Why Your New Skincare Is Making You Break Out

So you start using a new skincare product or regimen that promises to fix your skin issues, and suddenly your face looks worse than before you started. What’s really happening? The knee-jerk reaction is to immediatly ditch the product but that might not always be the best choice, largely due to a phenomenon known as "skin purging".  

The reality is that no skincare product can force skin to purge toxins out the way that the liver detoxes the body of unwanted matter. Skin purging has more to do with acne breakouts that occur after starting a new skincare product, regimen or treatment that contains an active ingredient/exfoliant. After your skin builds up some immunity, the break outs subside. The good news is that it's easy to tell the difference between a skin purge and a break out. Here is what you need to be looking out for.

Is Your Skin Really Purging?

Purging is defined as a worsening of your current skin condition. It's really an accelerated rate of exfoliation brought on by an active ingredient that is doing its job. This means that if you have clogged pores, they may turn into pimples and active acne. If you have small pimples, they may turn into larger ones. This initial break out generally goes away anywhere from 2 weeks (with AHAs and BHAs) to 6 weeks (with retinoids) and your skin gets better from then on. If your break outs last longer than 3 months, the new acne you are getting is probably not from purging.


The accelerated exfoliation helps to unclog pores of dirt, oil and bacteria already under the surface of your skin, which may result in an acne break out. Treatments that contain ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids and retinoids remove dead skin cells on the surface of the epidermis. Retinoids can also increase the rate of cell turnover . What looks like a new break out is just the appearance of a pimple that would have surfaced sooner or later. Skin renews itself normally every 28 days. It may be tempting to stop using your new skincare products or regimen completely before this time period but by sticking with it, clear skin is just around the corner. However, if your skin isn’t getting better at all after around 6-8 weeks with the new product or regimen, you may want to consider ditching it as it may just not be right for your skin type and issues .

How Skin Purging Occurs

A pimple doesn’t begin when you actually see it. It starts as a clogged pore under the surface of your skin that you can’t see, which can eventually become a full-blown pimple before it goes away. This process can take up to 8 weeks. If a skincare product increases the rate of skin cell turnover, it speeds up this entire cycle, and so you’ll see a lot of pimples appear. However, these pimples would come up to the surface of your skin eventually anyway, so they may not be new pimples caused by the product.


If the skincare product is irritating, some microcomedones that weren’t going to show up might do so, since inflammation is one of the factors causing acne. Active ingredients and treatments that can increase skin cell turnover include the following:

  • Hydroxy acids (glycolic, lactic, malic, mandelic, salicylic, lactobionic acids, gluconolactone, fruit acids)
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid, sodium/magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, ascorbyl palmitate)
  • Retinoids (retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, isotretinoin, retinyl palmitate)
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Chemical peels
  • Lasers treatments
  • Microdermabrasion
  • Other facial exfoliants (scrubs, brushes, enzyme exfoliants)

So what doesn't cause purging? Skincare products such as clay masks, scrubbing cleansers without active ingredients, oil cleansers, Clarisonic, Macro Exfoliator, moisturizers and serums without active ingredients…pretty much anything that isn't a chemical exfoliant or active ingredient above cannot cause skin purging.

What to Look Out For

Here are some things to look out for when you start using new skincare products or regimens .

Purging vs. Breaking Out: If you start using a new skincare product and begin breaking out in places you normally don’t break out, then you are probably not purging. For example, if your forehead is normally clear but you start getting pimples there after using a new hydroxy acid scrub and the break outs don't go away after a few weeks, you are probably breaking out from the actual product. However, it is possible to break out in new areas of your face during the purging process, but if these break outs continue for a long time without improvement, then you are just breaking out and should discontinue using the product.

Purging vs. Allergic Reaction: If you start getting tiny red bumps and/or itchiness, then those are probably signs of allergy or irritation. Allergic reactions to skincare products will usually go away with hydrocortisone cream, so if you use a mild topical hydrocortisone cream in addition to your new products and you still have bumps in places you normally don't break out after a few days, then it's probably the product that is breaking you out.

Purging vs. Irritation: Irritation usually makes your skin feel hot and sensitive. For example, if your skin burns or stings when you wash your face with a regular cleanser or use your normal products, your skin is probably irritated. Stop using the product for a few days and if your skin feels calmer after taking a break, then it was probably irritated. If your skin is the same after not using the product for awhile (several weeks), you either really are purging or breaking out.

Be cautious about irritating your skin by exfoliating too much. Over exfoliation can cause your natural skin barrier to be disrupted and grow vulnerable to bacteria and acne . Treatments can be very effective even if you aren't being aggressive with your skin. A little can go a long way.

When Should You Stop Using a New Skincare Product?

When it comes to using new skincare products or a brand new regimen, you should try to give it about 3 months, but expect to see some slight improvement after 3-4 weeks of usage. If you are still breaking out after 3 months or don't see any improvement at all in your skin after 1 month, switch to something else. 3 months is enough time for your skin to renew itself and push the would-be pimples out of your clogged pores.

If you want to limit the severity of a purge, introduce the new product slowly to your skin, which can help. Start at a lower concentration, at a smaller amount or use less frequently before gradually increasing to the recommended amount. Or you can always patch test.

So what do you do when your skin is freaking out and you don't know which product is causing the issue? Quit everything cold turkey. Makeup, moisturizer, sunscreen…stop everything you're using. Try using a mild topical hydrocortisone cream on your skin until your reaction goes down. Start adding products back in slowly. Eventually, you'll find out what's offending your skin. If your skin continues to react, see a dermatologist or skin care specialist as it may be a more serious medical condition that needs special treatment.

Other than that, give your new skincare products a chance . Some pimples and breaking out may be your skin’s initial reaction to a new product. After awhile your skin builds up some immunity to the products and the break outs subside.


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