Woman applying Differin Gel (Adapalene) for Topical Acne Treatment

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Differin Gel (Adapalene) for Topical Acne Treatment

Zena Hassoun

Written by Zena Hassoun

Zena Hassoun

Zena Hassoun

Zena earned her M.S. in Medical Health Sciences from Touro University, California and has a background in Psychology. She is passionate about increasing access to healthcare, de-stigmatizing mental health treatment, and improving health equity.

Stephen Vogel, MD

Reviewed by Stephen Vogel, MD

February 20, 2024 / Read Time 12 minutes

Differin gel (adapalene) is a powerful topical acne treatment option that helps reduce blackheads and whiteheads, prevent breakouts, control cystic acne, improve skin texture, and more. It’s a topical retinoid medication that comes in a gel form. Adapalene is known for its ability to regulate skin cell renewal and control inflammation, promoting clearer and healthier skin.

Please note that PlushCare does not have dermatologists, but our primary care physicians can prescribe and refill most medications for your skin concerns. 

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Similar to other retinoids, adapalene helps improve cell turnover and reduce inflammation. It also helps clear pimples and improve skin appearance by unclogging pores, reducing redness, and reducing swelling.

Adapalene gel is available both over-the-counter and in prescription strength. Differin delivers targeted action to affected areas, minimizing potential side effects compared to oral medications. While dryness and irritation can occur initially, they are usually mild and temporary. Read on to learn more about how Differin works, how to use it, side effects, and more. 

How Does Adapalene Gel Work? 

Adapalene gel, sold under brands like Differin and Effaclar, belongs to a class of medications called retinoids. It's primarily used to treat acne by unclogging pores and reducing inflammation. This can help prevent new breakouts and improve the appearance of existing ones. While adapalene gel 0.1% is specifically formulated for acne, adapalene may also be used in different strengths for other concerns like mild scarring and anti-aging, under the guidance of a doctor.

Adapalene's ability to promote skin cell turnover can help smooth mild scarring, particularly post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Some studies suggest it might also have potential anti-aging benefits by improving skin texture and reducing fine lines. However, it's important to remember that adapalene is only FDA-approved as an acne treatment, and consulting your doctor is crucial to determine if it's the right approach for your specific needs and concerns. 

Applying Adapalene Gel: Tips to Maximize Effectiveness 

Adapalene gel is ‌usually applied to clean and dry skin once a day, typically in the evening. However, this frequency and timing can vary depending on your doctor’s instructions or the specific product you are using. It's important to note that for better results, consistency is key.

It is important to follow the instructions provided by your doctor or the product's packaging. Applying too much or using it too frequently can increase the risk of skin irritation.

Some individuals may initially experience mild irritation or dryness when starting adapalene gel. This is normal and should subside as your skin adjusts to the medication. If the irritation persists or becomes severe, talk to your doctor.

Below are general instructions to apply adapalene gel in your daily skincare routine: 

  • Prepare your skin: Begin by gently cleansing your face with a mild cleanser and patting it dry. 

  • Dot and spread: Using the dotting method, apply a very small amount of adapalene gel to the affected areas. Gently spread it in a thin, even layer, avoiding unaffected areas and open wounds. Remember, less is more! Apply once daily, usually in the evening, and avoid excessive use. 

  • Start slow: If you're new to using adapalene, starting slow is key. Begin with using it every other night or one to two times a week for the first few weeks, allowing your skin to adjust. Gradually increase the frequency as tolerated, always following your healthcare provider's instructions. 

  • Moisturize and protect: While applying adapalene, daily sunscreen use, even under makeup, is crucial as adapalene increases sun sensitivity. Additionally, you can adapt your application technique based on your skin type. Oily skin might benefit from applying adapalene directly on bare skin, while dry skin might prefer it after moisturizer. Be sure to use moisturizers that are meant for face-use (non-comedogenic). 

  • Embrace the adjustments: As you embark on your adapalene journey, remember that initial dryness, redness, or peeling are potential side effects. These are often temporary and usually subside as your skin acclimates. If any side effects become persistent or bothersome, decrease frequency of use and consult your doctor for personalized guidance. 

