Yikes. You just started using new skincare and now you've got spots. Breakouts. Your acne's getting worse. What the heck? This could be purging skin. Like The Ordinary retinol purge. Or is could be something more sinister. Click to find out.

Skin Purging vs. Breaking Out – Is It a thing?

In Oily/Combination Skincare Advice, Skincare for spot prone skin by Cheryl Woodman MChemLeave a Comment

Skin purging, acne flaring or new skincare-induced spots. The theory is this, you’re using a new skincare product and before your skin can reach that happy place promised by the adverts, your skin has to go through a spotty phase to get there. Sound familiar? No pain, no gain? The question is this. Does your skin really have to go through a spotty phase with skincare products that really work?

Is skin purging a thing? Should you expect your acne to flare when a new skincare product works? Should you expect to get spots when you start using cosmeceutical skincare? Is the reaction you’re having skin purging, a breakout, or an irritated, allergic reaction? That’s the important bit ‘eh because no one wants to be using a skincare product that’s all anger and no love.

Let’s do this my pal…

Yikes. You just started using new skincare and now you've got spots. Breakouts. Your acne's getting worse. What the heck? This could be purging skin. Like The Ordinary retinol purge. Or is could be something more sinister. Click to find out.

What Is Skin Purging?

And what makes skin purging different from a breakout? Before we get into this, I want to say, dear friend, you are beautiful. With or without spots, you are beautiful. It had to be said because sometimes in the middle of a purge or breakout it’s oh so easy to forget. Trust me I’ve been there. Now that you’ve remembered how jaw-droppingly gorgeous you are, let’s get to the science of skin purging.

Our technical term of the day, skin purging, is used to describe a quick increase in the number of spots you’d normally get as a consequence of using a new skincare product. It’s most often described as your skin pushing out all the gunk that it has hiding – quickly. Gunk that would have come to the surface later but by using this new skincare product you’ve brought later to now.

The key to understanding this process is that your skin should only purge with certain types of skincare… and this is one surefire way to understand whether you’re experiencing purging or a non-compatible skincare breakout. More about this soon.

Unlike breakouts, if you’re experiencing skin purging, the effects should clear within 2-4 weeks. It’s a one-off short-term thing that you could liken to going sugar-free. You have some withdrawal headaches to push through before you can burst out into newly found sugar-free bliss.

Is Skin Purging Fact or Fiction?

Caroline Hirons says No, purging is fiction. Dermatologists say yes, skin purging is fact. The internet says yes, no, yes, no. Fact, fiction, fact, fiction. Just who should you believe?

This my friend, is where science comes in real handy… and that’s exactly what we’re going to look at next. Can the concept of skin purging be supported by science? Does the science make sense?

The Theory Behind Skin Purging

Did you know this? If you make a significant change in your diet, you’re likely to see the effects in your hair and nails? You won’t see the effects overnight but you will see them over a couple of months. That’s because your hair and nails are growing steadily underneath the surface. They have roots hidden away where you can’t yet see them. When you make a change, your roots quickly enjoy the benefit and overtime their new beauty reveals itself.

This is how the theory of skin purging works.

Skin Purging: Due to Increased Exfoliation.

The foundations of your spots are laid well before any visible sign of them is to be seen. When you do see a spot in the form of an angry red cyst or white-headed bulge. What you’re really seeing is just the final stage of a spot’s life. The first stages begin far below the surface.

It goes a little like this;

  1. Your skin excretes sebum (the natural oil that all skin types make and that oily skin types make the most of)
  2. Dead skin cells that your skin would have naturally shed become trapped within your sebum.
  3. This mixture of dead skin and sebum collects within your skin’s pores.
  4. Over time more dead skin and sebum collect – the mixing pot is getting larger.
  5. Bacteria start to enjoy/nourish themselves on the dead skin trapped within your pores.
  6. Your immune system senses an attack which provokes inflammation – aka your spot is brought to the surface in an attempt to push out the bad stuff.

Some skincare products speed up this cycle. Skincare products that can increase your skin’s natural rate of exfoliation. By doing this they temporarily cause more dead skin cells to become trapped within your pores. This feeds existing mixing pots of sticky sebum and dead skin. Speeding up the formation of spots that were already brewing beneath the surface.

This can also be worsened if you naturally suffer from inflammatory acne. The kind that’s often raised and red. Skincare products that speed up exfoliation are pushing your skin to do something it normally doesn’t… and that change can initially cause mild irritation. Your body’s response to irritation is inflammation and if acne spots already exist, that inflammation is going to push them to the surface. It won’t cause new spots to be created but it will push existing ones to the surface.

Once your skin acclimatises to its new, speedier level of exfoliation and the purge plugs have been pushed out – skin purging is over. This usually takes a month or so.

