All About Over-the-Counter Differin (Adapalene) for Acne

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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!)

All About Over-the-Counter Differin (Adapalene) for Acne

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.

All About Over-the-Counter Differin (Adapalene) for Acne

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?

Differin (0.1% adapalene) is available on Amazon in both 15 g and 45 g versions. It’s also stocked in many stores including Walmart and Target in the US.

All About Over-the-Counter Differin (Adapalene) for Acne

Further Reading

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.

 

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37 thoughts on “All About Over-the-Counter Differin (Adapalene) for Acne”

  1. I’m interested in trying this! I have used some sort of similar prescription in the past but it’s such a hassle getting the prescription renewed.
    Once I’m into a good routine, is it best to only use this at night and then the benzoyl peroxide in the morning? Never together, and never this product in the morning?? Or does that just depend on how someone’s skin reacts?
    Thanks!!

    Reply
    • I have the prescription one with 5% BP mixed in, since I have used BP for a while it wasn’t that bad. I’ll say use BP one day and differin the next day till you skin gets used to it. Because if you use it all at the same time and you are not use to it, it might be too much for your skin.

      Reply
      • Hi there, I’ve been using Retin-A at .05 for wrinkles, along with a Vit C serum and have seen good results (I’ve been using it for about 8 months now). I got it online to save money. It was my mom actually, who suggested I try Retin-A or Differin. She said just search in Google for this keyword “GETRET247” to find the reliable source. You can use this code to get 10% off.
        I found that they sell Differin too. Has anyone tried the Differin for wrinkles and if so what was your experience? Did you like it better/worse than Retin A.

        Thanks…….I’m a bit nervous about switching

        Reply
  2. Wow, fantastic breakdown! Very informative and useful. I’ll definitely be looking out for this to see if it’s available in my area! Although I was going to buy the retinoid from the Ordinary already.

    Reply
  3. Sounds interesting! I usd products with Benzoyl peroxide for a while, bit then I got to a point where it didn’t work so great, bit started irritating my skin more than ever. So I gave up. I might to give Differin a try

    Reply
  4. Loving your website !! Just curious, you’ve written a lot about retin-a. Is it something that you have tried? I’m 28 and thinking about starting it for anti-aging purposes. What would you recommend ? Love from Canada

    Reply
  5. I love your blog because it’s science-based!
    I came across this paper, since I have Asian (ethnically Taiwanese) skin, I wanted to see if I could find a study that was performed on Asian skin types.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11843231
    The results seem promising! My dermatologist recently prescribed me Epiduo (0.1% adapalene/2.5% benzoyl peroxide). Over the past two months, I have worked up to using an OTC retinol every night (0.25%), so I am thinking of maybe continuing using OTC products and adding in Epiduo one night/week to see how my skin responds? Do you have thoughts on that?

    Also, my primary concern with benzoyl peroxide is that it may exacerbate/prolong the duration of PIH, especially in medium to darker skin tones? If you have insights on this, it’d be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks!!

    Reply
    • Would you be able to ask for Differin (just adapalene) instead? I agree with the BP/PIH concern, it can be quite irritating hence the possibility of PIH, especially when adapalene is already pretty irritating. If not, then the once-a-week idea sounds good!

      Reply
      • Hi Michelle,

        Thanks for your reply! Yeah, I’ll speak with my dermatologist at my next appointment in two weeks.
        I do believe in the retinoid-based products for the other benefits that I can reap while treating acne, so I’ll also ask her what she thinks about adapalene when it comes to those (ie. improving skin texture, fine lines, wrinkles, combating first signs of aging, etc)

        Reply
  6. Hi,
    Love your site! It’s so hard to compare products when there is limited information available and I’m not a scientist.

    I’m 35 with hormonal acne, which I currently control with Aldactone. I’ve been using Paula’s Choice 5% AHA exfoliant since 1/1 and it’s amazing. I haven’t used any BHA products because my skin has not tolerated salicylic acid well in the past. Now I’m looking to add a retinoid to help with anti-aging.

    I’m considering either Differin (OTC) or Paula’s Choice Clinical Retinoid 1%. I’d appreciate any insight in comparing those products.

    Reply
    • Thank you!

      I haven’t tried both yet, but Paula’s Choice irritated my skin a lot. I’m currently trying The Ordinary’s Advanced Retinoid 2% and I haven’t experienced any irritation, so I’d recommend that instead… plus it’s very budget-friendly 🙂

      Reply
        • Theoretically yes, though I’m not sure why you’d need to – they work in almost the same way so it would be overkill! I’d use one or the other in a particular routine.

          Reply
  7. Thank you so much for an outstanding summation of Differin. I am a big believer in prescription retinoids. I must be living in a time warp, because I had no idea this was approved as non-prescription! I just ordered two tubes from amazon, and again, thank you for an awesome explanation of the product.

    GREAT BLOG!!!

    Reply
  8. I like your style of writing…
    Wonderful blog!!! I liked the complete article…. superbly written, Thanks for all the information you have provided…

    Reply
  9. Hi Michelle!

    Thanks for doing a great job on your blog, you have helped me a lot! I have been plagued with hormonal acne all my life, and after switching off of the pill recently I wasn’t able to control it at all anymore – even using epiduo nightly wasn’t enough (though it helped). After reading up on your posts about exfoliation and cleansing for acne, I decided that switching to a gentler cleanser (I tried Nivea) and exfoliating with hydroxy acids (I tried the Neutrogena pore-refining toner) seemed to be what I might need. After about 4-6 weeks, it worked! I now have the clearest skin I have ever had in my life. Thanks Michelle (and science)!

    Reply
  10. Differin is absolutely AMAZING! I’m 55 and recently had a first time ever bout of rosecea. My skin looked horrific. I’ve always had good skin and I was mortified. My nose was so red and the pores so large they looked like slash marks. Nothing I tried was helping when I decided to try Differin.
    Pores on my nose have shrunk back to almost invisible even in sunlight! Smile lines are less noticeable and I no longer have to “spackle” on make up. I started with using it two hours before bed and then washing it off, gradually increasing my wearing time to overnight. You will have flaking and purging but a gentle cleanser and moisturizer got that under control within a week.

    Reply
  11. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for sharing this product. I have not tried using Differin and if I do I have to seek professional advice first if this is suitable to treat my acne. I only have a few acne on my face, so I guess before using Differin I have to make sure that it is safe. Thanks!

    Reply
  12. Michelle, I’m happy to have come across your informative article. I have been using Adapalene (0.1 % OTC) for the past 5 months, and my skin is now thankfully completely clear.

    Should using this be part of my long-term skin regimen? Should I be weaning myself off Differen gel (Adapalene)?

    If you know of any research that discusses long-term usage of Adapalene (0.1%), please let me know. Thank you.

    Reply
  13. Hi, l have a question about pregnancy. Can l use it during pregnancy or not. Because l read Carolin Hirons post about differin gel and she said it can be used.
    Tnx in advance

    Reply
  14. Just found this article but a long time youtube channel subscriber. If I am looking for anti aging product, other retinoid products are more preferable to differin right? Thanks!

    Reply
  15. Hi Michelle,

    I was wondering whether it’s OK to use azaleic acid along with adaplene? I’m thinking of using them on alternative nights. Been using azaleic acid for a month now and I want to introduce adaplene slowly.

    Reply

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