Sometimes a product comes along that totally changes your skin. For me, Differin Gel was that product. When I was a teenager, I was pretty lucky to only get the occasional zit. It wasn’t until around 19 or so when I started to suffer from major breakouts, including occasional bouts of cystic acne. I was able to get most of that under control with aggressive AHA and BHA usage, which thankfully my skin can tolerate, and switching to a low pH cleanser. (If you’d like to learn more about why a low pH cleanser is important, especially for acne-prone skin, then check out this super informative post from SnowWhiteandtheAsianPear) However, even with that routine, I was still having a lot of problems with texture, especially little clogs/bumps all over my cheeks. As a makeup addict, this drove me crazy because unlike a zit, which can kind of be hidden, my texture was just always there, and makeup only seemed to make it look worse.
I was ready to start trying something new, and right around that time it was announced that Differin would soon be available for over the counter purchase. Around this same time, Poshly offered to send me a set of all three Differin products to test out and review, so I lucked out and got to try these for free. As usual, I’ll be sharing my honest thoughts and experiences with you. At this point, I’ve finished a full-size tube of Differin, so I’m ready to share my results with you all!
Disclosure: I received these products for free in exchange for an honest review on Differin’s website. This post is not sponsored. This post does not contain affiliate links.
A little more background on my skin. It’s normal to combo/oily most of the time, but my skin is quite reactive so I go through periods where it’s more dry to normal. It’s acne prone and clog prone. It tolerates acids well, but reacts poorly to retinol. The problems I typically try to treat are uneven tone and texture, and acne. I typically avoid using acne-specific products though because I usually find them to be too drying.
Since this was such a long trial process, I’m going to do this review a bit differently than I usually do. First, I’ll give you a bit of background on Differin, then I’ll take you through a timeline of my skin progress, next I’ll discuss my overall experience with Differin, and finally I’ll share some of my tips for using Differin.
Differin is a brand name of the topical retinoid adapalene. (Note: the Differin brand name also encompasses a cleanser and moisturizer manufactured to be used in conjunction with Differin Gel) A retinoid is a chemical compound* that behaves like retinol (AKA vitamin A), but may have slightly different characteristics. In general, retinol and retinoids do the same things: they can help to treat acne, prevent skin aging, increase cell turnover (the rate that old skin cells weaken their bond and are removed, allowing new skin cells to rise to the top layer of the skin), and help to stimulate collagen production, which is what keeps the skin looking bouncy and youthful. Adapalene was first approved by the FDA as an acne treatment product in 1996, but it required a prescription until it was approved for over-the-counter purchase on July 8, 2016 by the FDA.
Adapalene, which was developed, studied, and is now distributed by Galderma Laboratories as Differin Gel, specifically targets acne and isn’t as effective as other retinoids at anti-aging. Instead, adapalene works deep in the skin where it helps to unclog pores, and prevent new acne from forming. It stimulates cell turnover and inhibits the formation of pigmentation that results from acne and sun damage. Finally, adapalene helps to improve the appearance and texture of the skin because it can inhibit comedo formation, which most of us will be familiar with as blackheads (those little dark spots you can see hanging out in your pores, they’re especially noticeable on the nose for most people) and whiteheads (a bump under the skin which may or may not have a noticeable white top) both of which are caused by a buildup of oil and dead skin cells. We also refer to these as “clogged pores.”
Ingredients: Differin Gel contains 0.1% adapalene. The inactive ingredients are: carbomer 940, edetate disodium, methylparaben, poloxamer 182, propylene glycol, purified water and sodium hydroxide.
*”chemicals” are not something to be feared, chemicals make up literally everything on this planet including air and water. It’s just another way of saying little bundles of matter/atoms. Some chemicals are man-made, but a large amount of the chemicals we encounter in our day to day lives are completely natural. However, It’s important to recognize that just because something is natural does not mean it’s 100% safe in every amount and condition, and just because a chemical is man-made does not make it harmful. Some chemicals are harmful, some chemicals aren’t. Some chemicals are only harmful in large amounts, but can be extremely beneficial to humans in smaller amounts. Please, please do not buy in to the misconception that chemicals= bad/scary/unnatural.
Differin Balancing Cleanser
This cleanser was developed to be used in conjunction with Differin Gel, and is described as being safe for sensitive skin. However, I completely disagree with that. My own experiences aside, this cleanser contains sodium lauryl sulfate, an ingredient that can be harsh and stripping for anyone’s skin and something I would never recommend to anyone with sensitive skin.