Psst, you can’t heal breakouts with just skincare so be sure to get your free copy of my one-page acne diet cheat sheet here. It’s a list of science-proven yes, no and sometimes foods so you can start an acne diet which works pronto. Get your free copy here.

Skin Purging: The Evidence

Spot outbreaks caused by skin purging make a lot of sense. If you rub charred rice from the bottom of a saucepan, it’s going to make the washing water a lot dirtier before it creates a sparkly finish.

If you’ve been researching the wonderful web, you may be cynical about the concept. Word of the many is that skin purging is an excuse created by skincare companies to gloss over irritating products that don’t work. So, I understand why you may be cynical about the concept.

This is why I’ll introduce you to this 2008 published study whose sole purpose was to trial new acne treatments which didn’t provoke skin purging, called acne flaring in the study. It picks up on skin purging aka acne flaring as an industry-accepted concept. Dermatologists who prescribe tretinoin as an anti-acne treatment will almost always warn patients that it’s going to make acne worse before it gets better.

It’s a humpback whale ride to anti-acne station.

What’s even more interesting, is that the study shows acne flaring can be overcome by incorporating an antibiotic into the treatment cream (clindamycin phosphate). Can you see how this would overcome the purging? It would stop the bacteria from feasting on your dead skin cells which would stop your immune system from triggering an inflammatory reaction. That’s step 5 and from above.

The study also tells how skin purging is much more common for skin types that suffer from inflammatory spots. It also tells how those who have mild acne are much more likely to experience skin purging whereas those with moderate to severe acne, are much less likely.

How Can You Be Certain Its Skin Purging?

And how can you be certain it’s not a plain and simple breakout? Because not all breakouts from new skincare products will be skin purging. Some skincare products are not a match made in heaven and might contain pore-blocking ingredients (comedogenic ingredients) that cause spots all by themselves.

This is the important part ‘eh.

The whole concept of spot purging is based on a speedier-than-normal rate of exfoliation. Exfoliation that can feed the sticky sebum plugs already found in your pores. That means only skincare products that speed up your skin’s natural rate of exfoliation can cause your skin to purge.


So, just how do you spot them? Dear friend, these are the key actives that are known to speed up your skin’s natural exfoliation rate. Some of these are very obvious cleansing brushes anyone (?) and others can lurk in moisturisers and even serums.

Active Ingredients that can cause skin purging;

  1. BHA’s like Salicylic acid.
  2. AHA’s like Glycolic acid.
  3. Vitamin A – retinol, retinyl palmitate, basically any ingredient that starts with ‘retin’.
  4. Vitamin C – ascorbic acid, ascorbyl palmitate, any ingredient with ‘ascorb’.
  5. Linoleic acid high oils – rosehip, grapeseed oil etc.
  6. Physical exfoliants – cleansing brushes, scrubs, muslin cloths and more.

If your new skincare pick contains one of these active ingredients and after you started to use it, you saw more spots rearing, you could likely be experiencing skin purging.

When It’s Definitely Not Skin Purging

AKA – when you should ditch your new skincare product as quickly as a hot potato. Sometimes acne flaring is not skin purging and it’s actually just irritation. In this situation, your skin’s reacting to the new product and it’s never going to like it… there’s no purging phase to overcome.

This is most likely if one or more of the below ring true for you;

  1. Your new skincare pick contains no active ingredients which would speed up your skin’s normal exfoliation rate.
  2. New breakouts are not your only symptom. You have other signs of irritation like stinging, burning and general skin reddening.
  3. Breakouts persist after more than a month of using the product as per the directions.

If anyone of these is true for you, it’s the product. Bin it, move on and don’t look back.

Can You Minimise Your Skin Purging?

Oh yes. You absolutely can. This is a little like the choice of ripping off a plaster or peeling it away slowly. Your only decision is which is better for you? It doesn’t have to be the plaster ripping – honestly.

Skin purging is all about your skin’s natural rate of exfoliation being sped up. To avoid, or lessen the risk of skin purging you just need to slowly increase your skins natural rate of exfoliation. That might mean using a 1% salicylic acid treatment instead of a 2%. It could mean using the product twice a week instead of 3 times.

Think of it like the gym. Do you want to join and swing yourself straight into a high-intensity workout class… or do you want to gradually build your body to HIIT?

The Bottom line: Is Skin Purging a Thing?

Yes, in my opinion, skin purging is a thing. It makes scientific sense. It’s often mentioned in dermatological journals as acne flaring and most well-trained dermatologists will warn of it as a side-effect to strong anti-acne treatments.

Have you experienced skin purging or acne flaring? Had you heard of it? Let’s chat, tell me in the comments below…