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Forms and Doses 

Differin (adapalene) is available in different forms and strengths. The available forms include: 

  • Differin gel: This is the most common form of adapalene and is available in 0.1% and 0.3% strengths. The gel is typically applied once daily to the affected areas of the skin. 

  • Differin cream: Adapalene cream is available in 0.1% strength. It is used similarly to the gel, with once-daily application to the affected areas. 

  • Differin lotion: Adapalene lotion is also available in 0.1% strength. It is applied once daily to the skin. 

Choosing a form and strength of adapalene may depend on various factors, including your skin type (oily or dry) and your doctor’s preference. Gels are generally more drying, where lotions and creams are more moisturizing. It is important to follow the instructions provided by your healthcare provider or mentioned on the product label for your specific medication.

Adapalene and Other Retinoids  

Is Differin a Retinoid?  

Yes, Differin (adapalene) is a retinoid. Retinoids are a group of medications derived from vitamin A. They’re widely used in dermatology for various skin conditions, including acne, wrinkles, sun damage, and hyperpigmentation. 

Adapalene vs. Retinol 

While both adapalene and retinol are both retinoids, they have some differences. 

  • Efficacy: Known for its powerful acne-fighting properties, adapalene works by unclogging pores and reducing inflammation, leading to smoother, clearer skin. Retinol serums, on the other hand, are more focused on anti-aging benefits like reducing wrinkles and improving skin texture. In terms of acne-fighting power, adapalene is generally stronger than retinol. 

  • Side effects: While generally well-tolerated, adapalene and retinol can cause common side effects such as dryness, redness, and mild irritation. These usually subside as your skin adjusts to the medication. Additionally, they can increase sun sensitivity, so it's essential to use sunscreen daily. 

  • Use during pregnancy: Adapalene is generally considered safe for use during pregnancy, but it's always best to consult with your doctor before starting any new medication while pregnant. Retinol, on the other hand, is not recommended during pregnancy due to its potential to cause birth defects. Opt for alternatives or consult with your doctor for guidance. 

  • Combining the medications: While it's generally not recommended to use adapalene and retinol together due to the risk of increased irritation, some individuals may benefit from alternating their use or using them in different areas of the face. Consult your doctor for advice about the best treatment options for you. 

Adapalene vs. Tretinoin 

Adapalene and tretinoin are also both retinoids. While they work in similar ways, there are some differences between the two:  

  • Efficacy: Both adapalene and tretinoin are effective in improving acne, but tretinoin may be slightly more effective in treating fine lines, wrinkles, and overall skin aging. 

  • Availability: Adapalene is available over the counter, while tretinoin is prescription-only. 

  • Side effects: Adapalene and tretinoin can cause similar side effects, including redness, dryness, and peeling of the skin. However, tretinoin may be more irritating to the skin, especially at higher concentrations. 

  • Use during pregnancy: Tretinoin is ‌not recommended for use during pregnancy due to its potential to cause birth defects. Adapalene, on the other hand, is considered safer for use during pregnancy, but it is still advised to consult with a doctor before using any medication during pregnancy. 

  • Adapalene and tretinoin together: It is generally not recommended to use adapalene and tretinoin together as they are both potent retinoids, and combining them can increase the risk of skin irritation. 

Here is a summary of some of the similarities and differences between adapalene and other retinoids.  






More effective in fighting acne 

More effective in improving skin texture 

More effective in improving skin texture 

Side effects 

Redness, dryness, mild skin irritation and peeling 

Redness, dryness, mild skin irritation and peeling 

Redness, dryness, mild skin irritation and peeling 

Use during pregnancy 

Generally considered safe 

Consult your doctor 

Consult your doctor 

Combining Adapalene Gel With Other Skincare Products

Can I Use Adapalene and Benzoyl Peroxide?

Yes, it is possible to use adapalene and benzoyl peroxide to complement each other in treating acne. Adapalene helps normalize skin cell turnover and calms skin inflammation, while benzoyl peroxide targets acne-causing bacteria and reduces oil production. Combining them can boost their effectiveness and bring clearer skin within reach. However, remember, using both ingredients increases the risk of dryness, redness, and peeling, so it’s often best to start with a lower frequency of use and work up from there. You should also use benzoyl peroxide in the morning and adapalene in the evening to reduce risk of skin irritation.

