Differin Gel Review (8 Studies): Everything You Need to Know About Adapalene
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Kinda late to the party, but WOHOO! Differin has officially been approved for over the counter use in #Amurica. “It’s about time the peasants get a new acne medication,” says the FDA.
To celebrate this wondrous occasion I thought I’d do a differin review…. or more like OVERVIEW since we will literally be going over everything you need to know. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
- 1 What is Differin? How Does it Work?
- 2 Types of Retinoids.
- 3 Differin vs Retin-A: Which is Better? A Comparison of Benefits.
- 4 How Long Does Differin Take to Work? Differin Side Effects.
- 5 Differin Side Effects. How to Reduce its Irritation.
- 6 How to Use Differin?
- 7 My Experience with Differin.
- 8 Want to Subscribe for Updates?
What is Differin? How Does it Work?
Differin Gel (adapalene 0.1%) is the first and only retinoid available OTC for the treatment of acne. (1) A retinoid is simply a derivative of vitamin A. The two most popular being tretinoin, an anti-aging all star known widely by it’s brand name Retin-A, and Accutane (isotretinoin) — an oral prescription drug for severe cases of acne.
Retinoids like Differin work by regulating epithelial cell growth. In other words, they target the beginning of the cell cycle (not the end). This is why it’s crucial you stick with them! They work on the deeper layers of skin by “reorganizing” the way the cells grow, which eventually leads to healthier, brighter skin that’s less prone to clogging.
Your chemical exfoliants on other hand (e.g. glycolic and salicylic acid), work at the end of the cell cycle. Something that makes them more likely to damage skin by excessively thinning the stratum corneum (i.e. over-exfoliation).
This can show up in a lot of different ways. For me it means dull, glassy, dehydrated, and fragile looking skin. Geo from Beautiful with Brains described it best by saying, “your skin becomes so thin, it’s practically transparent. You can actually see what’s under it.”
Types of Retinoids.
There are 3 generations of retinoids, each categorized by its time of discovery. These include:
- 1st generation = retinol, retinal, tretinoin (Retin-A), isotretinoin (Accutane), and alitretinoin.
- 2nd generation = etretinate, acitretin.
- 3rd generation = adapalene (Differin), bexarotene, and tazarotene.
The demand for newer generations of retinoids was motivated by scientists trying to find less irritating alternatives to some of the earlier versions. It’s no secret that using stuff like tretinoin is irritating as hell. This makes people less likely to stick with it, which is crucial for getting its full benefits.
And that’s where adapalene comes in (a.k.a differin’s active ingredient)! It’s supposed to be a less irritating alternative to harsher retinoids, without compromising effectiveness. This has many people wondering….
Differin vs Retin-A: Which is Better? A Comparison of Benefits.
It depends on what you’re after. If we’re talking straight anti-aging then Retin-A is probably better. I only say “probably” because there isn’t much research on differin for wrinkles and all that jazz.
However, the stuff that’s out there looks promising. For example, one study found that using differin (0.3% adapalene) for 6 months significantly reduced wrinkles. (2) To quote the research paper itself:
“There were significant improvements in clinical grading of wrinkles (p < 0.01) with a reduction in mean severity score of 40% in forehead wrinkles, 52% in periorbital wrinkles, and 29% in perioral wrinkles. Melanin, transepidermal water loss, and hydration were improved, as were general skin tone and the number of wrinkles (p < 0.05)”
Not to mention, adapalene can reduce atrophic acne scarring in 0.3% concentration meaning it increases collagen production (also good for wrinkles). (3)
In terms of treating acne, there’s no doubt that differin works better than Retin-A. It reduces total acne count faster, has improved local tolerability (i.e. not as irritating — less itching, burning, redness), and has better light stability! (4)
Tretinoin is notorious for being an unstable little sissy that degrades in light. This is less a problem with differiin. It should still be used at night though!
And for those wondering — yes, differin is also an effective treatment for hyperpigmentation, or the dark spots left behind from acne. (2, 5)
How Long Does Differin Take to Work? Differin Side Effects.
