The popular prescription acne treatment Differin is now available over-the-counter without a prescription in the US. Here’s what you need to know about whether or not you should consider it…
(Note: This isn’t intended to be medical advice. Please seek professional advice if there’s anything you’re unsure about!)
What is Differin?
Differin is the brand name for adapalene, a chemical active developed by Galderma Laboratories (a Nestlé-owned company who also make Benzac, Epiduo and Cetaphil). It belongs to a class of skincare ingredients known as retinoids, which are vitamin A derivatives. Retinoids are usually prescribed for acne treatment, but many also have been found to have anti-aging effects too. Adapalene is one of the newest generation of retinoids on the market along with tazarotene. They have some advantages when compared with older retinoids such as retinol, isotretinoin (Accutane) and tretinoin (Retin-A).
Adapalene is found at a concentration of 0.1% or 0.3% in Differin Gel. Only the 0.1% version is currently available over the counter, while the 0.3% version is still prescription-only.
How does Differin (adapalene) work against acne?
Adapalene is an analogue of tretinoin, which means it was designed to look and act just like it, but with a few extra advantages.
Retinoids are thought to reduce the formation of acne by increasing how quickly skin cells are shed. This means that dead cells are less likely to clump together inside your pores and clog them. That way, there’s less chance of a blockage that’ll eventually lead to acne (blackheads, whiteheads and full blown cysts). Adapalene is also anti-inflammatory, so it will also calm down acne.
Because adapalene mostly works before baby acne (microcomedones) form and doesn’t target bacteria, it’s not very useful as a spot treatment. Instead, it should be used as a regular preventative measure in areas where you get acne.
What are the advantages of Differin?
Clinical trials have found that 0.1% adapalene works faster than 0.025% tretinoin, the most commonly used retinoid, and with less irritation to boot! Adapalene is particularly good for getting inside pores, preventing clogged pores, plus it has antiinflammatory effects too.
There are also a few practical advantages to adapalene:
Improved light and oxygen stability – If you compare the structures of tretinoin and adapalene, you’ll see that adapalene contains a bunch of hexagons (benzene rings), which makes it more stable to oxygen and light than tretinoin. If you’ve used tretinoin before, you’ll know that you’re meant to apply it right before you turn out the lights to avoid having it decompose and become inactive on the skin – adapalene doesn’t have this problem.
Better skin retention and lower absorption – There’s also a funky multi-ring thing on the far left of adapalene’s structure. This is called an adamantyl group, and it makes adapalene have a high melting point and low solubility. On the skin, this translates to low absorption through the skin, which means more of it remains on the skin and can act there. The amount that enters the skin and goes to other areas of your body is also lower compared to other retinoids.
What are the side effects of Differin and how can I prevent them?
Although adapalene has less severe side effects than older retinoids like tretinoin, it can still shock you if you’re new to retinoids.
Skin flaking, redness, irritation and sun sensitivity are very common when you start using adapalene. There are a few things you can do to reduce the chances of this happening to you:
- Be careful with how much you apply. You only need a pea-sized amount for your entire face.
- Start by applying a bit less than the recommended amount, and only use it every second night to begin with. You can slowly increase the amount used as your skin adjusts
- Avoid the sensitive areas around the eyes and mouth. You may find it helpful to apply Vaseline (petroleum jelly) as an occlusive in those areas before using Differin, to stop it from spreading to those areas by accident.
- Wait 10-15 min after cleansing for your skin to dry before applying. Wet skin is more permeable, so this will keep the adapalene on the surface and avoid unnecessary irritation.
- Use a moisturiser after applying Differin to reduce irritation and flaking. If you already use a moisturiser, you might find that you’ll need to switch to a richer one.
- Wear sunscreen during the day to help with sun sensitivity.
- Differin can cause purging, so your skin may get worse before it gets better!
- Don’t try to scrub away flaking skin – this will probably just cause further irritation. Try to stick with just moisturiser. If the flakes are really bothering you, try using an extremely gentle exfoliant with a very light touch, such as a konjac sponge or a peeling gel (more information on exfoliation here).
Can I use Differin with other acne treatments?
Yes! Because adapalene is more stable than tretinoin, it can be used with benzoyl peroxide (in fact, the two ingredients are found together in Epiduo). You can also use it with alpha and beta hydroxy acids.
However, be careful to introduce these treatments slowly and stagger them throughout your routine, as all of them will cause irritation, and extra irritation isn’t good – more inflammation = more acne! Try a few weeks with just Differin first, then try adding an extra treatment in the morning once your skin has settled down.
Will Differin have an anti-aging effect?
Some retinoids like tretinoin have been found to prevent the breakdown of collagen by UV light, as well as increase collagen production in the skin. Since collagen is important for plumping up the skin, retinoids can help prevent and reverse fine lines and wrinkles.
It’s believed that adapalene should have similar anti-aging effects to tretinoin based on its mechanism of action, but there haven’t been any specific clinical studies on its anti-aging activities yet.
Where can I buy it?
WJ Cunliffe, M Poncet, C Loesche & M Verschoore, A comparison of the efficacy and tolerability of adapalene 0.1% gel versus tretinoin 0.025% gel in patients with acne vulgaris: a meta-analysis of five randomized trials, Br J Dermatol 1998, 139 Suppl 52, 48-56.
B Shroot & S Michel, Pharmacology and chemistry of adapalene, J Am Acad Dermatol 1997, 36, S96-103.
This post contains affiliate links – if you decide to click through and support Lab Muffin financially, thank you! For more information, see Disclosure Policy.