What To Know About Using Differin Gel 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 by people 12 and older to treat acne. The product—a form of the retinoid adapalene—has since topped countless "best of" lists on various websites, Health.com included. Here are five things everyone should know about this powerful way to prevent pimples.

Then there are the user reviews. In August 2022, Differin boasted thousands of 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 incredible, and it has the expert stamp of approval for clear, blemish-free skin, too.

But it's also a formula similar to the ones you need a prescription for. As a result, there are a few things to consider before adding it to your evening skincare routine.


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
  • Naphthoic acid derivatives

Adapalene belongs to the last group on the list. While there are many over-the-counter retinol creams on the market, Differin is not one.

Both retinol and adapalene come from vitamin A. Vitamin A increases cell turnover (the removal of dead skin cells to make room for new ones), which helps your skin look younger. But retinol is much weaker than adapalene and can take longer to deliver results you can see, 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," said Dr. Shamban.

Although adapalene is available as an over-the-counter retinoid, you need a prescription for adapalene's stronger form, adapalene 0.3% gel, 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.

Differin Gel Is Not a Spot Treatment

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

Differin offers one of the best ways to protect against breakouts. However, experts explained that Differin isn't as helpful for treating existing blemishes that you already have. 

"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."

So 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

Differin should not be used with products that can cause irritation like medicated soaps or cleansers. Furthermore, you shouldn't apply Differin while using products that contain: 

  • Salicylic acid
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Chemical exfoliators (e.g., glycolic and alpha-hydroxy acids) 
  • Drying agents (e.g., astringents and toners)

As noted, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid can help spot-treat blemishes. But benzoyl peroxide can cause your retinoid to oxidize and become less effective. Additionally, salicylic acid can be irritating to the skin.

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. Health likes CeraVe Moisturizing Lotion—a 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," noted Dr. Shamban.

To ease the transition, Dr. Shamban 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.

Differin Gel Is Not for Everyone

When the FDA approved the gel in 2016, the organization advised people who are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or 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 November 2022, the FDA hadn't released an updated guidance. The American Academy of Dermatology recommended stopping 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.

A Quick Review

Differin, or adapalene gel, is a treatment shown to be effective in treating acne. It is a retinoid and shouldn't be used with other skin care products like drying agents or products that have salicylic acid.

It's also better for preventing breakouts instead of treating ones that are already active. Finally, Differin can cause skin irritation and redness, and everyone may not benefit from its use or be able to use it all.

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  1. US Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves Differin gel 0.1% for over-the-counter use to treat acne.

  2. Rusu A, Tanase C, Pascu GA, Todoran N. Recent advances regarding the therapeutic potential of adapalenePharmaceuticals. 2020;13(9):217. doi:10.3390/ph13090217

  3. US Food and Drug Administration. Differin.

  4. Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatmentsAdv Dermatol Allergol. 2019;36(4):392-397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443

  5. American Academy of Dermatology. Is any acne treatment safe to use during pregnancy?

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