge storm, or troubleshoot and treat persistent breakouts.

Remember to be kind to yourself and your skin. Embrace gentle cleansing, keep your skin hydrated, and don't hesitate to seek expert advice when needed. Your well-being and comfort are paramount. By knowing your options, your chances of clearer skin are ever in your favour. While acne may feel relentless, your determination will prevail. Bid bad skin adieu, and embrace the clear, glowing complexion and youthful skin you deserve.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does acne purging look like?

Purging causes small whiteheads, blackheads, and red bumps focused in your normal acne areas like the forehead, cheeks, and chin. The breakout is mild to moderate.

Is purging good acne?

Purging is not “good” acne per se, but rather a sign that the acne treatment is working to increase skin cell turnover. It’s a necessary evil on the path to clearer skin.

Is my skin purging a good thing?

Yes, it means your new acne medication is kicking into gear. Try to be patient, continue your regimen, and the purging will resolve into improved skin.

Does skin purging cause big pimples?

Not usually. Purging tends to create small, surface-level whiteheads and pimples rather than large, deep cysts. Some papules and pustules may occur.

How long do skin-purging pimples last?

Purging typically lasts anywhere from 2-6 weeks before resolving. If your skin doesn't start to improve after this period, consult a dermatologist or skincare professional. The length of purging can be different for everyone, and sometimes, what seems like purging might be a skin reaction to a product.

Does skin clear after purging?

Yes, if you stick it out! Purging is a sign that congested pores and acne are coming to the surface so the treatment can clear them. Stay diligent for clearer skin post-purge.

How do you calm down skin purging?

Gentleness is key. Use soothing cleansers without harsh ingredients, oil-free and fragrance-free moisturisers, hydrating masks, cool compresses, and spot treatments with sulfur or diluted benzoyl peroxide.

Sources:

A Qualitative Investigation of the Impact of Acne on Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQL): Development of a Conceptual Model - PMC (nih.gov)

Acne Scarring—Pathogenesis, Evaluation, and Treatment Options - PMC (nih.gov)

A Review of Skin and the Effects of Aging on Skin Structure and Function (hmpgloballearningnetwork.com)

Adult female acne: a guide to clinical practice - PMC (nih.gov)

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