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Purging v/s Acne? How to know the Difference!

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What is Skin Purging? 

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Skin purge simply refers to the reaction some skin has to an active ingredient in your skincare product. Skin purging is quite common when you incorporate new products in your daily skincare routine, resulting in temporary acne flare-up. Active ingredients which are specially formulated to accelerate cell turnover or exfoliate are most likely to bring congestion to the surface and trigger a skin purge.

Active ingredients shed dead skin cells to reveal fresh and younger-looking cells which means introducing actives in your routine will boost the shedding of dead skin cells. This process can bring clogged pores and blockages to the surface of the skin causing irritation and acne-like breakouts. Breakouts during purging are actually microcomedones (pimples which are still under the skin’s surface) being brought to the surface during accelerated cell turnover. It is important to note that purging does not cause new pimples, it makes dormant pimples pop to the surface sooner than they would have. 

The good news is that purging is temporary and does not last beyond 4-6 weeks. While you may not consider purging as an encouraging sign, it simply means that your skin is adjusting to the new product before it gets clearer and better.

What Does Purging Look Like?

Essentially, purging happens when a new skincare product speeds up the pimple formation process by pushing all the underlying clogged pores to the surface in one mega breakout which quite often resembles an acne breakout.

 If you have acne-prone skin, it may be helpful to read our guide on what ingredients to avoid.

Skin purge may often appear as regular acne but in most cases it looks like tiny red bumps on the skin which are painful to touch. These tender bumps are often accompanied by blackheads, whiteheads, papules and pustules. However, breakouts caused due to purging tend to heal much quicker. Still, if you are struggling with a blackhead influx, you can try these tips to knock them out. If you are looking for solutions to manage whiteheads, read all about them here.

Purging is not just restricted to breakouts, if your skin feels flaky or dry, it is also a symptom of skin purge. Depending on your skin type, some might purge more than others, it all comes down to what’s lying beneath your skin or deep inside your pores that needs to be pushed out. There’s also a good chance that you might not experience purging, depending on your skin type and overall skin health.

What Causes Purging?

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Usually, the skin renews itself every 28 days but active ingredients in skincare products expedite the skin cell turnover rate. Through purging, the active ingredient is resetting the skin cycle and helping your skin adjust to the new product. Skin purging can only occur when you use products with an active ingredient or exfoliating acids. Introduce these products slowly in your routine, giving your skin time to adjust. Below are some active ingredients that can cause skin purging:

1. Retinol

Retinol is most likely to cause skin purging. It is a common ingredient in anti-ageing products. Start out with low-strength retinol products especially if you have sensitive skin. Even a small percentage of 0.02 to 0.04% will give you great results. It is recommended that you start out with using Retinol products 2-3 times and build usage based on how your skin responds.

2. Vitamin C

Vitamin C derivatives, especially in higher concentrations such as 15-20% can lead to purging. Begin with a low concentration, below 10% and then gradually increase the concentration based on how your skin tolerates it. Like with any other active, opt for a restrained approach when introducing a Vitamin C product, using it a maximum of 3 times a week and working your way up to daily use. Vitamin C is one of the most popular skincare ingredients right now; helping in Collagen production, skin brightening and reducing scars.

3. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are water-soluble acids that exfoliate the uppermost layers of the skin so that new skin cells may generate. They are commonly found in anti-ageing products. Ideally, the concentration of AHA in your products should not exceed 10-15%, this reduces the risk of skin irritation. Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, Malic Acid, Tartaric Acid, Citric Acid and Mandelic Acid are all AHAs, widely used in skincare products. Read more about AHA's here.

3. Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) are oil-soluble and go deeper into the pores to remove excess sebum. BHAs are used for anti-acne treatments and for correcting sun damage. BHAs don’t make your skin as sensitive as AHAs but using a sunscreen is essential to avoid further sun damage. BHAs are quite effective at concentrations of 1 to 2% , start off slowly by using the product once a week and if you experience no adverse reactions, increase your usage. If you have sensitive skin, using a BHA product twice a week is more than enough. Salicylic Acid and Tropic Acid are examples of BHAs commonly found in products.

Lastly, facials that involve a chemical peel might also cause the skin to purge in response to the accelerated exfoliation.

How to Tell the Difference Between Skin Purging vs Regular Acne Breakout?

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Purging might be normal when you add a new product to your routine but it is important to spot the difference between purging and a regular breakout. Sometimes, the product may be irritating your skin for a different reason which could trigger an allergic reaction.

