Adapalene: what is it, how it works, benefits, side effects

Steve Silvestro, MD - Contributor Avatar

Written by Alison Dalton 

Steve Silvestro, MD - Contributor Avatar

Written by Alison Dalton 

last updated: Dec 22, 2021

3 min read

If you’re looking to achieve clear, wrinkle-free skin, you’ve probably come across a lot of recommended products. One such product is adapalene, which may be less well known than its cousin tretinoin, but it has advantages over it, such as greater tolerability and stability in sunlight. Like tretinoin, it can help with acne and is also used for reducing wrinkles, evening out skin color, and many other purposes. Read on to find out more about adapalene—its history, uses, and benefits.

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What is adapalene?

Adapalene is a topical (applied to the skin) retinoid approved in 2016 by the FDA for treating acne. In the United States, it’s sold under the brand name Differin. Adapalene is also used off-label to treat many other conditions, including warts, dark spots on the skin, aging of the skin caused by sun exposure, and many others (Stein Gold, 2018; Tan, 2018; Bagatin, 2018). 

Adapalene was approved in a 0.1% gel formulation as an over-the-counter (OTC) acne treatment for people age 12 and older. Other adapalene formulations—0.1% lotion and cream and 0.3% gel—are available only with a prescription.

How does adapalene work?

Adapalene works to fight acne by decreasing the formation of microcomedones, the tiny “seeds” that form under the skin surface when a hair follicle is blocked by sebum (waxy skin oil) and dead skin cells. It does this by increasing the rate of skin cell turnover, helping to unblock pores and the glands that produce sebum. Adapalene also helps to exfoliate pimples that have already formed and, as an anti-inflammatory, decreases the inflammation that’s a part of acne (Rusu, 2020).

Is adapalene a retinol?

There’s a fair amount of confusion over the difference between retinols and retinoids. A retinol is a type of retinoid. Retinoids, which are derived from vitamin A, are usually more powerful prescription products. The term retinol is generally used to describe milder products that are available without a prescription.

Adapalene is a third-generation, synthetic retinoid. Adapalene was created to provide the benefits of tretinoin (brand name Retin-A), a first-generation topical retinoid, but with fewer adverse side effects. Tretinoin is closer to natural vitamin A in chemical structure than adapalene (Rusu, 2020).

Tretinoin Important Safety Information: Read more about serious warnings and safety info.

Adapalene vs. tretinoin

Adapalene may be somewhat less effective than tretinoin for combatting acne, but it has fewer bad side effects (Kassir, 2020). Tretinoin is available only by prescription in the U.S., while adapalene is available OTC in its 0.1% gel formulation. Adapalene is also more stable in sunlight, so it can be used during the day. Also, because it’s more stable, adapalene can be used in combination with benzoyl peroxide, which increases its effectiveness in treating moderate-to-severe acne (Tan, 2018).

What are the benefits of adapalene?

Adapalene is approved by the FDA to fight acne, but it’s used off-label for many other skin conditions.

Like other retinoids, adapalene can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by increasing collagen production. One study found that adapalene 0.3% gel was as effective as tretinoin 0.05% cream in treating fine line and wrinkles caused by sun exposure (Bagatin, 2018).

Adapalene can even out skin color by stimulating the production of new blood vessels in the skin. It can help with pigment disorders such as melasma and dark spots resulting from acne and sun exposure. It’s used to treat alopecia areata (patchy hair loss). Adapalene also can remove actinic (solar) keratoses—rough, scaly patches on the skin that come from years of sun exposure (Tolaymat, 2021).

What are the side effects of adapalene?

Adapalene is less irritating compared to other topical retinoids. The adverse effects of adapalene are usually relatively mild. They include skin irritation, redness, dry skin, itching, burning sensation, and photosensitivity (sensitivity to sunlight). Although they’re rare, allergic reactions are possible with adapalene, with symptoms that can include itching and swelling of the face, lips, and skin around the eyes.

Who shouldn’t use adapalene?

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding shouldn’t use adapalene (or any retinoid) because there is a slight chance it can cause harm to a fetus or infant (Williams, 2020). It’s not known if adapalene passes into breast milk.

You shouldn’t use adapalene if you have a history of sensitivity to retinoids, have eczema, are sunburned, or are using other products that can irritate the skin. You also shouldn’t use it if you’re very sensitive to sunlight. Although there are no clinical studies showing that adapalene makes you more sensitive to UV light, use high-SPF sunscreen and/or protective clothing to safeguard your skin when using adapalene.

If you’re interested in introducing adapalene into your skincare regimen, it’s a good idea to get medical advice from your healthcare provider first.


If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

  • Bagatin, E., Gonçalves, H. S., Sato, M., Almeida, L., & Miot, H. A. (2018). Comparable efficacy of adapalene 0.3% gel and tretinoin 0.05% cream as treatment for cutaneous photoaging. European Journal of Dermatology , 28 (3), 343–350. doi: 10.1684/ejd.2018.3320. Retrieved from

  • Kassir, M., Karagaiah, P., Sonthalia, S., Katsambas, A., Galadari, H., Gupta, M., et al. (2020). Selective RAR agonists for acne vulgaris: A narrative review. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology , 19 (6), 1278–1283.  doi: 10.1111/jocd.13340. Retrieved from

  • Rusu, A., Tanase, C., Pascu, G. A., & Todoran, N. (2020). Recent advances regarding the therapeutic potential of adapalene. Pharmaceuticals , 13 (9), 217. doi: 10.3390/ph13090217. Retrieved from

  • Stein Gold, L. F., Alexis, A. F., Harper, J. C., & Tan, J. (2018). Advances in acne and rosacea therapy. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery , 37 (3S), S63–S66. doi: 10.12788/j.sder.2018.025. Retrieved from

  • Tan, J., Bissonnette, R., Gratton, D., Kerrouche, N., & Canosa, J. M. (2018). The safety and efficacy of four different fixed combination regimens of adapalene 0.1%/benzoyl peroxide 2.5% gel for the treatment of acne vulgaris: Results from a randomised controlled study. European Journal of Dermatology , 28 (4), 502–508. doi: 10.1684/ejd.2018.3367. Retrieved from

  • Tolaymat, L., Dearborn, H., & Zito, P.M. (2021). Adapalene. [Updated 2021 Jul 20]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Dec. 13, 2021 from

  • Williams, A. L., Pace, N. D., & DeSesso, J. M. (2020). Teratogen update: Topical use and third-generation retinoids. Birth Defects Research , 112 (15), 1105–1114. doi: 10.1002/bdr2.1745. Retrieved from

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Every article on Health Guide goes through rigorous fact-checking by our team of medical reviewers. Our reviewers are trained medical professionals who ensure each article contains the most up-to-date information, and that medical details have been correctly interpreted by the writer.

Current version

December 22, 2021

Written by

Alison Dalton

Fact checked by

Steve Silvestro, MD

About the medical reviewer

Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Associate Director, Clinical Content & Education at Ro.