Is Your Skin Purging, Or Just Breaking Out?

Welcome to Acne Awareness Month! First up: purging vs. breaking out.
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Welcome to Acne Awareness Month! First up: purging vs. breaking out.

So you just started using a sweet new skincare product that you're really jazzed about. Then, a week or two later, it happens. Pimples. 

You may ask yourself, am I purging or am I breaking out? And you may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful skin! (Any Talking Heads fans out there today?) Here's the good news: it's actually pretty easy to tell the difference between a purge and a break out.

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What Purging Actually Means

I’ve seen purging explained a few different ways in beauty mags and on blogs. Some say it’s your skin’s angry reaction to change, others claim it’s the fleeing of toxins and general skin nasties.

Purging has become a confusing catchall term to reference skin getting worse before it gets better. But in most situations that's just plain inaccurate. 

You see, active ingredients that increase cell turnover--AHAS, BHAs, and retinoids--can cause your skin to purge in the truest sense of the word. These ingredients speed up the shedding of dead skin cells, so it’s common to see a little flakiness and what looks like an increase in visible acne. Where you once had clogged pores, you may notice those bumps coming to a small white head and then quickly disappearing without redness, soreness, or inflammation.

What doesn't cause purging? Things like clay masks, scrubbing cleansers, oil cleansers, your beloved Clarisonic, and practically anything that isn't a chemical exfoliant. Inactive ingredients simply cannot cause the increased cell turnover it takes to incite a real purge.

The Signs Of A Standard Issue Breakout

Standard issue breakouts are marked (literally!) by under-the-skin cystic zits, redness, inflammation, and angry looking pustules, which are those red, inflamed looking zits.

Purging usually occurs in areas that are already prone to clogged pores and pimples. Breakouts caused by a product that’s angering your skin will appear outside of the usual trouble spots. I always know something’s up when I get blemishes on my normally clear cheeks.

Another telltale sign is how long the breakout lasts. Typically, a chemical exfoliant should sweep out clogs and dead skin within one cycle of skin regeneration, or about three to six weeks. So you’re not purging if the breakout continues for several months or more. At this point, whatever you’re using just isn’t right for your skin. Put down the bottle and run, girl.

How To Deffuse The Situation

If a physical exfoliant is causing irritation or pimples, reduce usage of the product to once a week, or trade it for an awesome chemical exfoliant. If you’re not sure why a new product is making your skin breakout, educate yourself on the ingredients via a comedogenicity database like cosdna.com. There, you can hopefully identify the ingredients that are common acne triggers and avoid them. Take this new information with a grain of salt, though. Some “highly comedogenic” items could work just fine for your specific skin.

I won’t let cyclopentasiloxane within a mile of my face, lest I invoke the wrath of the cystic acne gods. But it's not offensive to most people's skin, which is why you see it as ingredient in, like, everything. 

Once you’ve identified the offending ingredient in a product, you can stop using it and avoid others that also contain it in the future. And next time, don’t forget to patch test, buddy.

Now, fellow ingredient sleuths, I officially invite you to share your acne-triggers in the comments. Which ingredients make your skin grouchy?