Like reddit user rainingramen said, “[Differin] bestows its rewards only to those who are patient and committed to Lord Retinoid.” Indeed, this stuff was meant for the long haul. If you’re an impulsive Isabelle or serial monogamist — just stop reading this and leave now. Differin is like that guy or gal looking for commitment, so none of this tinder business!
Studies have shown that differin reduces acne by about 60% across all participates after 3 months of daily use. (4) Here’s a visual of what that looks like with a sample size of 582 patients.
Source: Millikan LE. “Pivotal clinical trials of adapalene in the treatment of acne.” Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology.” 2001;15 Suppl 3:19-22.
From the graph above you’ll notice there’s a significant reduction in acne (~30%) within a week! I definitely noticed this myself (more about that later), but unfortunately it ain’t all pretty sunshine and rainbows forever.
Most people have a slight worsening of acne during the second week. This happens because that’s the peak period of irritation, known to many as the dreaded “purging phase” when clogged pores start surfacing and the skin gets easily inflamed.
Rest assured though, once you get past that 2nd week it’s just smooth sailing until the end of time. 🙂 Matter of fact, one study showed that improvements to the skin were still being made after 9 months of daily use! (6)
And that folks is why they say differin rewards those with patience! Stick with it and you’re practically guaranteed to have clear beautiful skin.
Differin Side Effects. How to Reduce its Irritation.
Despite adapalene being a gentler retinoid, it can still be pretty irritated. Like a mentioned above, the first few weeks on differin are the hardest because that’s the peak period of irritation. You will likely experience itchy, red, dry skin, and worsening of acne. But just remember to STICK WITH IT!
Adapalene also increases your sensitivity to the sun by thinning the stratum corneum, so it’s really important that you follow up with a sunscreen! I like to use the EltaMD UV Clear SPF 46. It’s safe for acne-prone skin, rosacea, and won’t aggravate malassezia induced skin conditions like seborrheic dermatitis, pityrosporum folliculitis, and eczema.
But more importantly it has 5% niacinamide, a vitamin and antioxidant that’s great for anti-aging, fading discoloration, fighting acne, and brightening skin. Studies have also shown that niacinamide reduces the irritation of retinoids, (7) so it’s a good companion to have should you decide to try differin.
And while we’re on the subject of reducing irritation, should you notice it’s too much for you skin reduce the frequency to every other day until you build up more tolerance. Some people also like to apply differin after moisturizer as this provides a buffer and reduces irritation, and only slightly decreases it’s effectiveness (if at all).
How to Use Differin?
You can only use a pea-sized amount or less once a day! We’re talking this much OR LESS.
I know. I know. You’re probably having the same thought I did: “How the hell am I supposed to spread that much across my entire face?”
I’ll be honest, it’s kinda hard. But I think that’s because I have a big head… What I found works best is carefully dabbing it in tiny tiny pieces all across the face, then spreading it evenly. It’s glides more easily if you apply moisturizer first.
I did this a couple nights and it worked well. But I’m trying to get the whole shebang here, so I’m mostly applying it to dry skin and moisturizing afterward.
Unlike tretinoin, you don’t have to wait 20-30 minutes after cleansing to make sure your skin is fully dry before applying.
One split face study with 22 patients found that it made no difference whether adapalene was applied directly or 20-30 minutes after cleansing (8) — with the exception of one poor sucker whose face it did irritate, so for our purposes we’ll say waiting 20-30 minutes is unnecessary 95% of the time.
If you want to be extra extra safe, go ahead and wait those 20-30 minutes.
My Experience with Differin.
Alrighty. Now to talk about my 2 week long experience with this stuff. “Wait, what?? 2 weeks?!?!” I can hear you already.
Yes, I’ve only used this stuff for about 2 weeks BUT I plan on using it a full 3 months and will update here periodically. I have dropped everything from my routine except EltaMD AM Therapy and EltaMD UV Clear SPF 46. If all goes well I’ll start incorporating things back in after a couple months. Consider this the “differin experiment.”
I want to give it a full shot at working its magic before ruling it out. And quite frankly, mixing it with other actives might decrease its overall effectiveness by increasing my skin’s sensitivity.
For whatever it’s worth, here are the reasons I decided to drop all my other chemical exfoliants in favor of differin.
