How To Know If You Should Be Using Differin for Acne

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

Differin is one of many retinoid-based acne treatment options available on the market today. It was the first retinoid product available without a prescription, and was therefore popular from the start ⭐.

However, what exactly are retinoids? Are they a safe treatment for acne? Also, what does Differin gel do and how to use it?

Before deciding whether or not to choose Differin acne treatment in form of a gel, cream, or lotion, it will be most helpful to understand how acne forms. It’s also important to understand how Differin works, and if adapalene―the topical retinoid that serves as the active ingredient in Differin—is suitable for you. Using it incorrectly may worsen your skin problems, which is why it would be best to arm yourself with knowledge and then ask a doctor or dermatologist 👩‍⚕️ to assist in choosing a topical retinoid.

Differin for acne is one of the most popular treatment choices.

Acne Formation

Researchers and doctors still aren’t completely sure why some people have significant acne and others only ever get a few blackheads, but they have determined how acne forms.

Dermatologists used to believe that bacteria 🦠 were the main cause of acne, but they have since discovered that inflammation is really at the root of the problem. Bacteria, along with oil production, play a significant role, but all acne starts with some degree of inflammation.

How Does Inflammation Happen?

The skin can become inflamed 🔥 for a number of reasons. Stress and irritation can both cause inflammation because they represent a threat to the body. Anything from unconsciously and repeatedly touching the face to using the wrong kind of toothpaste can irritate the skin. It becomes inflamed to prevent the irritant from spreading or penetrating deeper.

Stress Often Causes Inflammation

Stress can cause inflammation 🔥 because our bodies don’t always distinguish between literal, physical stressors and emotional stressors. If we’re very tense about a big test coming up, our body “reads” the stress as a threat and prepares for an invasion by going into the fight, flight, or freeze mode. One way it protects itself is through the inflammatory response. If the skin is inflamed, there is less of a chance anything dangerous will enter it because the tissue around the pores is slightly swollen. Unfortunately, stress is a common part of daily life, meaning our skin may always be slightly inflamed.

Inflammation leads to acne because it traps oil, bacteria, and dead cells under the surface of the skin. This can clog the pores, causing blackheads and whiteheads, or it can allow the bacteria to generate a minor infection, which leads to pimples and cysts.

Bacteria and Acne

The bacteria primarily associated with acne are generally referred to as P. acnes 🦠. These are anaerobic bacteria, meaning they can’t survive in the presence of oxygen for long. Without inflammation, they can actually benefit the skin. They are anaerobic and live in the oil our skin naturally produces. They consume that oil as their food source, which means they can actually reduce the amount of oil on our skin and prevent oil buildup.

How Does It Work?

Once P. acnes are trapped in a pore due to inflammation 🔥, they become less helpful. Away from oxygen, and trapped in a pore along with excess oil, the bacteria can multiply quickly and create a minor infection. To stop the spread of the infection, the skin triggers the inflammation response again, which is why pimples and cysts can be more inflamed and tender than other forms of acne. The immune system sends cells to fight the bacteria. As they succeed, pus is generated, and a pimple forms.

However, sometimes the infection isn’t defeated so quickly. P. acnes bacteria can release a chemical that attaches to the skin cells and makes them seem like bacteria 🦠. This causes the immune system cells to attack the skin cells while allowing the bacteria to increase. The immune system cells eventually break down the skin cells, driving the bacterial spread deeper. This is how cysts form, and why they’re so difficult to get rid of.

Clogging Pores with Excess Oil

Like bacteria, oil doesn’t inherently cause acne. In fact, our skin needs a thin layer of oil to protect itself from irritants. However, too much oil can cause bad skin because it can easily clog pores.

Excess oil can be produced for a variety of reasons, but one of the most common is hormonal changes. When typical hormone levels fluctuate, as they do during the teenage years 🧑‍🤝‍🧑, those changes can trigger an increase in oil production. Once hormone levels even out, excess oil typically becomes less of an issue, but it can still cause acne for someone with an oily skin type, or if the skin is irritated.

