Ask Grace: How Do You Know The Difference Between Breakouts and Purge?

Hi Grace, 

I’ve always had slightly spotty skin, but I’ve recently really started to improve my skincare routine, and nothing has really changed. In fact, I think it’s gotten worse. I don’t know whether the products I’m using are causing my skin to break out, and I was told to expect my skin to ‘purge’ because I started using retinol, but I’m not sure how to tell the difference between breakouts and a purge? 


I totally understand your confusion, there are so many factors that contribute towards breakouts that it’s often really hard to figure out what’s causing them. Everything from the products we use to the food we eat, our lifestyle, genetics, and environment can impact our skin. Since you’ve noticed an increase in breakouts since you started your new routine, it’s likely that the products you’re using are affecting your skin in some way. And you’re right, it’ll either be a purge or a reaction to one (or some) of the products.  

First, let’s take a look at purging. Purging happens when your skin is adjusting to a product that is designed to help clear and decongest your skin. Things like retinol serums, exfoliating acids, clay masks, and some scrubs can cause a purge. This is because they work by speeding up your skin cell turnover which means they bring all the congestion, dead skin cells and excess oil etc to the surface, in the form of breakouts. If you think about it, that congestion has to go somewhere, and the only way is up! Purging is essentially a good thing because it means that the product is working, and when all that congestion is removed, your skin will be much clearer and calmer. It’s important to persevere with the product until this happens, but it shouldn’t take much more than around 8-12 weeks for a purge to end. 

As for regular breakouts, these are caused when skin reacts to something in the product. Usually, this is an ingredient that is clogging pores (since clogged pores lead to breakouts), but occasionally it could be an allergy (for example, some people are allergic to niacinamide) or irritation. In this case, the breakouts are more likely to look and feel like a rash, and the area will feel sensitive. 

If you’ve been using your new products for more than 2-3 months then it’s unlikely to be a purge. In which case it could be any number of products contributing to your breakouts, but it could also be just one ingredient that’s causing them. For example, shea butter (which is found in some moisturisers) is a great nourishing ingredient but can clog pores and cause breakouts for some people. Going forwards, when you want to make a change to your routine, try to make changes one at a time. That way, if your skin reacts (or purges) you’ll know exactly which product caused it, and therefore what product to avoid in the future. Over time, you may spot a correlation in the ingredients in those products, which will give you an even better idea of what is causing your skin to break out. 

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