1. I still have minor atrophic scars on my cheek that I wish weren’t there. Given that adapalene helps acne scars in 0.3% concentration, I figure it might help.
2. It most likely has anti-aging benefits.
3. It has good tolerability in cases of adult acne. Yay because I’m 24 and have sensitive acne-prone skin!
4. Differin works by targeting the start of the cell cycle as opposed to the end. This means there’s less potential to over-exfoliate, damage the stratum corneum, and end up with “dull and tired” looking skin. Something I’ve experienced all too often with chemical exfoliants. -___-
5. Alright, let’s be real…. the quirky Dr. Dray may have convinced me to give it a go. She’s a dermatologist who’s been vlogging about her differin experience for the past 2 months. :p
With that said, I will be updating y’all every couple weeks. We’ll officially conclude this review three months from now. Let’s get started.
- Week 1 = the first three days went splendidly! I literally noticed a difference right away. My pores looked smaller, and the blackheads/sebaceous filaments on and around my nose began disappearing. I’m singing the praises of LORD DIFFERIN! 😀
- Week 2 = Sigh. Just like those studies said would happen, my face is getting irritated. It’s like scientific clockwork. I’m sad to report that I actually broke out too. :/ First time in what feels like several months. Won’t pretend I’m not disappointed about this, but i’m sticking with it because I know this is just temporary irritation (hopefully). And the itches! God my skin itches! SOMEONE HAAAAALP.
- Week 3 + 4 = the past two weeks have been meh. On the bright side the breakouts on my chin have subsided. The only problem is I’m now getting clogged pores on my forehead and closed comedones on my upper cheeks. It’s almost as if differin isn’t decongesting the surface of my skin fast enough compared to salicylic acid. I still feel very much parched and irritated, especially by the end of the day. I’m not freaking out about it though, I more or less expected to be here.
NOTE: I also added CeraVe Healing Ointment at night during week 4. Ian, a reader of the blog, reminded me that this has ceramides, cholesterol, phytosphingosine, and hyaluronic acid in it, which are all natural parts of the skin that help restore its barrier function.
You can essentially consider CeraVe Healing Ointment like a beefed up version of Aquaphor or Vaseline. It’s a fantastic occlusive that locks in the moisture in skin when used as the last step in your routine.
- Weeks 5 + 6 = Unfortunately, some of the closed comedones on my cheek became full blown inflammatory lesions. I was initially worried about this because I scar very easily there, but I found a study that showed Epiduo gel (0.1% Adapalene + 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide) reduces the risk of atrophic scar formation, whereas BP alone does not. This has definitely been true for me, and I swear I’m noticing a marked improvement in the old indented scars I have, which is making me feel very optimistic about adapalene. Were it not for this fact, I probably would have stopped using it by now.
- Weeks 7 + 8 = All the breakouts I got the past 2 weeks finally subsided, but they left behind some PIE marks (red acne scars). I still have some congestion around my forehead and nose, but I’m 95% positive this was because my moisturizer, so I’ve gone full blown DIY and formulated a urea facial lotion without fatty alcohols and esters. It’s only been a couple days, but it is working astonishingly well!
- Week 9 + 10 = Not much to update here. Skin is clear, with the exception of the blackheads on my nose. These things are the bane of my existence! -__- The minor congestion on my forehead is finally going away. I don’t want to repeat myself but…. I SWEAR DIFFERIN IS ACTUALLY HELPING ME WITH MY ATROPHIC ACNE SCARS AND HOLY SH*T THAT MAKES ME SO F*CKING HAPPY! That is all for this week. 🙂 If everything keeps going as planned, I will finally introduce some BHA into my routine after week 12! Yippieeeee!
- Week 11 + 12 = I’ve finally reached the 3 month mark! My skin has improved slightly from the last update (looks more taut), but nothing too crazy. I’ve decided I’m going experiment with salicylic acid peels in the coming months, so I’ll be stopping differin in the meantime. Argh, the cons of being a beauty blogger — you can’t ever have consistent skincare routine! :p With that said, remember that the longer you use differin the better your skin will become! Slow and steady wins the race 😉
Hope you’ve enjoyed this Differin Gel (adapalene 0.1%) overview / review!