Most people with acne fall into one of three basic categories of skin types: dry, combination, or oily. Surprisingly, all three of these skin types can be affected by excess oil. Unsurprisingly, oily skin can produce too much oil, which then combines with dead skin cells to clog pores, or combines with bacteria to create pimples.

Can Dry Skin Have Too Much Oil?

Dry skin doesn’t produce enough oil, which makes it vulnerable to irritation. When the skin is irritated, it tries to protect itself through the inflammatory process, but it also produces a surge of extra oil to create a barrier between the skin and the irritant. Then, because of the slightly-swollen tissue, this oil is trapped where it forms pimples. So even though dry skin doesn’t generally produce enough oil, in certain circumstances oil can create problems for dry skin 🌵.

And Combination Skin?

Combination skin is naturally both oily and dry. In some cases, different areas of the face have different skin types, and in others, the skin may change from one to the other frequently. People with combination skin could have acne due to oily skin, irritated skin, or both.

How Is Differin a Good Treatment for Acne?

Differin can be a good treatment of acne because of its mode of action. Very basically put, it regulates skin cell turnover by modulating the cells’ life cycle.

What Is Differin?

Differin is a brand name for topical preparations that contain adapalene as their active ingredient. Adapalene is a chemical compound classified as a topical retinoid, with approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration. In Differin, it’s available in two different strengths—adapalene 0.1 % and 0.3%.

What Are Retinoids?

Retinoids are synthetic or naturally-occurring compounds derived from the A vitamins. Synthetic retinoids are highly concentrated forms of the vitamin. These compounds play a role in the treatment of vitamin A deficiency, light sensitivity, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, and, of course, acne. They treat and prevent pimples by regulating the life cycle of skin cells, and adapalene works in much the same way.

Is Differin the Same as Other Products?

A few other brands also contain adapalene, but Differin is the most popular ⭐ because it is the first retinoid ever sold over the counter. Being a retinoid, adapalene is similar to other retinoids in most ways but different from these in some. For instance, it’s much milder than most retinoids, and it isn’t water soluble, so that very little of the adapalene is absorbed into the bloodstream.

Why Does It Work, Though?

The reason Differin and other retinoids work so well is because skin cells can easily clog pores when they have unusual life cycles. For instance, during the teenage years 🧑‍🤝‍🧑 and early 20s, cell turnover is much higher than in older people. However, the cells live too long sometimes and are not shed in time. This can cause pores to clog and then result in acne.

The opposite problem can also occur, often after your 20s. Skin cells are produced at a more normal rate, but they sometimes die too quickly, also causing pore clogging.

Differin helps regulate skin cells so they don’t cause clogged pores or lead to acne.

Differin acne treatment acts like a pace car, guiding the skin cells through their live cycles at a steady rate. It causes skin cells to be produced and die at a rate that won’t clog pores. This is an excellent mechanism for preventing blackheads and whiteheads—but retinoids can also help prevent cysts.

Differin Gel and Cystic Acne

Cysts are primarily caused by P. acnes bacteria, and retinoids are not bactericidal. That’s the purview of acne treatments such as benzoyl peroxide and tea tree oil, but these can be too abrasive with adapalene. Read on for more about this 📖.

Yet, that’s not to say that adapalene can’t play a role in limiting the bacterial spread.

Without intervention, excessively high skin cell turnover can help the infection to spread faster and further. So it makes sense to reason that, with the help of Differin gel or another topical retinoid, these skin cells can be replaced more quickly. In this way, a retinoid product could potentially be helpful in halting the spread of the pathogen, especially if P. acnes 🦠 is limited to a small area. It may even keep an infected follicle from forming a cyst.

How Does It Compare to Other Products for Serious Pimples?

