Differin (Adapalene) Acne Treatment

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You probably know adapalene by the more common brand name Differin. It’s also in the medication Epiduo. Whatever name you know it by, adapalene is a retinoid-like compound that is used to treat mild to moderate acne. It can be used by teens and adults alike.

Adapalene is available by prescription only and comes in a variety of topical formulations, including lotions, creams, and gels. 

Reaping the benefits of good skincare habits
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How Adapalene Works

Adapalene works by revving your cell turnover into high gear. It is classified as a keratolytic, or, in simpler terms, a super exfoliator. It keeps dead skin cells and oil from plugging up your pores and helps prevent comedones from forming. Adapalene helps keeps those bumps and blackheads at bay. It also helps to reduce inflammation.

Depending on what your dermatologist decides, you’ll use adapalene either once or twice a day. All you need is a pea-sized amount for the entire face. You may notice a slight stinging or burning after applying. Don't worry; this feeling is normal and will go away after a few minutes.

Don’t just dab this medication on individual pimples. Since adapalene works by stopping pimples from forming under the skin's surface, just spot-treating existing pimples won't be effective. You have to apply it all over the face, like you would a moisturizer, for it to work properly.

When first starting treatment, don’t be surprised if you continue to break out. Try not to be frustrated; this is perfectly normal.

It can take several weeks before you start to notice a difference in your skin. Until then, keep using adapalene on a daily basis for at least 12 weeks before judging its effectiveness.

Possible Side Effects

Adapalene tends to be less irritating than other topical retinoids, but it can still cause side effects. These are some of the most common:

  • Dryness, peeling, or flaking
  • Redness and irritation
  • Mild burning, stinging, or itching

These side effects are usually at their worst during the first few weeks of treatment and diminish somewhat over time. If adapalene causes anything more than mild irritation, let your dermatologist know.

On rare occasion, adapalene may cause an allergic reaction, known a contact dermatitis. It will often be mild and transient, resolving on its own with no treatment. At other times, it may cause a severe, all-body reaction known as anaphylaxis require emergency medical treatment.

When to Call a Doctor

Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room if you develop a severe rash, hives, shortness of breath, wheezing, rapid or irregular heartbeat, confusion, dizziness, or swelling of the face, tongue, or throat after using adapalene.

If left untreated, anaphylaxis can lead to shock, coma, cardiac or respiratory failure, asphyxiation, and death.

Practical Tips

To ensure the optimal results, there are some things you should do (and not do) when using adapalene:

  • Use a moisturizer. Adapalene will most likely dry you out. Apply a moisturizer, oil-free so as not to trigger breakouts, whenever needed. 
  • Apply sunscreen. Adapalene can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so no laying out and no tanning beds. If you’re not already using sunscreen, why not start now? Doing so can protect your skin from sun damage and aging. 
  • Avoid waxing. Do you get your eyebrows or lips waxed? You'll want to stop these beauty treatments while using adapalene or risk serious irritation and possible injury to the skin. Tweezing is okay.

Finally, if you have any questions or concerns, don't hesitate to call your dermatologist’s office. In some case, the doctor may be able to suggest alternatives that are more appropriate to your skin type.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Dréno B, Bissonnette R, Gagné-henley A, et al. Prevention and reduction of atrophic acne scars with adapalene 0.3%/benzoyl peroxide 2.5% gel in subjects with moderate or severe facial acne: results of a 6-month randomized, vehicle-controlled trial using intra-individual comparison. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2018;19(2):275-286. doi:10.1007/s40257-018-0352-y

  3. Irby CE, Yentzer BA, Feldman SR. A review of adapalene in the treatment of acne vulgaris. J Adolesc Health. 2008;43(5):421-4. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2008.06.005

  4. Numata T, Jo R, Kobayashi Y, Tsuboi R, Okubo Y. Allergic contact dermatitis caused by adapalene. Contact Derm. 2015;73(3):187-8. doi:10.1111/cod.12410

  5. Mali S, Jambure R. Anaphyllaxis management: current concepts. Anesth Essays Res. 2012;6(2):115-23. doi:10.4103/0259-1162.108284

Additional Reading

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.