I’ve been using only Differin, Vanicream wash, and CeraVe PM for 3.5 months, and my skin is the best it has ever looked. Lockdown is a WONDERFUL time to adjust, y’all. No one can see you 🙂 I began because I was being a hermit while I was helping my family clean out and sell a late relative’s house for a month in January. It took about 6 weeks for me to stop looking like I had a rash and very flushed skin, but I only left the house to go to the grocery store, so it was all good. All the clogged pores around the bottom half of my face (mostly deep blackheads) became spots that by themselves popped or healed within a day. It wasn’t like my regular acne that lasts for weeks. They were clearly ready to come up and move on out.
At around 6 weeks, randomly, I ate some bad Mexican food and broke out in hives all over my body and face. I held off on the Differin for a week while that healed, and when it was all done, my skin was perfect. Smooth, clear, and lately I’ve been noticing that my skin doesn’t look so tired or saggy around my eyes. And I haven’t had another rash or another big breakout again. One of my biggest issues was skin picking. I promised myself I would only look at my face from regular standing at the counter distance, and NEVER WHEN WASHING MY HANDS (because my face is RIGHT THERE!). If I can’t see a spot from 3 feet away, I can’t see it. It has helped a lot.
Enjoy beautiful skin, my friends!
Hi there, f. c.! I’ve been enjoing your blog for a long time, but silently entil now 🙂 I see you’ve updated 12th week, and seeing no exitment I’ve got to ask – could you, please, share more thoughts on overall experience of using adapalene? Will you continue to use it? Or will you stick to your usuall routine with BHA?
I am myself going through 7th week and honestly it’s been meh…dyhidrated and dealing with breakouts.
I’ve been using Differin for about 4 months now and I’m enjoying a craaaaazy improvement on my skin. I’m also a follower of Dr. Dray and she got me into the Differin wagon because on top of MF, I’m also dealing with acne pretty much my whole life and the marks they left were no joke. When starting Differin, I was so scared of the purge and the irritation that I decided to use it AFTER my snail essence and then followed up with Paula’s Choice 2,5% BP. And the combo has cleared my skin and reducing the marks so amazingly without me ever going through irritation and purging. And I have the kind of skin that breaks out over literally everything and a victim of series of dermatologist’s treatments that ended up worsening my MF and ruining my skin barrier for years. I decided to keep my routine simple since using Differin+BP; Bioderma Sebium facewash, COSRX Snail Mucin, Differin (night), BP (night), Benton Aloe Propolis gel. I just haven’t found a sunscreen that won’t aggravate my skin, tried everything including Elta MD 46 but none worked. But after reading your MF article I decided to order the Biore UV Perfect Milk (blue bottle) and it’s currently on its way. I reeeeeally hope it works on my skin because as of now all I can do is just hiding from the sun as best as I can – and I live in Bali where the sun is at 120%.
I know this is an old-ish article and you have a completely different regimen now, but I wanted to chime in with my Differin experience. It might help others.
I’m 45, female, loooooong time acne and sensitive (aka always RED) sufferer. The acne calmed down when I hit 40, but the congestion didn’t stop, especially in the T-zone. I just traded acne for wrinkles. (Not gonna lie, I’d rather have wrinkles than pimples – but I really don’t *want* either!)
I’ve feel I’ve hit gold over the last year with the following routine:
1 wash (still searching for perfect)
2 COSRX BHA
3 Cerave Moisturizing Cream
4 Banana Boat Simply Protect Baby 50SPF (no makeup days)
OR Paula’s Choice Resist line SPF 30 tinted (makeup days)
3 Cerave Cream
All the benefits of adapelene AND no congestion AND I don’t look scalded all the time. I look… healthy! I introduced the Differin very slowly. 2x/week for 2 weeks, every-other-day for 2 weeks, and finally everyday. No irritation on my face or upper chest (collar bone area), but it was ROUGH on my neck and in hindsight, the neck area I should have moisturized before applying Differin, or stuck with the 2x/week for longer. But I’ve adjusted now. Might even ask my family PA to prescribe the next strength. (Might.)
Thanks for all you do.
