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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.
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.
Prescription acne medication: what are your options?
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):
- 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.
What would a dermatologist prescribe for acne?
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.
- Bagatin, E., Gonçalves, H. S., Sato, M., et al. (2018). Comparable efficacy of adapalene 0.3% gel and tretinoin 0.05% cream as treatment for cutaneous photoaging. European Journal of Dermatology : EJD, 28(3), 343–350. doi:10.1684/ejd.2018.3320. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30105991/
- Kong, R., Cui, Y., Fisher, G. J., et al. (2016). A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 15(1), 49–57. doi:10.1111/jocd.12193. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26578346/
- Gupta, R. & Gupta, S. (2015). Topical adapalene in the treatment of plantar warts; randomized comparative open trial in comparison with cryo-therapy. Indian Journal of Dermatology, 60(1), 102. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.147835. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318023/
- Leyden, J., Stein-Gold, L., & Weiss, J. (2017). Why topical retinoids are mainstay of therapy for acne. Dermatology and Therapy, 7(3), 293–304. doi:10.1007/s13555-017-0185-2. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5574737/
- Millikan, L. E. (2000). Adapalene: an update on newer comparative studies between the various retinoids. International Journal of Dermatology, 39(10), 784–788. doi:10.1046/j.1365-4362.2000.00050.x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11095202/
- Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., et al. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 1(4), 327–348. doi:10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699641/
- Rusu, A., Tanase, C., Pascu, G. A., & Todoran, N. (2020). Recent Advances Regarding the Therapeutic Potential of Adapalene. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 13(9), 217. doi:10.3390/ph13090217. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7558148/
- Shao, Y., He, T., Fisher, G. J., et al. (2017). Molecular basis of retinol anti-ageing properties in naturally aged human skin in vivo. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 39(1), 56–65. doi:10.1111/ics.12348. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5136519/
- Thiboutot, D. M., Shalita, A. R., Yamauchi, P. S., et al. (2006). Adapalene gel, 0.1%, as maintenance therapy for acne vulgaris: a randomized, controlled, investigator-blind follow-up of a recent combination study. Archives of Dermatology, 142(5), 597–602. doi:10.1001/archderm.142.5.597. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16702497/
- Tolaymat L., Dearborn H,. & Zito P.M. (2022). Adapalene. StatPearls. Retrieved on May 18, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482509/
- Unal, M. (2018). Use of adapalene in alopecia areata: Efficacy and safety of mometasone furoate 0.1% cream versus combination of mometasone furoate 0.1% cream and adapalene 0.1% gel in alopecia areata. Dermatologic Therapy, 31(1), 10.1111/dth.12574. doi:10.1111/dth.12574. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29193637/
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2012). Highlights of Prescribing Information: Differin. Retrieved on May 18, 2022 from https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2012/021753s004lbl.pdf
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2013). Highlights of Prescribing Information: Differin (adapalene) lotion, 0.1%. Retrieved on May 18, 2022 from https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2013/022502s003lbl.pdf
- Zasada, M. & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatologii i Alergologii, 36(4), 392–397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6791161/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.