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What’s the deal with Differin?

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Anyone who’s experienced acne knows how difficult and frustrating it can be to treat.

Differin Gel is the first and only over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid acne treatment that’s been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

This topical medication contains adapalene, a form of retinoid (derived from vitamin A), that has been found to slow the process of excessive growth in the lining of pores and desensitizing the skin to inflammation. This makes it an excellent treatment for acne.

Differin Gel is manufactured by Galderma Laboratories LP. The gel contains .1 percent adapalene, a third-generation retinoid, meaning it’s a derivative of the first retinoid used as topical medication (sold as Retin-A).

Differin Gel is the first acne treatment the FDA approved in more than 30 years. Adapalene has been used to treat acne for more than 20 years.

Retinoid is a compound of vitamin A, which helps regulate cell turnover. This means it helps with the shedding of the initial layer of skin cells to promote the production of new, healthy skin.

In addition, this fat-soluble retinoid penetrates the skin cells and, according to 2019 research, it reduces water loss and protects collagen (a protein in your body that improves skin elasticity) from degradation.

“Vitamin A and its derivatives are among the most effective substances slowing the aging process,” the research states.

Differin Gel was launched in 2017 and is available widely in U.S. pharmacies, retail stores, or online.

There are other products on the market that contain adapalene. For example, Proactive sells an adapalene gel, as does La Roche Posay, neither of which requires a prescription. Both of these gels are comparable in price to Differin Gel and use the .1 percent suspension.

If you have a prescription, Differin Gel is also available in a .3 percent concentration.

Differin Gel treats acne vulgaris, a chronic inflammatory disease of the pilosebaceous unit, which contains the hair follicle and sebaceous gland.

Acne may be caused by a variety of reasons, including:

  • Higher oil production. Having oily skin doesn’t mean you’ll have acne. But if the oil gets trapped because old skin cells are not sloughed off quick enough, this starts an inflammatory process that leads to acne.
  • Microbial changes. Experts know the delicate balance of the microbiome affects many parts of the body. In particular, Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes) and Staphylococcus epidermidis (S. epidermis) play a role in the process of inflammatory acne.
  • Abnormal keratinization of skin. When too much keratin (a protein in hair, skin, and nails) sheds inside the hair follicle, near the pore opening, clogging often happens.
  • Inflammation. This happens when a pore gets clogged and a cascade of cellular processes are set off. When there’s blockage, blackheads can form.

Differin Gel works by increasing this cell turnover, leading to exfoliation of the skin.

If you have blackheads on your nose that you can’t get rid of, it’s likely caused by trapped sebum. Differin Gel also works by allowing those oils to escape faster.

Because Differin Gel works at the cellular level, rather than treating existing pimples, there’s generally a “purge” period when acne may worsen. This is your body adjusting to a new regimen. The clogged pores will eventually get pushed to the surface because of cell turnover.

You’ll notice Differin Gel working after 12 weeks of consistent use.

Prior to applying Differin to the skin, you should wash your face with a mild and non-irritating cleanser. After that, you can apply a thin layer of Differin Gel to dry skin and follow up with a moisturizer.

You shouldn’t use Differin Gel more than once per day, but it can be applied in the morning or at night. If you decide to integrate it into your morning skin care routine, allow it to dry before applying SPF. You should also try to apply it at the same time every day.

You can get Differin Gel at most retailers, including Target, Walmart, and CVS Pharmacy. It’s also sold in beauty stores, such as Ulta Beauty, and online through Amazon.

One .5 oz tube of Differin Gel costs around $12.

Differin Gel is not covered by insurance. However, you may be able to use your flexible spending account (FSA) to buy Differin Gel. An FSA is arranged through your employer and allows the purchase of certain goods tax-free.

If you have persistent acne, Differin Gel is a good option to get rid of chronic breakouts. The .1 percent solution used in Differin Gel works best for mild and moderate breakouts.

If you have severe acne, you may benefit from a stronger suspension, like the .3 percent adapalene, but you’ll need a prescription for this higher concentration.

If your acne has left scarring and redness, Differin Gel may help promote a more even skin tone and decrease the appearance of scars.

As a 2006 study pointed out, Differin Gel is a good option for people who have had acne and are looking for a product that will help prevent future acne.

While this study examined a stronger suspension of adapalene, the results showed reduced scarring in patients who used this treatment over a 4 month period.

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, be sure to speak with a doctor first. Retinoids can be harmful to those who are pregnant. It’s also not approved for anyone under the age of 12.

Differin Gel should not be used in conjunction with products containing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or salicylic acids, which may make irritation worse.

Irritation may occur if you use more than one topical acne product at a time. You also shouldn’t use wax to remove unwanted hair in areas where you’ve applied the gel.

Mild redness and irritation are commonly experienced within the first 4 weeks. Doctors refer to this as retinization, the process in which your skin begins to adjust to new levels of vitamin A.

According to the company’s website, common side effects include:

  • dryness
  • redness
  • irritation
  • burning or stinging

These symptoms usually peak around 2 to 4 weeks. They should subside shortly after, but if they don’t, you should consult a dermatologist or doctor. You can use a mild moisturizer to lessen some dryness.

A common alternative to Differin’s adapalene is tretinoin, a medication used to treat acne and sun damage. Like adapalene, tretinoin has also been found to improve the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, and dark spots.

Tretinoin is a form of retinoic acid and is also known as Retin-A. The prescription-strength topical cream works by irritating the skin and speeding up the life cycle of skin cells. It makes the cells divide and die faster, promoting the production of newer and healthier cells.

Tretinoin is a synthetic version of vitamin A. This means that it’s stronger, and you’ll have to obtain a prescription for the product. It’s also stronger than retinol and isn’t tolerated as well by sensitive skin.

You should steer clear of tretinoin if you’re:

  • pregnant
  • breastfeeding
  • frequently exposed to the sun

If you’re on any other medications, you should tell your doctor to make sure it won’t interact with tretinoin.

Tretinoin is also used topically. You should wash your face and wait 20 to 30 minutes before applying the medication to the specific areas that you need it.

Differin Gel has been widely reviewed by consumers. On Amazon alone, Differin Gel has more than 42,000 reviews and maintains a 4.5 star average rating. Consumer reviews tend to be positive, touting the results they’ve seen after consistent use.

Other reviewers talk about skin dryness that accompanies Differin Gel use. Others warn that dryness may increase if you apply it right after washing your face.

Negative reviews note burning sensations, side effects, and redness.

The complaints on the Better Business Bureau disclose instances of reimbursement challenges. Most appear to be rectified.

Acne is a very common but difficult condition to treat. In 2017, Differin Gel was approved for over-the-counter sales.

The .1 percent active ingredient, adapalene, has been shown to be an effective treatment when it comes to acne. It can also help minimize scarring and improve skin texture.

For Differin Gel to be effective, it must be used consistently and for an ongoing period of time, usually 3 months. Differin Gel has been shown to be safe and effective, and it’s not harsh on the skin like some other retinoids.

Tracee Herbaugh is a writer and journalist who lives in the Boston area. She writes about culture, lifestyle, health, and family relationships. You can view her work online or find her on Twitter.