My own experience with this cleanser was horrible. It was way too drying, irritating, and it exacerbated the side effects I was already experiencing from Differin. I started out using all three Differin products together, but quickly ditched this one a few weeks in because I just couldn’t take it anymore, it was seriously making my skin feel awful. It was definitely the right choice for me, my skin started to improve after I switched to a different cleanser.
Ingredients: Water, cetyl alcohol, propylene glycol, stearyl alcohol, sodium lauryl sulfate, propylparaben, methylparaben, butylparaben
Differin Balancing Moisturizer
The moisturizer is nowhere near as bad as the cleanser, but I still wouldn’t recommend it. It’s about as boring and average as a moisturizer can get, there’s really no need to spend money on it if you already have a moisturizer that works well for you. The only reason I would recommend purchasing a new moisturizer when you start using Differin Gel is if your current moisturizer contains any of the following ingredients: salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or any alpha-hydroxy acids such as glycolic or lactic acid since these ingredients can make your skin more sensitive when used in conjunction with Differin Gel.
Ingredients: Water, glycerin, hydrogenated polyisobutene, ceteareth-20, cetearyl alcohol, persea gratissima (avocado) oil, tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E), dimethicone, panthenol (vitamin B5), citric acid, sodium levulinate, caprylyl glycol, benzyl alcohol, stearoxytrimethylsilane, stearyl alcohol, acrylates/C10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer, sodium anisate
How To Use Differin Gel
Differin gel is meant to be applied in a thin layer all over the face once a day. It’s recommended that you use Differin gel once daily for a period of 12 weeks to see full results, and then to continue using Differin daily to prevent new breakouts.
What to Expect from Diferin Gel
Results are going to vary a lot depending on your skin type and your own skin’s sensitivities, but in general adapalene is one of the retinoids that’s tolerated by a larger number of people. I happened to be part of the unlucky bunch who experienced the side effects in full force, so just know when looking at the photos of my skin below that the severity of the side effects I experienced are not normal. Some people experience no side effects at all from adapalene gel, but many people will experience mild irritation such as redness, dryness, and burning or stinging. My side effects just happened to be on the extreme side.
According to the Differin website, irritation is most likely to occur during the first four weeks as your skin adjusts to Differin. It’s also important that you stop using any products containing salicylic acid, and alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid and lactic acid because this can further increase irritation.
There’s also a chance that your acne will get worse before it gets better, this is part of the process and not something to be concerned about. Does it suck? Yep. But it’s for the best because it’s a result of the adapalene working deep within your skin, driving the clogs in your skin up to the top layer where the clog can then exit your skin.
According to the Differin website, some people start to see a reduction in acne within the first two weeks. However, for some people this may be around the same time that your acne starts to worsen as your skin begins to purge. If you’re not sure what purging is in relation to skincare, it’s essentially the clogs that make up blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples being pushed through to the top layer of the skin. LabMuffin has an excellent article here about how to tell the difference between a purge and a breakout, which I highly recommend you read. From weeks two through four, you may also experience dry, irritated skin. From weeks four through twelve, you should start to notice your acne decreasing and your skin texture improving if you haven’t already. After week twelve, you should continue to use Differin Gel once daily to maintain clear skin.
Here’s a bit more info on possible side effects from rxlist.com:
Some adverse effects such as erythema, scaling, dryness, pruritus, and burning will occur in 10-40% of patients. Pruritus or burning immediately after application also occurs in approximately 20% of patients. The following additional adverse experiences were reported in approximately 1% or less of patients: skin irritation, burning/stinging, erythema, sunburn, and acne flares. These are most commonly seen during the first month of therapy and decrease in frequency and severity thereafter. All adverse effects with use of DIFFERIN® (adapalene gel) Gel during clinical trials were reversible upon discontinuation of therapy.
12 Weeks of Differin
So, here’s what I started with. Also, apologies for the major resting bitch face. I had to relax my face so you could see everything better, I promise I’m not as miserable as I look in these photos. All of these photos are completely unretouched.
February 1. So, you can kinda tell that there’s a lot of bumpiness to my skin here, but I would say it was actually worse in person. You also can’t see the extent of the redness and discoloration in my skin unfortunately. I have somewhat enlarged pores on my cheeks, but they’re not that bad. I had been treating my skin with a combination of AHA and BHA several times per week to keep my acne under control. As a result, I didn’t have many blackheads, but I did have a lot of whiteheads that the AHA and BHA couldn’t reach. Most of my acne is concentrated between my cheekbones and my jawbone, with occasional zits on my chin. I rarely get acne on my forehead.
