When you’ve finally achieved clear skin after having acne for so long, the last thing you want to see in the mirror is multiple angry bumps. Acne vs breakout: which could it be?

Is there even a difference between acne and a breakout?

In fact, there is!

You’ll see as we go on below that all is not lost when a sudden breakout comes. It doesn’t immediately mean your acne is coming back for good.

So, sit tight and come along with me as we look at acne vs breakouts.

Acne VS Breakout

It can be hard to see any difference at all between acne and breakout since they’re so closely related.

When we’re talking about acne as the skin condition, we’re actually referring to Acne vulgaris. 

This skin condition happens when hair follicles become clogged. And those clogs become what we know as blackheads and whiteheads.

Now, acne bacteria has a chance to multiply in the clogged follicles. They follicles become inflamed—giving us pimples, called pustules and papules.

Also, acne is a chronic condition. So, it can reappear even after successful treatment.

Breakout is the term we use to refer to the different kinds of blemishes we get as a whole.

Like if in the course of a couple of days, you observe having blackheads, whiteheads, and some pimples. You can say you’re breaking out.

The severity of acne is often categorized depending on what your breakout consists of [1]:

  • Mild acne. Your breakout consists of mostly whiteheads, blackheads, and a few papules and pustules.
  • Moderate acne. Your breakout consists of more widespread whiteheads and blackheads. Plus, many papules and pustules.
  • Severe acne. Your breakout consists of lots of large, painful papules, pustules, nodules, and/or cysts plus some scarring.
acne vs breakout

From all this, we can see the main difference between acne and breakout.

Acne is a chronic skin condition. While breakout is a term used within that skin condition to refer to the blemishes you get as a whole.

And since we use breakout within acne-talk, you’ll rarely encounter it outside of acne.

What could your breakout mean?

acne vs breakout

So, you’ve cleared your skin and have been acne-free for weeks, months, even years!

But one not so fine morning, you see clusters of blemishes forming. What could this mean?

And yes, the type of breakout we’re talking about is the kind that suddenly comes, seemingly out of nowhere, after being acne-free for a while.

When that happens, it could be difficult to tell what it means exactly.

I’ve listed some of what your breakout could be telling you. But take these with a grain of salt. Only you know your exact situation. And, in some cases, it’s better to seek medical advice—no matter how much you think you know your skin.

With that said, let’s look at the possible reasons for your sudden breakout:

Your skin diasgrees with a product you’re using.

acne vs breakout

Breakouts can come after adding a new product to your routine.

It could be that you’re allergic to an ingredient or some ingredients in the product. Though you could drop this as a reason if you did a patch-test before using the product.

If it’s not allergies, then it could mean the product is clogging your pores. And that could be contributing to the process of acne formation.

Products can also irritate the skin. Not because you’re allergic to them but because they contain harsh ingredients. Irritated skin will have acne-like blemishes, leaning a lot more towards rashes.

It’s important to remember that when we say “product,” we’re not only talking about skincare products. Makeup products can also cause your breakouts. Especially if you wear makeup for extended periods of time.

Want to know more about testing your products? You know, to make sure they’re actually doing their job and not breaking you out.

If yes, then take a look at this post. It talks about skin care products. But you can definitely extend the info to makeup products.

Your body is going through hormonal changes.

acne vs breakout

For us women, our hormones play a large role when it comes to our acne.

Your sudden breakout can come after starting or stopping birth control. It could even come before, during, and/or after pregnancy. Any hormonal changes we’re going through could trigger breakouts.

Want to figure out whether your hormonal changes are causing your breakouts? Then it’s best to be very observant of your skin.

Let’s say you’re going to start taking birth control. Try not to use a new product for your skin a few weeks before taking the birth control. That way, you can drop the factor in figuring out the cause of your breakout.

You’ve been consuming a lot of sugar and/or dairy.

acne vs breakout

Let me insert another disclaimer here. Our bodies are widely different and act very differently to what we consume.

You might be wondering why I mentioned sugar and dairy. Well, so far, many studies have concluded these two as having the strongest connection to triggering acne when consumed.

For dairy, evidences point out that it can trigger acne. Dairy products contain a hormone (IGF-1) that clogs pores.

To make matters worse, dairy products prompt a large insulin response from your body. High insulin levels mean bad news for acne as it contributes to overproduction of oil.

For sugar, studies show that a high glycemic-load diet have negative effects on acne. This type of diet involves eating food loaded with sugar. The rise in blood sugar causes more frequent and severe acne. 

What if you have been consuming both in the past with no effect on your acne whatsoever? Then of course, you can dismiss them from causing your breakout.

Did you binge on one or the other (or both) for the past few days, and suddenly, you find yourself dealing with a breakout? Then you may need to pay attention to what you’re eating.

Your breakout is not what it seems—it’s purging.

acne vs breakout

Skin purging or purging for short happens when you start using a product with actives.

It can look like you’re breaking out. But in reality, the active ingredients are hastening skin cell turnover. So you’re impending blemishes are forced to come out faster than normal.

Now, how do you know if you’re breaking out or if it’s purging?

Active ingredients that can cause purging are AHAs, BHAs, and retinoids. So, you won’t necessarily purge from sunscreens or moisturizers.

Also, you can tell you’re breaking out if you get pimples where you don't usually get them.

Purging pushes blockage out of places you usually get pimples. So, you won’t purge in places you don’t get pimples on in the first place.


Now, I know how frustrating it is to suddenly get lots of blemishes when you’ve been acne-free for so long. It can get so tempting to apply all the treatments for acne you can get your hands on.

But that’s actually the last thing you want to do. Haphazardly applying products to your face can worsen your breakout.

What you should do is be gentle to your skin and go back to the basics of your routine. Treat your skin like an open wound. That's how gentle you should be!

I hope this helped clear up the difference of acne vs breakout for you. Thank you for reading and 'til next time!

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