You can also consider using them on different days or alternating application times to give your skin a break. Remember, gradually increasing concentration is crucial. This could mean switching from lower-strength products to higher ones or slowly upping the frequency of use. Consult your doctor for instructions on the best method to incorporate both medications into your routine. 

Can I Use Adapalene and Clindamycin Phosphate Gel? 

You can use adapalene and clindamycin phosphate gel to treat acne. Adapalene unclogs pores and reduces skin inflammation, while clindamycin fights acne-causing bacteria on the skin. This combination can help reduce breakouts, minimize redness, and control excess oil, paving the way for clearer, healthier skin.

However, remember, every skin journey is unique. Consulting with a doctor is essential to ensure this combination suits your specific needs and gets proper instructions for safe and effective use. Be aware that using both ingredients together can increase the risk of dryness, irritation, or sensitivity, so your doctor might suggest options like applying them on different areas or alternating times to minimize side effects. Additionally, both adapalene and clindamycin come in different strengths, so your doctor will tailor the combination and application approach to your specific case. 

Salicylic Acid vs. Adapalene 

Deciding between salicylic acid and adapalene can be tricky, but understanding their strengths is key. Salicylic acid, a BHA (beta hydroxy acid) exfoliates, unclogs pores, and  reduces excess oil. While salicylic acid mainly works for milder acne, adapalene can tackle both mild and moderate to severe acne, depending on your unique needs and doctor’s recommendation.

Under medical guidance, both may be used together for comprehensive acne treatment. However, remember to practice caution as both ingredients can bring dryness and irritation as side effects. Following your doctor's instructions is crucial to minimize them. 

Using Adapalene with Cleansers and Moisturizers 

Using cleansers and moisturizers specifically formulated for use with adapalene can elevate your skincare routine and optimize results. Look for gentle, non-comedogenic  formulas (these don't clog pores) that won’t irritate your skin while clearing away impurities. Opt for cleansers that remove makeup, excess oil, and dead skin cells without stripping natural moisture.

After cleansing, it's crucial to replenish lost moisture and soothe potential irritation caused by adapalene. While many apply moisturizer after adapalene, some dry or sensitive skin types may benefit from applying it beforehand. Ultimately, listen to your skin and find the approach that works best for you.

By choosing compatible cleansers and moisturizers, you can create a gentle yet effective skincare routine that helps adapalene work its magic on your acne. 

  1. 1

    Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  2. 2

    See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  3. 3

    Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.

Adapalene Side Effects 

Common Side Effects 

  • Burning 

  • Stinging sensation 

  • Skin irritation 

  • Redness 

  • Rash 

Adapalene Purge  

An adapalene purge is a common initial reaction when starting adapalene treatment. It may cause temporary worsening of acne as the medication unclogs pores and brings impurities to the surface. This phase usually subsides over time with continued use of adapalene. 

Long-term Side Effects 

Long-term use of adapalene is generally considered safe and well-tolerated. However, like any medication, there is a potential for long-term side effects. They include: 

These effects are typically mild and can be managed with appropriate skin care practices, such as using effective moisturizers and sunscreen.

Special Precautions and Interactions  

Pregnancy and Nursing  

Adapalene is considered safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding. However, always consult with your doctor before using any prescribed or OTC medication during pregnancy. 

Adapalene Under Eyes 

 It is not typically recommended to apply adapalene under the eyes, as the skin in this area is thin and more sensitive. It is important to avoid contact with the eyes, eyelids, and mucous membranes. 

Interactions With Other Medications 

Adapalene may interact with certain medications, such as sulfur, resorcinol, or salicylic acid. It is important to inform your doctor about all medications, including over-the-counter products, that you are using to avoid any potential interactions.

As with any medication, following the instructions provided by your healthcare provider or mentioned on the product label is crucial. If you have any concerns or questions about adapalene, it is best to consult your doctor for personalized advice. 