Here are a few signs to watch out for if you want to determine whether your skin is purging or you are experiencing a standard acne breakout:

1. Duration

If your breakout lasts longer than 4-6 weeks then it’s probably regular acne and not a purge. Acne that erupts because of skin purging clears up much faster than a regular breakout.

If you are still noticing pimples and bumps on your skin after 4-6 weeks of using the product, it could mean that the product is not working for your skin. Moreover, if you are experiencing redness, burning, rashes or stinging, especially if they are chronic, these should not be confused with purging, you may be having an allergic reaction to the product.

2. Location

Purging predominantly occurs in an area where you already have frequent breakouts. If you are getting pimples or acne in newer areas then it might not be purging.

3. Ingredient Check

Skin purging is typically a result of introducing chemical exfoliants like Retinol and Hydroxy Acids. So, if you are using products outside of this category, such as moisturisers, sunscreen and serums that don’t contain active ingredients, and still find your skin breaking out then it could be regular acne or your skin could be sensitive to a particular ingredient.

4. Marks

Since purging actually helps in healing the skin and generating fresher new cells, breakouts during purging don’t leave behind marks or blemishes whereas an acne breakout tends to leave scars on the skin. However, if you are dealing with stubborn acne scars then read our blog on proven ingredients that can help manage acne scars.

How to Deal with Skin Purging?

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Your skin may look worse before it gets better. Unfortunately, that’s the harsh truth about purging. If your skin is undergoing a purge, it is an indicator that your skin is adjusting to the active ingredient in the new product and taking out all the underlying gunk before leaving you with new and flawless skin. 

Is there a way to treat the breakouts during a purge? You may not like this answer - being patient and letting it run its course is actually the best option. Keep calm and let your skin complete a new cycle (a month), you will start being acne free. But there are definitely a few tips that can help you manage the purge better:

1. Stick with the New Product

When your skin is undergoing a purge, it can be annoying to deal with the breakout and you may be tempted to stop using the product altogether but refrain from doing so. It’s worth sticking with the product because purging is temporary and the powerful active ingredients are going to benefit your skin in the long run.

2. Don’t pick on the Acne

As tempting as it may be to pick on the acne or pop those pimples, resist the urge because that will only prolong the purge period and might lead to permanent scarring.

3. Don’t Introduce a New Product in your Skincare

The key is to not attack your skin with multiple products when it is in the thick of the purge. Steer clear from using products with exfoliating agents when you are amidst a purge. You might want to opt for spot treatments to deal with the purging but it's a good idea to steer clear of them as exfoliating acids are common ingredients in drying products which can make your skin worse. 

If you have started using a product with an active ingredient, be careful not to add more active ingredients in your routine.

If the purge is irritating your skin and you really want to do something about it, you can always soothe it with ice or aloe vera gel. We highly recommend Thyme Organic Aloe Vera Gel, along with being a chemical and colour free gel, it contains pure aloe vera which soothes and hydrates the skin, reducing skin itchiness and helping in controlling acne and pimples.


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4. Wear Sunscreen

As important as it is to not include new actives during a purge, maintaining your regular routine of cleansing, moisturising and SPF is equally important. When your skin is purging, using a non-greasy sunscreen can help protect against scarring, permanent dark spots and orange peel

5. Go Slow

The best way to start using active ingredients is gradually introducing them in your skincare. Give your skin time to adjust and start out by using the product not more than one or twice a week. 

6. Do a patch test

It is always advisable to conduct a patch test before including a new product in your routine. If you are having doubts about a patch test, read on to find out why it is important to do a patch test before trying a new product.

If your breakout lasts longer than six weeks, you might be dealing with a different skin issue and it is best to consult with a dermatologist for further treatment.

How to Go From Purging to Clearer Skin?

You have braved through the purge so what can you expect after skin purging? As your skin gets used to the new product, the formation of microcomedones reduces, and your skin should clear out after its past the surge. Once your skin is done purging, there will be no sign left of the breakout - no marks or scars. Also, you are less likely to have breakouts in the near future as the active ingredients are aggressive with bacteria.

Think of purging as the first step towards better skin so once you’ve hit the 4-6 week mark with the new product, your skin will look brighter, clearer and younger.


It can be disheartening to deal with a surge of breakouts when you start using a new product but hang in there because good skin awaits on the other side!

The purging period can be annoying to deal with and there is not much that you can do during this time except wait it out patiently. Have patience and pull through the purge, it is worth the wait.

- Shristi Mehra

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