Purging vs breakouts: What’s the difference?

woman with green clay mask on face

One of the trickiest skincare dilemmas for mature skin is deciphering purging vs breakouts. A common source of confusion when trialling a new product - are these new spots just standard acne? Or a sign of the dreaded “purge”? Should you stick with the product and allow your skin to acclimatise, or acknowledge the concern and admit defeat? In this article, we aim to answer all these questions and once and for all help you figure out the difference between purging and breakouts.

What is purging?

While you’ll be familiar with breakouts, an extremely common and universal skin concern, you might be new to the concept of “purging”. This is when your skin reacts temporarily after the introduction of a new skincare product or ingredient (typically actives) into your daily regimen. Purging occurs in the form of increased sensitivity and breakouts, our confusing link. This is considered a period of adjustment for the skin, which passes, without long-term side effects.

 The difference between purging vs breakouts

With similar symptoms, it’s easy to become confused about what on earth is actually going on with your skin. This identification is vital to how you then go in with treatment. If your skin is purging it's a case of sticking things out, but if unusual breakouts appear this may be a sign that your skin simply doesn’t get on with a product or ingredient.

Two important things to consider are that purging is a skin adjustment, whereas breakouts are a skin reaction. Purging is only temporary and is actually a sign your new product is working, even if it shows this in the form of a few new spots. The key factor that determines purging vs breakouts is that adjusting skin should only cause breakouts in the same area as you already experience congestion. Anything out of the ordinary might be your skin reacting poorly, which becomes more of a concern. Consider the following:

 Timing - If you’re experiencing breakouts around the same you started using a new product or skincare ingredient, chances are you’re in the grips of a purge, not a skin freak out.

Location - If you’re breaking out in the places you typically get spots anyway, (or find they become more intense in these areas) you’re probably purging.

 Persistence - Finding that your blemishes are sticking around more than normal? This might be a sign of reactive breakouts rather than purging. Raise the white flag, your skin probably just isn’t going to get on with this product.

 What causes skin purging?

Active ingredients (like retinol, AHAs and BHAs) are the culprits for skin purging. This is because they increase skin cell turnover, which basically brings all of those underlying blemishes up to the surface. While highly frustrating at the time, this is actually a sign that your purge is working. The process is a good thing, clearing out all the gunk and leaving you with revitalised, glowing skin. Stick with it!

Common signs of purging

Still unsure if you’re breaking out or purging? Here are some of the telltale signs you’re definitely in a purge era.

Increased breakouts:

As we’ve covered in much of this article, expect a serving of breakouts with your purge. You may however notice more breakouts than normal, or in different forms, i.e. whiteheads and blackheads. They will likely be small and confined to your typical breakout areas.


Skin purging sometimes causes minor irritation in the form of redness or heightened sensitivity. This is even more common when introducing potent active ingredients like retinoids. Any irritation from purging should be temporary and will subside after a few days, or at the longest weeks, when your skin has adjusted.

Flaking or peeling:

When you start using a new exfoliating active product (for example a BHA or AHA) you can also experience flaking and peeling. Again, this is actually a good sign that the product is working as it should to encourage the shedding of dead skin cells.

 Faster healing:

You’re likely to notice that purge breakouts heal faster than standard spots. This is because the active ingredient causing the purge helps to clear out any congestion and promotes a quicker skin cell turnover.

 Tips for looking after your skin during a purge

 1. When introducing a new product, do it slowly

Minimise the severity of a purge by introducing new products or ingredients consistently and slowly. For example, if you’ve never used retinol before don’t start applying it liberally for 7 days straight - you’ll make your skin very unhappy indeed. Instead, ease active products into your routine. Start with once a week, then gradually build up your usage. You’ll find your skin purges far less as it has more time to adapt and adjust.

2. Avoid picking your face

While a new crop of spots is tempting to pick and prod at, this is actually one of the worst things you can do during a skin purge. Picking will only extend the time your skin will take to heal, and also increases your risk of scarring and hyperpigmentation. Be gentle and kind with your face.

3. Moisturise regularly

When going through a purge, it’s important to keep your skincare routine basic and nourishing to support your skin and avoid further irritation. Stick with a gentle cleanser and hydrating moisturiser. Our day and night cream duo are lightweight yet hydrating, the perfect pairing to support your skin through this turbulent period.

4. Be patient, you’ll get there

It’s important to remember that skin purging, though highly frustrating, is only temporary. Ranging from a few days to a few weeks, this skin freakout will pass and just requires a little patience and acceptance. Yes, your skin may not look the best right now, but you’re well on your way to a revitalised glow. 

 Supporting your skin on this new journey

Alivio Wellness creates natural, sustainable skincare to support even the most sensitive of skins. Formulated with gentle, nourishing ingredients, our products are routine staples when your skin needs that extra bit of TLC during a purge. Shop our entire range here.