Differin FAQs

Is There any Difference Between Generic Adapalene and Differin? 

No, there's usually no significant difference between generic adapalene and the brand-name Differin. Both contain the same active ingredient and are expected to have the same therapeutic effects. It's best to consult with your doctor or pharmacist if you have concerns. 

How Long Does it Take Adapalene to Work? 

Adapalene takes a few weeks to months to show results. It works by promoting skin renewal, but changes take time. Some redness or dryness may occur initially, but be patient. If you have concerns, consult your primary care doctor for personalized advice. 

Common Adapalene Application Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Mistake #1: Using Adapalene as a Spot Treatment 

One common mistake is using only adapalene on individual acne spots, including your face, chest, or back instead of applying it to the affected area. Adapalene works best by applying a thin layer of the gel or cream to the entire affected area as directed by your healthcare provider or the product instructions.

Remember, while it helps improve existing breakouts, adapalene is effective in its ability to prevent new ones from popping up. Applying it to the whole area ensures comprehensive coverage and addresses the underlying causes of acne. Additionally, some users find dabbing with a cotton swab instead of applying with fingers works better for them. Regardless of the method, consistency is key. 

Mistake #2:  Expecting Results Overnight 

Another common misstep with adapalene is expecting overnight results. This retinoid works gradually, taking around 8-12 weeks of consistent use before seeing significant results. Remember everyone’s skin journey is unique, so your timeline might look a little different.

Some initial dryness or even temporary breakouts might show up – it’s just your skin adjusting to the new routine. Stick to it, and track your progress to stay motivated. If you find yourself waiting longer than usual or experience unexpected side effects, don't hesitate to consult your doctor 

Mistake #3: Using More Than Necessary 

Using more adapalene than the recommended amount won’t speed up results and may increase skin irritation and dryness. Remember, consistency is important. Start small, with a pea-sized amount, and apply a thin even layer. If your skin tolerates it well, you can gradually increase the amount over time under your doctor’s guidance.

Overdoing it can disrupt your skin's natural barrier, causing redness, dryness, and potential peeling. Trust the process, stick to the recommended amount, and let adapalene work gradually. 

Mistake #4: Using it on Your Eyelids 

One area to avoid when using adapalene is the delicate skin around your eyes. This region is not intended for adapalene application and can easily become irritated or red from contact. Remember, if adapalene accidentally contacts your eyes, simply rinse thoroughly with clean water. When in doubt, always consult your physician for personalized advice on safe application near your eyes. 

Mistake #5: Using Adapalene With Retinol 

It’s not recommended to use adapalene alongside other retinol products like over-the-counter serums or creams. Remember, adapalene itself is a powerful retinoid medication, and layering it with additional retinol can be a recipe for excessive irritation and sensitivity. Your skin simply might not appreciate the double dose of cell turnover stimulation. To keep things gentle and effective, stick to either using adapalene or other retinol products, but not both simultaneously. 

Mistake #6: Not Using Moisturizer 

When using adapalene, it’s important to apply a facial moisturizer regularly. While adapalene works its magic against acne, it can sometimes leave your skin feeling dry and irritated. Opt for a non-comedogenic, oil-free, and fragrance free formula designed for acne-prone skin to avoid clogging pores while replenishing lost moisture. Remember, a well-hydrated barrier is key to minimizing adapalene-induced dryness, irritation, and even flaking.

Mistake #7: Washing Your Face too Often 

Cleansing too often, especially with harsh scrubbing like aggressive circular motions or washcloths, strips aways your skin’s natural oils and disrupts its protective barrier. This can lead to uncomfortable dryness, redness, and even increased sensitivity.   To keep your skin happy and maximize adapalene's effectiveness, stick to gentle cleansing twice a day, morning and evening. Opt for a mild, non-comedogenic, and fragrance-free cleanser suitable for sensitive skin. Rinse thoroughly with lukewarm water and pat your face dry gently with a soft towel. Remember, less is often more when it comes to cleansing on adapalene.

Read More About Acne Treatment Options: 


PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

Sources: PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information. 

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  5. Pubmed. Accessed on December 21, 2023 at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15764049/ 

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