6 Things To Know Before Using Differin To Treat Your Acne

Thinking about buying the over-the-counter retinoid Differin (adapalene)? Read this first.

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In 2016, Differin Gel 0.1% was approved by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for over-the-counter use for people 12 and older. The product—a form of the retinoid adapalene—has since topped countless "best of" lists on various websites, this one included. It can be a powerful way to treat acne.

Then there are the user reviews. In August 2022, Differin boasted more than 32,300 five-star ratings on Amazon, 5.0 stars on CVS, and 4.7 stars on Target. And the wallet-friendly price tag makes it a far cry from retinol creams that can set you back as much as $150.

Clearly, there's a pattern here: People who use Differin think it's amazing, and it has the expert stamp of approval for clearer, blemish-free skin, too.

But it's also a prescription-strength formula. As a result, there are a few things to consider before adding it to your nighttime routine. Here are six things everyone should know about this powerful way to prevent pimples.


To buy: $14; amazon.com

It's Not a Retinol (but It Is a Retinoid)

Retinoid is a term that includes all vitamin A derivatives, such as retinol, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, and naphthoic acid derivatives. Adapalene is the latter. So while there are many over-the-counter retinol creams on the market, Differin is not one.

Both retinols and adapalene are derived from vitamin A, a powerhouse anti-ager that increases cell turnover, but retinol is much weaker than its prescription counterpart and can take longer to deliver noticeable results, explained Ava Shamban, MD, a Beverly Hills dermatologist and founder of SKIN FIVE. "Differin is adapalene and has a slightly different chemical structure than other retinoids, making it less irritating," Dr. Shamban said.

Adapalene was the only retinoid available over the counter, as of July 2022; and you needed a prescription for its stronger form, adapalene 0.3% gel, as well as for other types of retinoids, such as tretinoin (also known as Retin-A) and tazarotene. Other brands were branching out into over-the-counter adapalene gel as well, including La Roche-Posay.

It's Not a Spot Treatment

Bad breakout? You're probably better off treating it with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. (One of our favorite spot treatments is Neutrogena On-The-Spot Acne Treatment Cream, which has enough benzoyl peroxide to zap zits but not so much to overly dry out skin.)

The reason, experts explained, is that while Differin offers one of the best forms of defense against breakouts, it isn't nearly as effective on existing blemishes. "Differin mostly works before acne forms and doesn't target bacteria," said New York City-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD, author of Skin Rules. "It's best when used on a regular basis."

Note: Benzoyl peroxide can cause your retinoid to oxidize and become less effective, and salicylic acid can be irritating. If you're dealing with an active pimple, you should hold off on Differin while you spot-treat.

It Doesn't Always Mix Well With Other Products

In addition to salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, you shouldn't apply Differin while also using products that contain chemical exfoliators (think: glycolic and alpha-hydroxy acids) or drying agents (astringents and toners, for example). Like retinoids, exfoliators increase cell turnover, but too much exfoliation can lead to raw, irritated skin. Toners, meanwhile, can be too drying when used along with a retinoid.

Instead, follow Differin with an ultra-rich moisturizer that will calm irritation and deliver much-needed hydration. We like CeraVe Moisturizing Lotion ($15; amazon.com), a cult favorite that's famously gentle.

Your Skin Might Not Instantly Look Perfect—And That's Normal

Flaky skin, redness, itchiness, and irritation are common side effects of Differin, experts said. "Almost everyone gets dry [skin] and may have temporary redness," Dr. Shamban noted. To ease the transition, she recommended starting out by using a very small amount of the formula, followed by a moisturizer to combat flaking. Start every other day and work your way up to nightly use as your skin builds tolerance.

It May Make You Look Younger, Too

While Differin is well known (and FDA-approved) for treating acne, it shouldn't be discounted as an anti-ager. "It is quite useful as an anti-aging product for the improvement of fine lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, and sallow skin," Dr. Shamban said.

It's Not for Everyone

When the FDA approved the gel in 2016, the organization advised people who are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or are breastfeeding to not use Differin. Some studies had linked other retinoids to birth defects, and there weren't enough good studies on adapalene to deem it safe for pregnancy.

As of July 2022, the FDA hadn't released an updated guidance. The American Academy of Dermatology recommended to stop using adapalene during pregnancy.

You should also skip Differin if you have ultra-sensitive skin or certain skin conditions; Dr. Jaliman recommended those with eczema or seborrheic dermatitis avoid it.

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