How To Use Differin Gel for Treating Acne

The main ingredient in Differin Gel is adapalene, a type of retinoid, which treats acne and premature aging from sun exposure.

In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration approved Differin Gel 0.1% for over-the-counter (OTC) use by people 12 and older to treat acne. The product is a form of adapalene, a type of retinoid. Many people who use Differin Gel think it's incredible, giving it the stamp of approval for clear, blemish-free skin.

Differin Gel is a formula similar to the ones you need a prescription for. As a result, there are a few things to consider before adding the retinoid to your evening skincare routine.


What Is Differin Gel?

Differin Gel is a type of retinoid. Retinoid is a term that includes all vitamin A derivatives, such as:

  • Retinol
  • Retinaldehyde
  • Retinoic acid
  • Naphthoic acid derivatives

Specifically, the main ingredient in Differin Gel is adapalene. Adapalene, part of the naphthoic acid derivative group, is available as an OTC retinoid. Still, you'll need a prescription for adapalene's more potent forms, adapalene 0.3% gel and 0.1% cream.

When the Food and Drug Administration approved Differin Gel in 2016, the agency advised people who are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding to not use the product. Some evidence suggests a link between other retinoids and birth defects. At the time, there weren't enough good studies on adapalene to deem it safe for pregnancy.

As of November 2022, the Food and Drug Administration hadn't released updated guidance. Still, the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) advises stopping adapalene during pregnancy.  

Also, you should skip Differin Gel if you have ultra-sensitive skin or certain skin conditions. For example, people with sunburns, broken skin, or eczema ought to avoid Differin Gel until their skin heals.

Does Differin Gel Have Retinol?

While there are many OTC retinol creams on the market, Differin is not one. Instead, Differin Gel is made up of adapalene.

Both retinol and adapalene come from vitamin A. Vitamin A increases cell turnover, removing dead skin cells to make room for new ones. Cell turnover helps your skin look younger.

What Does Differin Gel Do?

If you have an active acne breakout, products with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid are probably better treatments than Differin Gel. In contrast, Differin Gel helps protect against future acne breakouts. So, if you're dealing with an active pimple, you should hold off on Differin Gel.

In addition to acne prevention, in general, adapalene treats photoaging, which includes premature fine lines and wrinkles from sun exposure. 

Dermatologists may also recommend adapalene for "off-label use" to treat skin conditions like:

  • Plantar warts
  • Molluscum contagiosum
  • Pigmentary disorders
  • Actinic keratoses

How To Use Differin Gel

When using Differin Gel, start with a clean canvas. Gently cleanse the affected area, like your face, then pat dry. Next, apply Differin Gel across the entire area. You should use Differin Gel once per day. Using the product multiple times daily may increase your risk of skin irritation.

When you first start using Differin Gel, you may notice that your skin worsens. The increased cell turnover causes more acne than before. However, as you regularly use the product, the acne will decrease over time. In general, adapalene can take as long as 12 weeks to take full effect.

So, with retinoids like Differin Gel, start out by using a very small amount of the formula. Start every other day and work up to nightly use as your skin builds tolerance.

Differin Gel Side Effects and Precautions

In general, some of the most common side effects of adapalene include:

  • Redness
  • Scaly patches
  • Dry skin
  • Burning
  • Pain

If you have severe side effects, like difficulty breathing and a swollen face or throat, consult a healthcare provider right away.

Also, you should not use Differin Gel with products that cause irritation, such as medicated soaps or cleansers. Also, you shouldn't apply Differin Gel while using chemical exfoliators or drying agents.

Like retinoids, chemical exfoliators increase cell turnover. However, too much exfoliation can lead to raw, irritated skin. Examples of chemical exfoliators include glycolic and alpha-hydroxy acids. Also, drying agents can be too drying if you use them along with a retinoid. Examples of drying agents include astringents and toners.

Instead, follow Differin Gel with an ultra-rich moisturizer that will calm irritation and deliver much-needed hydration. 

A Quick Review

Differin Gel, also known as adapalene, is an acne treatment. Adapalene is a type of retinoid that you should not use with other skincare products like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, chemical exfoliants, or drying agents.

Keep in mind that Differin Gel is best for preventing acne breakouts instead of treating active ones. Also, Differin Gel can cause skin irritation and redness. Not everyone may benefit from its use or be able to use it all, including pregnant people.

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