Welcome to the Differin club!
The dryness of the first few weeks can be pretty unbearable. I remember I had a few “false starts” with it where I’d give up using it after just a few days, and then stashed the tube away, only to find it some weeks later and decide to try it again. Rinse, repeat. 😛 But eventually I stuck with it and am glad I did — it’s been about 5 months of regular use now.
I can see how the spreadability would be an issue. I’ve managed to circumvent that because, as mentioned previously, I mix it with Skinoren gel. But, just like with any retinoid, I think it’s better to apply it to the face in a controlled manner, by dabbing it on parts where the skin is hardier and avoiding the more sensitive areas (in my case, the upper cheeks), as opposed to just spreading around evenly like you would a moisturiser.
As you said, even though Differin works faster than tretinoin, you’re still in it for the long haul. This is likely the main reason why a lot of online reviews on it are so mixed — people just don’t stick with it long enough. That’s why I think it’s far better used in combination than as a monotherapy, at least until you achieve consistent clearance (though obviously those with more sensitive skin need to be wary about combining it with other actives). That said, the fact that it has the unrivalled anti-ageing benefits of a retinoid means it makes all the more sense to keep it in regular use as maintenance.
Also, like with other retinoids, niacinamide is your friend. Using a retinoid with a niacinamide product has been proven to increase the retinoid’s efficacy and minimise its irritation. That’s why I always follow up with Cerave PM.
Hi! Happy to follow along with you! I’ve been battling closed comedones on my chin for five years (with the occasional inflamed pimple after attempts at extraction) It seemed to start about a year after moving from a very humid climate to California right at the start of the drought. 🙁 I continued to treat my skin as very oily as I felt it had always been, but acne hadn’t been a problem since my late teens (32 now!). I suppose I became very dehydrated along the way and killed my barrier. Enter the CCs! I’d never dealt with these before, even in my teen years. I’ve tried what I feel to be just about “everything” BHA, AHA, azelaic acid (gave up on that kinda soon), BP, etc. I’m not into the idea of going to a dermatologist because past experiences were nothing but frustrating.
I’ve recently become interested in K beauty and it’s emphasis on healing/hydrating the skin… After incorporating some key products into my routine (oil cleansing, gentle cleanser, MOISTURIZER for the first time ever), my tone is SO much brighter/more even, but the CCs remain.
I was thrilled to find Differin 0.1 on the shelf in CVS and decided to give it a go. It’s been 3 weeks. I started out using it every 4th night as I’m very prone to perioral dermatitis and feeling a little irritated at the corners of my mouth. I’m getting some tiny pustules in various places along my chin as expected. What I didn’t expect was for a whole new group of CCs (several dozen!) to crop up on my cheeks. From what I’d read, the IB is likely to be inflammatory. What do you think about in increase in CCs in new places in the first several weeks of use? Would his indicate that I’m reacting badly? I’m feeling a bit desperate and discouraged! I’m looking forward to reading about your experience.
Did differin help your fungal acne
Will it work for fungal acne?
As I am getting older, I wanted to trade-out my Differin for some Retin-A micro. However, my dermatologist’s PA heavily advocated, and wrote a script, for Altreno. The ingredients list includes soluble collagen, glycerin, and sodium hyaluronate. Are these additions really a fair substitute for Retin-A Micro’s delivery system? Is the tretinoin in Altreno microencapsulated?
My dermatologist’s office appears to be pushing this new topical, even while information, reviews, and pharmacies that carry it are exceedingly limited. Am I a front-runner for an exciting new formulation, or just a patsy being upsold a inferior product dressed up in sexy marketing? Factoring price into the equation, a 45g tube of generic Retin-A Micro (0.04%) can cost between $140-$390 (dependent on manufacturer and pharmacy) while the same quantity of Altreno lotion rings up at $115.
I would love some clarification on the new line-up of retinoids hitting the market.
Hello my friend, you are doing a great job here..
Due to acne i do have a lot of red marks, pih, pie on my face and i also get breakouts on my chin area..
