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The ultimate guide to using adapalene to treat acne

Learn about the uses, benefits and potential side effects of using this topical retinoid for acne.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 28, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C
Woman applying Adapalene to face
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 28, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

How adapalene works to treat acne

Affected by acne? You’re not alone. The good news is there are many effective treatments to address acne breakouts. It’s even easier when you’re able to consult a dermatology provider for acne treatment! 

Not ready to try prescription-grade skincare ingredients? Get to know adapalene. This powerful topical retinoid (available via prescription and over-the-counter) can be a good option for acne-prone individuals with sensitive skin. 

What is adapalene?

Adapalene is a topical retinoid, a vitamin-A derivative used for treating acne. It’s the active ingredient in the brand name product, Differin. Active ingredients are the ingredients in skincare products that work to address the skin concern the product is meant to target.¹ 

Infographic Adapalene Ingredient Breakdown

In 2016, the FDA approved adapalene 0.1% gel (aka Differin) for over-the-counter acne treatment for patients 12 and older. It’s the only FDA approved prescription-strength topical retinoid available over-the-counter.² Other forms of adapalene are still prescription-only along with prescription-strength retinoids like tretinoin, trifarotene, and tazarotene.

How adapalene works to treat acne

Acne starts with pores that get clogged with dead skin cells and oil (aka sebum). Our skin is constantly regenerating new skin cells. If the natural skin cell renewal process gets thrown off, build-up of dead skin cells and sebum can lead to clogged pores and breakouts.    

Retinoids like adapalene treat acne by helping to prevent blocked pores caused by dead skin cell build-up.  As the skin creates new cells, adapalene helps to adjust the cell turnover process. This adjustment helps the skin shed old skin cells more quickly. It also helps prevent pores from getting clogged and can stop acne formation.³

How to use adapalene in your skincare routine

Adapalene can generally be used as part of your morning or evening skincare routine.⁴ It’s typically used once daily, at the same time each day. For best results, follow the directions on the package, or ask your prescribing medical provider.  

Adapalene can be the second step of a simple 3-step skincare routine. It can be applied after washing your skin and followed up with a moisturizer. If you’re using it in the morning, always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen as the last step of your routine. At Curology, we recommend using retinoids like adapalene at night, but follow your provider's or the label’s recommendations for specific directions!

Remember: it’s cleanse, treat, moisturize and protect.

How long does it take to see results with adapalene?

It may take 8-12 weeks to see results from adapalene.⁵ Like other acne medications, it’s important to be consistent and not to give up if it’s not working right away! Everyone’s skin is different and the timeline of results will vary. Here’s what you can generally expect when you add adapalene to your skincare routine.

  • At 1-2 weeks, you may see redness, irritation or purging as your skin adapts to the treatment. 

  • During the first few weeks, breakouts may temporarily get worse before they get better.

  • At 8-12 weeks is when many start seeing results, although this varies from person to person.

Benefits of using adapalene

  1. It’s generally safe for all skin types. Clinical studies show that adapalene is gentle, well tolerated and effective in treating acne.⁶  

  2. It’s more stable in UV light than other prescription-strength retinoids.⁷ Most prescription-strength retinoids are unstable in UV light, which means they are less effective after exposure to sunlight. Evidence shows that adapalene likely doesn’t lose effectiveness when exposed to sunlight. No matter which retinoid you use, always wear sunscreen during the day.

  3. It can stop acne by helping to prevent clogged pores. Adapalene helps the skin shed dead cells and regenerate new cells more quickly.    

  4. It can be used as a maintenance treatment for inflammatory acne. Studies show adapalene 0.1% gel can be an effective treatment for maintenance therapy.⁹ 

  5. Certain forms are available over-the-counter. Adapalene has been studied and prescribed for over 30 years. In 2016, the FDA approved adapalene gel 0.1% for use without a prescription for patients 12 and older.¹⁰

Fingers with red nail polish popping bubble wrap against a neutral background

Adapalene side effects

While adapalene is typically less irritating than other prescription retinoids, it can have a few unwanted side effects.¹¹ 

Redness, irritation or purging (temporary new breakouts of worsening of existing breakouts) are typically normal during the first few weeks of treatment. These are common side effects as the skin adjusts to adapalene.

