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What’s Different About Differin?

Differin is a kinder, gentler alternative to powerful but potentially dangerous acne medications in the class that includes Accutane and Retin-A. Differin has a stable chemical structure that makes it compatible with many other acne treatments and that minimizes undesirable side effects when it is applied to the skin.

Differin Gel
Differin is a medication similar to Accutane and Retin-A, but with far fewer side effects.


  • Differin (adapalene) is a medication that works in the same way as Accutane and Retin-A but with far fewer side effects.
  • Differin is applied directly to the skin. Only a tiny fraction of a percent of Differin ever enters the bloodstream, so it is safe for women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant, as well as for people who have liver disease.
  • Differin works by stopping hyperkeratinization, the overproduction of skin cells that clogs pores.
  • Differin helps the skin absorb more clindamycin antibiotic.
  • A combination of Differin and 2.5% benzoyl peroxide can be used to treat antibiotic-resistant acne.
  • If you aren’t getting the results you want from tretinoin topical, ask your doctor about switching to Differin.
  • For completely clear skin, Differin is never enough. You also need a complete skin care system like Exposed Skin Care.

Which Drugs Are Really Differin?

The generic name of Differin is adapalene. In North America, adapalene is marketed under the trade name Differin in three different forms, a 0.1% cream, a 0.1% gel, and a 0.3% gel. There is also an “off brand” of 0.1% adapalene gel known as Teva. Adapalene is also marketed as Differin gel, but only int the 0.1% strength, in Australia and New Zealand. In Australia, it is possible to get a prescription for a gel that is a combination of Differin and benzoyl peroxide.

In the European Union and Russia, adapalene is available only as a 0.1% cream and a 0.1% gel. In Pakistan and the most of the Middle East, adapalene is marketed as Pimpal or Gallet, and in India adapalene is sold as a mixture of 0.1% adapalene and 1% clindamycin called Adelene.

What Does Differin Do?

Differin acts in much the same way as vitamin A, retinol, Retin-A, and Accutane by attaching to skin cell DNA and modifying the production of enzymes needed for creation of new skin cells. It counteracts the process of hyperkeratinization, or excessive growth, in the lining of pores, and it also desensitizes the skin to inflammation. This combination of effects stops the accumulation of dead skin cells inside pores and gives them a chance to drain.

Differin does not cure acne. You still have to follow a good skin care routine to take care of existing blemishes. Neither will Differin open cystic acne or heal keloidal acne on the neck and scalp. The sole benefit of Differin is to halt the formation of new acne, but it is safe to use with other treatments.

Differin Safety

Only a tiny fraction of 1% of the Differin applied to skin ever reaches the bloodstream. Differin has no systemic effects. Unlike the related drugs Accutane and Retin-A, women who are pregnant or who could become pregnant can use Differin safely. That does not mean, however, that Differin never causes side effects.

  • Between 10% and 40% of Differin users develop itching serious enough to make them stop using the medication.
  • Between 10% and 40% of Differin users develop scaling requiring use of exfoliants such as glycolic acid and salicylic acid to restore the smooth texture of the skin.
  • Between 10% and 40% of Differin users develop burning sensations serious enough to make them stop using the medication.

And in about 1% of users, Differin causes a sudden flare-up that worsens existing acne. But the benefits of Differin almost always outweigh the side effects.

Clinical testing has shown that the side effects of Differin are no worse in people who have brown or black skin that they are for people who have fair or Asian skin. Unlike most treatments for acne, Differin makes the skin less sensitive to sunburn rather than more sensitive to sunburn. Differin also interferes with the ability of acne bacteria to release “chemotactins” that redirect the inflammatory effects of the immune system away from themselves and onto healthy skin.

How Well Does Differin Work For Controlling Acne?

In a study of 571 acne patients in India who used Differin for mild to moderate acne:

  • Only 24% reported side effects similar to those mentioned above.
  • 96% noted some improvement in their acne.
  • 75% showed at least a 2/3 reduction in pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads after 12 weeks of use.

Many doctors recommend combining Differin with other treatments to make it even more useful for fighting acne. The largest number of users of Differin take Adelene, the combination of adapalene and clindamycin. The combination of Differin and the antibiotic clindamycin helps the skin absorb about twice as much clindamycin, killing far more acne bacteria. A study that will be released in December 2011 in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology will report that this product offers a fast onset in action—usually 1/3 of blemishes disappear during the first week—and better final control of acne.

Differin is also used with 2.5% benzoyl peroxide gel. A stronger concentration of benzoyl peroxide used with Differin is likely to cause more burning, stinging, itching, and peeling than most users will be will to put up with. But using just 2.5% benzoyl peroxide with Differin, a study in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology reported, is enough to keep antibiotic-resistant bacteria in check.

There are also doctors who recommend using both Differin and Retin-A. While this combination opens the skin, it can also cause dryness, so that there are always a small number of newly forming blemishes—unless the user follows a complete skin care routine including daily cleansing and use of moisturizer plus weekly exfoliation and microdermabrasion with a system like Exposed Skin Care.

An Additional Use For Differin

Although American dermatologists usually prescribe Differin for active acne that is causing the formation of whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples, dermatologists in Europe usually prescribe Differin for treating melasma, or brown spots, left behind when pimples heal. If you are not getting the results you want from Renova or 0.05% tretinoin topical, ask your doctor about 0.1% Differin for safely lightening your skin.

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Juliette Reply

I'd just like to point out that Differin is ABSOLUTELY NOT safe for women who are pregnant or who are planning to become pregnant, as the potentially harmful effects on the unborn baby have not yet been tested for.

April 5, 2012 at 11:13 am Reply
phil Reply

Quite right Juliette. Also, it makes you more, not less likely to get sunburned. It's a good product though...

January 10, 2014 at 4:22 am Reply
RB Reply

Differin does make people more sensitive to the sun. They should wear extra sunscreen

March 5, 2017 at 8:55 am Reply
Anna Maria Reply

The " brown" marks left behind after a pimple is NOT called Melasma. Melasma is the correct term for the brown pigmentation that can occur due to sun exposure, hormones ( either natural or RX like oral contraceptives, or a combo of both). Pregnant women can develop it due to the surge of hormones that occurs during this time. Commonly known as the" mask of pregnancy", it usually occurs across the cheeks and/ or forehead. It also is common in pre- menopausal/ menopausal age women. I'm not sure what the exact term for post acne marks are, but I currently have BOTH so I can tell you they are totally different.

July 9, 2017 at 11:30 pm Reply

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