How to Use Differin to Treat Acne

Updated December 15, 2014.

Differin Basics:

Adapalene, more commonly known by the brand name Differin, is a retinoid-like topical medication used to treat mild to moderate acne. It comes in either cream (0.1%) or gel (0.1% and 0.3%). Many people find Differin cream is less irritating than topical retinoids. Differin is available by prescription.

How it Works:

Pimples begin when the hair follicle, or pore, becomes obstructed with skin cells and excess oil. Differin works beneath the skin’s surface, keeping pore blockages or comedones, from forming.

Differin also can reduce hyperpigmentation. This can be a plus if pimples leave tell-tale dark spots behind on your skin. For those with darker skin tones prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, Differin may be a good treatment choice. It also can help reduce oiliness of the skin.

Common Usage Directions:

Typical use directions call for applying adapalene once per day, usually just before bed. First, cleanse the face and dry thoroughly. Then, smooth a pea-sized amount over the skin. You will probably experience a slight stinging or burning after applying. Don’t worry; this feeling is normal and will go away after a few minutes.

It can take several weeks before you really notice a difference in your skin, so try to be patient. Don’t give up too soon and stop using your treatment. Continue with your treatment for at least 12 full weeks before judging its effectiveness.

Possible Side Effects:

Differin is less irritating than topical retinoids, but can still cause side effects. Most often:

  • dryness, peeling and flaking
  • redness and irritation
  • burning, stinging, or itching
  • photosensitivity

These side effects are usually at their worst during the first few weeks of treatment, and diminish somewhat over time. If any of these side effects become severe, tell your doctor right away.

Similar medications have caused tumors in lab animals when they were exposed to UV light. Although it’s not known if it has the same effect in humans, you should protect yourself by using a sunscreen every day.

Tips for Using Differin:

  • Since Differin works by stopping pimples from forming under the skin’s surface, just spot-treating existing pimples won’t be effective. It must be applied over the entire area affected by acne.
  • Don’t be surprised if your acne gets worse before getting better, as pimples under the skin make their way to the surface. Although this is frustrating, don’t stop using your medication. Once the initial breakout period is over, you should notice a steady improvement of your skin.
  • Drying skin care products can increase skin irritation. Stay away from scrubs, medicated cleansers, medicated makeup, aftershave, astringents, or products containing alpha hydroxy acids or alcohol.
  • You shouldn’t use other acne treatments, especially those containing
    benzoyl peroxide, while using Differin (unless your doctor recommends it). This includes OTC products and acne-fighting skin care products.
  • Tell your doctor if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you get pregnant while using Differin.
  • Using Differin can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Always wear a sunscreen of at least SPF 15. Stay out of the sun when possible, and don’t use tanning lamps or tanning beds.
  • Do you get your eyebrows or lips waxed? You’ll want to stop these beauty treatments while using Differin, or risk serious irritation and possible injury to the skin.

More About Differin from Drugs A-Z


“Adapalene.” Medline Plus. 01 Aug 2007. National Institutes of Health. Accessed 27 Aug 2008.

Jacyk WK, Mpofu P. “Adapalene gel 0.1% for topical treatment of acne vulgaris in African patients.” Cutis 2001; 68:48-54.

Clucas A, Verschoore M, Sorba V, Poncet M, Baker M, Czernielewski J, Antipolis S. “Adapalene 0.1% gel is better tolerated than tretinoin 0.025% gel in acne patients.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 1997; 36(6):S116-118.