February 1. This is the right side of my face, and I feel like this is a bit more true to the condition of my skin when I first started Differin. You can see more of the discoloration in my skin and can get a better sense of the textural issues I was experiencing.
February 4. Left side. A few things were coming to the surface at this point, but it was at the same rate things would usually start to pop up for me. My nose area looks like it was a bit more red, and it had started to peel a little it, but other than that I really wasn’t seeing any side effects at this point.
Feb. 4 Minor nose flaking. My nose tends to be one of my drier areas in general because of my allergies, so I’m not surprised that this is where I started to see side effects first.
Feb. 8. Left side. This was when my skin first began to purge. You can see where some of the larger spots came to a head, and it almost looks like my skin was getting more bumpy.
Feb. 8 Right side. I was having a ton of spots come up at once. My skin was starting to feel really dry, tight, and irritated. It always seemed to be worse after I used the cleanser, and over the next few days it became tender to the touch and every single product I put on my skin, including moisturizer and makeup was stinging. On February 10 I decided to stop using the cleanser because it was getting extremely uncomfortable. At this point, I switched to Stratia Velvet Cleansing Milk, and I whole-heartedly believe that saved my skin. With my skin being so irritated, I also elected to start using Differin every other night rather than every night.
Let’s zoom in on that knarly break out, shall we?
You probably can’t quite tell from this photo, but the blemish I’m pointing at was basically a hole in my face. It took forever to heal up. I was seriously reconsidering my use of Differin, but even before I started I knew it was going to get worse before it got better. I think my reaction was more extreme than what most other people experience because of my sensitivity to retinol.
Feb. 17. Left side. Spots galore, but it looks like maybe my skin texture was getting a little bit better.
Feb. 19. Right side. My skin was flaking all over at this point, despite using moisturizer. I think this was just part of the normal process that Differin’s website describes. It was uncomfortable, especially after the previous issues I’d had with the cleanser, but not unbearable.
Feb. 21. Left side. Breakouts mostly healing. Skin texture looking a bit better. Note: I had a few skincare products on my face here, which is why it’s so glowy. My bare skin doesn’t glow like that, unfortunately.
Feb. 21. Right side. Again, looks like my skin is getting better in general.
March 13. Left side. This would’ve been about the four week point for me since I skipped a few days due to discomfort. I would say that at this point, the side effects and benefits were on par with what Differin describes. My skin was still dry, but not peeling or uncomfortable. A lot of my acne spots had cleared up and the purging process seemed to be over.
March 13. Right side. Same on this side, mostly clearing up. Not sure what that red spot is on my chin, maybe a bit of irritation?
March 13. Right side, close-up.
March 28. Left side. Still having some issues with texture, but most of my acne had cleared up.
March 28. Right side. A few more breakouts on this side, but my texture seems a bit better.
April 16. Left side. Sorry for the jump in the timeline, but I forgot to take photos for a bit. This was approximately 11 weeks in. During that time, my skin went through a minor second purging phase, but then cleared up beautifully. As you can tell from the photo above, my skin texture significantly improved and my acne was nowhere to be found. All of my negative reactions had stopped. Note: I’m wearing eye primer and eyebrow pencil, but nothing on the rest of my face.
April 16. Right side. A couple of healing blemishes. Very little skin texture. The one thing you can’t see in these last two photos unfortunately is the scarring I had from the purging phases. You can kind of make it out a little bit in this photo, but it’s definitely more noticeable in real life. I also don’t think my pores look quite this good in real life, but not bad either. I think the photo below is a more accurate representation of my skin overall. Also, in general, my skin usually looks a bit worse on the right side of my face for whatever reason (I sleep on both sides, so my guess is I probably touch the right side of my face without realizing it since I’m right-handed) so I’m not at all surprised that even after using Differin, the left side of my face still looks better.
For my final test, I wanted to see how long it would take for my acne to come back if I stopped using Differin. I took it out of my skincare routine and started watching for signs of my skin returning to its previous state. It took about a week and a half for me to start seeing breakouts and minor texture issues coming back. Here’s what my skin looked like after stopping Differin for two weeks, then adding it back in for one week:
July 16. Left side. Note: I’m wearing eye makeup, but nothing on my skin.
July 16. Right side. Bit of texture and a few minor healing breakouts on this side. Conclusion: Yes, you do need to continue to use Differin consistently after the 12 week period to keep your skin clear.
My Experience With Differin
My skin went through a lot during early stages of my Differin use. It was dry, peeling, purging, extremely sensitive at times. There were times when I was really concerned about the state of my skin, and very uncomfortable. Ultimately though, I’m glad I persisted because my skin has never been clearer. I’ve been able to cut way back on acid exfoliators, and in some ways it’s not a choice because my skin doesn’t have the same tolerance to acid that it once did.