I cleared up because of differin which i am using now for 9month i quess. I want to include bha’s in my skincareroutine.. My Skin does feel really good when i touch it and besides a few pimples my Skin FEELS flawless besides some light scarring.. But there is a lot of redness and pih, pie as i said so i wanted to try the BHA.
Everybody is saying not to use them both, because they do cause a lot of Irritation. What are your thoughts?
My current Routine:
Cerave Moisturizer + SPF
Can you give us an update regarding your usage and results for Differin? Have you also had any experience with Epiduo? I can’t decide which to buy between them.
I want to make sure I’m not over doing it in my skincare. Especially after reading a couple articles. I have been using Drunk Elephant’s C-firma day serum and T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic night serum for over a year. I have added Differin in over time and use it alone every other night for about a month and a half. I don’t want to thin my skin to where it can be seen through or where it starts aging. I’m in my late 20’s, have had acne since age 14, have been to dermatologists, and was once prescribed Differin.
AM: CeraVe SA cleanser, CeraVe PM moistorizer and Drunk Elephant’s C-firma
PM: CeraVe hydrating cleanser bar
Night A: Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C. and I
mix of safflower oil and 4 drops
rose hip oil
Night B: Differin OTC and the mix of oils
I’m not sure if I should start tapering off on the T.L.C and start adding in more nights of Differin so I just use the T.L.C. a couple times a month or leave things as is. It seems that I have gone through my first purge phase with Differin. Any information is appreciated.
I personally have used Differin for 3 months and it made my acne worse. I stick to OTC Professional Strength retinols. They help keep my skin clear and wrinkle free even though I’m only 29. Retinols at night and vitamin c in the morning. I’ve had to cut back on all of my steps and simplify my routine cause it was getting confusing to figure out what was working and what wasn’t.
Has anyone had success treating sebaceous filaments with differin?
I was surprised at the difference in your tone and enthusiasm from week 9-10 to week 11-12. From “this is the best thing ever” to “meh.” Why the drop in enthusiasm? I’m starting week 3 and the inflammation is intense. But I’m determined to wait it out. I was using benzoyl peroxide many years to keep my acne in check (I’m in my 50s), and although it was mostly effective, my skin was looking very dull and I could see my pores were clogged. Hoping this is the answer.
I’m on week 2 on this and my face is worse than before. I’m trying to stay positive and sticking with it. So hopefully I’ll have a clear face soon been struggling with acne since my late 20s.
I’ve been using Differin for a few months now. Had some issues with irritation and dryness until I found a good moisturizer to pair it with (thanks for the tip about CeraVe), but I really like how it simplified my skincare routine while improving my complexion. It’s faded the sun freckles that I used to struggle with, and even though anti-aging isn’t its main indication, I’ve seen some improvement in the fine lines I was starting to get around my nose and forehead.
Ive been using this for atleast two and a half months, its not bad. I figure it might take longer than 3-4 mnths to see any difference in my PIH, since I am african american. I have paired it with The Ordinary 10% Naicidimide and Zinc 1%. I have seen brightening of my over all complexion, and Ive been using sunscreen religiously. I have oily skin, but after starting my skin is quite combo now. It has dried the area around my mouth quite significantly, it flakes like hell even under my make up. I find my self having to tap water on it at work just to subside it. And I work in retail. And that area burns more when I apply my moisturiser and sunscreen. But Vaseline helps a bunch. I plan to follow through for the next three months, and see if i helps.
Hey man, how’s the Differin Experiment been treating you? Curious to hear of any updates.
Love your blog. I always had sensitive skin but it was on the drier side so it was easy to care for and I could use all sorts of wonderful products with rich lush ingredients. Not so anymore. Malasessezia has run crazy internally and on my poor skin. I am impressed with your conclusions because through trial and error I saw many of the things that had worked for me on your lists with solid information and research explained. Ingredient breakdowns are gifts. Thank you!
I hope you do start writing about DIY because I am at that point too where I want to start tailoring some items for myself.
As to the Differin discussion, I have used it in the past but not for acne. I don’t have acne. I have hyperpigmentation and loads of peeling and some aftermath dark markings. I am going to use Differin again because in the past it was fantastic for smoothing and fading scars. I had old chickenpox scars from childhood that are now gone.
Keep up the humor and good work.