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Skin purge vs break out: how to tell the difference

Though the word ‘purge’ often has connotations with horror films, what you might not know is the skin process that goes by the same name. If you’ve ever started a promising new skincare regimen only to wake up with a cluster of bad breakouts, don’t hit the panic button just yet. This temporary process is most often your skin ‘purging’, and is a common reaction to trying new products.

On the renewal process of our skin, Dr Nina Wines from Northern Sydney Dermatology explains, “Our epidermis goes through a process called ‘cellular turnover’. This is where our skin is shedding old skin cells and subsequently replacing them with new skin cells. Now, combine this with clogged pores and underlying congestion… the active products are going to force these to rise to the surface where they can present as breakouts. Any product that contains active ingredients that accelerate the turnover of the skin can essentially cause purging.”

So how do you know if your skin is purging or you’re just having a bad breakout? The key is in the ingredients. If you’ve recently started using a new skincare product with active ingredients, you may experience a skin purge that can last anywhere from two weeks to two months, while your skin brings all your congestion to the surface. If you haven’t started using a new skincare product then there may be other factors causing your breakout, and Dr Wines recommends consulting a dermatologist or dermal clinician for further guidance.

If you’re wondering which actives might be causing your unwelcome breakout, there are three main groups to look out for on the ingredient list:

AHA (alpha hydroxy acids): glycolic, mandelic, lactic, citric, malic and tartaric acid
BHA (beta hydroxy acids): salicylic acid, lipohydroxy acid
VITAMIN A/RETINOIDS: retinol, retinaldehyde, tretinoin.

Although these culprits may be the cause of that pesky pimple on your jawline, there are multiple factors that may also have an effect such as your diet, lifestyle and hormones (as well as a packed Christmas schedule).

If you’re worried you might be missing a step, Dr Wines recommends cleansing twice a day, as well as exfoliation every now and then, to unclog pores and increase your cellular turnover. She also advocates for chemical peels and LED light therapy to help achieve a brighter and clearer complexion.

If you’re looking for a new product to try (or are in need of a clean slate), consider:

For acne-prone skin

Clarifying cleanser: salicylic, glycolic and mandelic acid unclog and refine pores. Contains microbeads for a mechanical exfoliation.

Glycolic 10 Renew overnight: promotes cellular turnover and glowing skin.

Retexturing Activator: promotes cellular turnover and retexturises skin.

Blemish + Age defense: dioic, salicylic, lipohydroxy and glycolic acid to reduce excess sebum.

Metacell renewal B3: reduces sebum production and increases cellular turnover.

To calm/soothe purging

Hydrating B5 gel: oil-free hydrating serum, helps to replenish moisture and restores radiance.

Phyto Corrective Gel: hydrating, soothing serum. Improves redness.

Redness neutralizer: reduces blotchiness and redness from inflamed breakouts.