I’m still getting a handle on my skin’s new likes and dislikes, trying to figure out how often to use AHA and BHA, and seeing it be a bit more reactive to new products than it has in the past. I wouldn’t describe it as sensitive now, but it’s more sensitive than it was prior to using Differin. It doesn’t really bother me, I just have to be a bit more cautious about what I use and how often I use it. One thing that I’ve found my skin actually likes more than it has previously is physical exfoliators. I use to never use them because they felt too harsh on my skin, but when my skin was peeling, I found it was helpful to use a physical exfoliant once per week. My favorite is the Skinfood Black Sugar Mask.
The final change I’ve noticed in my skin is my skin type. Left completely alone, my default skin type is oily. Prior to using Differin, my skin was mostly combo, and would go more toward dry or oily depending on the weather and what I used on my skin. My skin was very dry for most of the 12 week trial period, but near the end it started to become more normal. Now my skin has been normal to slightly oily for a couple of months, and I’m totally satisfied with that.
Tips for Using Differin
Here are some of my tips for using Differin Balancing Cleanser:
- Send it to someone you really hate.
My tips for using Differin Balancing Moisturizer:
- Don’t waste your money on this.
My (actual) tips for using Differin Gel:
- Use a low pH cleanser. It helps to keep your moisture barrier healthy and prevents irritation. My personal favorite is Stratia Velvet Cleansing Milk. Here’s a list of other low pH cleansers put together by users of r/asianbeauty on reddit. Just be sure whatever cleanser you use doesn’t have any of the sensitizing ingredients I described above.
- Consider using Differin Gel every other night while your skin is adjusting. This goes against Galderma’s recommendation, the idea behind it being that adapalene has a low bioavailability, meaning that not much of it gets absorbed into the skin each time you apply it. In order to start seeing results, you need to get enough of the adapalene absorbed into your skin to allow it to do it’s thing, so skipping doses will make the process take longer. (and no, this does not mean that you’ll get faster results if you use Differin more than once a day, your skin is only able to absorb so much, you’ll just end up wasting product. It needs to absorb over time through several applications.) However, I believe that you should use your best judgement. If you’re having a lot of side effects and it’s make you uncomfortable, consider using it every other night. This will give your skin more time to adjust.
- Don’t start using this within a few weeks of an important event. This is not a ‘quick fix’ product, it’s something that needs time to work and you may end up dealing with some nasty breakouts as things get pushed to the surface.
- Use this after any watery layers or thin serums. I’ve found that sometimes my other products don’t absorb as well if they’re applied after Differin Gel because it can create a slight film on the skin (it’s not noticeable, it just effects absorption). If you still prefer to use watery layers after Differin, allow Differin Gel to absorb for a few minutes before applying any other products. Now that Differin is in my routine, if I do a long routine, it normally goes something like this: cleanse, tone, facial mist, active (AHA, BHA, or vitamin C 1-3 times per week), essence, serum, eye cream, Differin Gel, moisturizer, sleeping pack or facial oil. My simpler routines generally go: cleanse, tone, Differin Gel, moisturizer, so nothing special there.
- Apply your eye cream before applying Differin. I speak from experience on this one, you do not want to apply your eye cream after Differin because you may still have some residual gel on your hands, even if you don’t think you do. The eyelids are too thin and sensitive to handle Differin, and it may cause the skin to become dry, irritated, and/or peel.
Where To Purchase Differin
Differin Gel retails for around $11-13 for a trial sized 15 gram tube, and around $25-30 for a 45 gram tube depending on where you purchase it from. I usually purchase mine on Amazon.
You should be able to find Differin in your local Walgreens or CVS if you live in the United States, but if you’d prefer to purchase online, here are a few links:
This might actually be the longest blog post I’ve ever written, so if you read the whole thing, you’re basically my hero. If you have any more questions, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it (there are some things I know nothing about, and the best I can do in that scenario is try to point you in the direction of someone who might have an answer for you). Also, be sure to check out the FAQ on the Differin website because there’s a pretty good chance they addressed your question.
As always, thanks for reading!
Want to see my skincare routine? Check out my Instagram. Looking for a more mild retinoid? Maybe Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil is what you’re looking for. I’ve reviewed Luna along with Good Genes (a lactic acid treatment) previously, which you can read here. If Sunday Riley is out of your budget, I’ve also reviewed the extremely affordable 2% Retinoid from The Ordinary right over here.