Some active ingredients — like adapalene and tretinoin — may cause purging when you're starting out or when you're increasing the strength. Even if you're already using a prescription acne medication (like Curology), it's still possible to purge if you switch to adapalene (AKA Differin).

Adapalene use during pregnancy 

Most experts recommend stopping the use of retinoid treatments during pregnancy,¹² and adapalene is no exception.¹³ Studies on animals did not show an increased risk of birth defects with adapalene. But any risk to pregnant women is unknown. In other words, we can’t confirm it’s safe for pregnant humans yet.

Women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or breast-feeding should consult with a doctor before using acne treatments. 

Adapalene usage with other ingredients 

While many ingredients can help treat acne, be mindful of mixing ingredients. Layering multiple products into your routine can lead to irritation. When in doubt, talk to your dermatology provider for advice.

When first starting out with adapalene, you may want to avoid:

In general, you can continue using the following products and ingredients when starting adapalene:

Adapalene vs. tretinoin: which one is best for you? 

Adapalene and tretinoin are both topical retinoids that are proven to be effective in treating acne.¹⁴ Tretinoin is considered the gold standard in topical acne treatment. It can also improve skin tone and has anti-aging benefits. In clinical studies, it’s also shown to be  slightly more effective in treating acne than adapalene.¹⁵ As a stronger skincare ingredient, however, it’s also more likely to cause irritation. This is why it’s important that you ease the ingredient into your skincare routine.  

Adapalene is effective, typically less irritating, and well-tolerated by most skin types. Unlike tretinoin, you can get adapalene over-the-counter in a 0.1% gel, but will need a prescription for other forms (0.1% lotion, cream, and 0.3% gel). To find out which one is best for your acne treatment, consult with your dermatology provider. 

Curology Skincare Products

Try a prescription acne treatment with Curology  

Although many powerful skincare ingredients to treat acne (tretinoin included) require a prescription from a medical provider, Curology has made that part ultra simple! 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Sign up for a free trial and get your 30-day supply of Custom Formula, plus any of our recommended products—just pay $4.95 (plus tax)* to cover shipping and handling. If Curology is right for you, we’ll prescribe you a Custom Formula with a mix of active ingredients like tretinoin, clindamycin, and ​​azelaic acid, each chosen for your unique skin concerns. 

Go ahead and start your Curology free trial now

P.S. We did the research so you don’t have to. 

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Inactive Ingredients in Approved Drug Products Search: Frequently Asked Questions

  2. Tolaymat, L., et al. Adapalene. StatPearls. (2021).

  3. Tolaymat, L., et al. Adapalene. Ibid.

  4. Tolaymat, L., et al. Adapalene. Ibid.

  5. MedlinePlus. Adapalene

  6. Waugh, J., et al. Adapalene: a review of its use in the treatment of acne vulgaris. Drugs, (2004).

  7. Tolaymat, L., et al. Adapalene. Ibid.

  8. Tolaymat, L., et al. Adapalene. Ibid.

  9. Zhang, J. Z., et al. A successful maintenance approach in inflammatory acne with adapalene gel 0.1% after an initial treatment in combination with clindamycin topical solution 1% or after monotherapy with clindamycin topical solution 1%. The Journal of dermatological treatment. (2004).

  10. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves Differin Gel 0.1% for over-the-counter use to treat acne. (2016, July 08). 

  11. Tolaymat, L., et al. Adapalene. Ibid.

  12. American Academy of Dermatology. Is any acne treatment safe to use during pregnancy?

  13. Williams, A. L., et al. Teratogen update: Topical use and third-generation retinoids. Birth defects research. (2020).

  14. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016).

Jain S. Topical tretinoin or adapalene in acne vulgaris: an overview. The Journal of dermatological treatment. (2004).

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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