Is Differin a retinoid?

Yael Cooperman, MD - Contributor Avatar

Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD, Ro, 

Written by Gina Allegretti, MD 

Yael Cooperman, MD - Contributor Avatar

Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD, Ro, 

Written by Gina Allegretti, MD 

last updated: Jun 13, 2022

3 min read

When you walk through a pharmacy or cosmetics store, you’re likely to find yourself surrounded by an array of over-the-counter skincare products that promise to improve acne, reverse signs of aging, and more. Their labels tout the power of ingredients like retinoids or retinol. Differin gel (adapalene) is one such product that is typically prescribed to prevent and treat acne. But is Differin a retinoid, and does it really deliver on its acne-fighting claims? It is and does, but let’s dig in deeper. 

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What is Differin (adapalene)? 

Differin (adapalene) is a type of medication called a retinoid. It’s approved by the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) as a treatment for acne (acne vulgaris). Differin is available as a topical gel either over-the-counter or with a prescription. 

What are retinoids?

Retinoids are a group of medications that are either derived from vitamin A or structurally similar to it. The most well-known drug in this class is retinol. Retinoids are included in many skin care products because of their anti-aging and anti-wrinkle effects (Zasada, 2019). Because they allow for exfoliation and renewal of the skin, they are also helpful for conditions like acne.

What does Differin gel do? 

After you apply Differin gel, it binds to specific proteins in the outermost layer of skin (epidermis). This has several acne-fighting effects, including (Rusu, 2020; Millikan, 2000):

  • Reducing inflammation: Differin reduces skin inflammation by blocking inflammatory chemicals called lipoxygenase and arachidonic acid.

  • Fighting acne-causing bacteria: Adapalene, the active ingredient in Differin, may help fight bacteria that cause acne, like Propionobacterium and Staphylococcus aureus

  • Stopping pimples from forming: Retinoids help stop cells from multiplying to forming new pimples.

Off-label uses of Differin

Differin gel is approved for treating acne, but studies have found that it’s useful for treating other conditions related to the skin as well. Differin may be used off-label for: 

  • Anti-aging: Differin may reduce some of the signs of skin aging, like sun spots (photoaging) (Rusu, 2020). It may also reduce forehead wrinkles and fine lines around the eyes (Bagatin, 2018). 

  • Hair regrowth: Some studies showed that Differin may be helpful for people with alopecia areata, an immune system condition that causes hair loss (Unal, 2018). 

  • Wart removal: Differin may be useful against warts on the bottom of the foot (plantar warts) (Gupta, 2015). 

Side effects of Differin 

Since Differin is applied directly to the skin, the most common side effects are related to the skin’s reaction to it, especially within the first month of using it. Common side effects include (FDA, 2012): 

  • Burning 

  • Redness similar to sunburn

  • Dryness or scaling

  • Skin peeling

Some people are allergic to Differin. Signs of an allergic reaction include swollen lips, throat tightness, difficulty swallowing, trouble breathing, and hives. You should immediately seek medical attention if you have symptoms of an allergic reaction. 

Retinols vs. retinoids

It’s easy to mix up the similarly named retinol and retinoids, but they’re not the same. Retinoids are all medications that come from vitamin A. Retinol, a form of vitamin A, is actually a type of retinoid. Retinol is found in many over-the-counter anti-aging products, like skin creams and moisturizers, and is typically not as strong as retinoid-containing products. This means they offer less dramatic results, but also less severe side effects.

Should I use Differin?

If you have persistent acne or other skin concerns, Differin or another similar product may be helpful. If you’ve tried over-the-counter options and they haven’t been effective, your best bet is to schedule some time with your healthcare provider to put together a treatment plan for you. 


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.

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How we reviewed this article

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

June 13, 2022

Written by

Gina Allegretti, MD

Fact checked by

Yael Cooperman, MD

About the medical reviewer

Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.