Differin acne treatment is not really as effective for serious inflammatory acne as some other retinoids, such as Retin-A or Tazorac. Cystic acne, specifically, may or may not respond to adapalene 0.1% or 0.3%. In this regard, products like Retin-A on their own are often more helpful than adapalene. However, Differin in combination with other treatments could work.

Combination Treatment Is Best For Clear Skin

If Differin is combined with benzoyl peroxide it’s a different story. Benzoyl peroxide is an acne-fighting agent that can kill a high percentage of P. acnes 🦠, so applying a thin layer of adapalene gel 0.1% as well, can significantly decrease moderate to severe cystic acne and keep new acne from forming.

Some products combine adapalene and benzoyl peroxide, but this is not ideal for all skin types. For more flexibility and perhaps better results, use Differin and a benzoyl peroxide cream, or wash your skin with them separately. However, stop immediately if the combination causes excessive irritation or dryness.

Should You Try Differin Gel as a Treatment for Acne?

So when to use Differin gel for acne? Trying it will depend on a few important factors. With all the acne products available, it can be challenging to know which one is right for you. Differin gel, or any of its other preparations, works best on persistent acne and consistent clogging deep in the pores. To a degree, it can work for people with sensitive skin looking to try a retinoid.

Who Will Benefit Most?

We recommend Differin for people who have already tried acne treatment products that address inflammation and oil production, yet still struggle with clogged pores. If your skin isn’t very inflamed, and it isn’t producing extra oil, then excess skin cells are likely the reason for your clogged pores. This means that regulating skin cell life cycles with Differin gel could help to clear existing acne, and also prevent new acne from forming.

What Are the Downsides?

Unfortunately, there can be some negative side effects to this acne treatment, especially on sensitive skin. A high-strength retinoid will be far too harsh for this skin type, and even adapalene gel 0.1% could present problems. The best would be to ask a doctor 👨‍⚕️ before investing in a retinoid, and it would be helpful to keep the following in mind too.

The Side Effects

Acne-fighting retinoids can cause some unwanted side effects. These include:

  • swelling
  • peeling
  • scaling
  • dryness
  • erythema (redness of the skin)
  • pruritus (itchiness)
  • blistering

Severe skin irritation with this treatment is mostly associated with over-use, so adapalene gel 0.1 % might be a safe concentration — unless you have a tendency for allergic reactions, or battle with any skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis. In some cases, adapalene use may cause eczema, but even a thin layer of Differin gel will very likely result in severe irritation and aggregation if you already have this skin condition. It’s always advisable to ask a doctor 👨‍⚕️ before using a topical retinoid on any pre-existing condition.

Also, most retinoids, including adapalene 0.1%, are significantly less safe for use on dark skin, as the concentrated vitamin A can lead to discoloration and light spots.

The Myth Associated with the Treatment of Acne

It’s a common myth that an acne product is working only if it stings or burns. After all, stinging and burning are signals from your skin saying that it is being damaged. As mentioned, damaged or irritated skin quickly becomes inflamed in an effort to protect itself, and this inflammation can actually lead to more acne. Therefore, if your skin is easily irritated, most retinoids will probably cause more harm than good.

If you have normal, oily, or combination skin, this may not apply. Some of these symptoms may occur during the first month of treatment with adapalene 0.1% and 0.3%, but depending on what your doctor advises, it should be OK to continue 👌. According to the Differin package insert, these usually disappear within a month.

Differin Is an Exception

Other retinoids come with a lot of side effects that can be avoided by using the adapalene 0.1% treatment of acne. Because it is significantly milder than most retinoids, it is less likely to cause issues for people with sensitive skin. Also, Differin gel can be helpful in reducing acne scarring.

Differin and Scar Reduction

Dermatologists 👩‍⚕️ offer a variety of services for scar reduction, but it would be ideal if an acne product could reduce acne and scars at the same time. Differin doesn’t completely eliminate all acne scars, but it can make a significant difference because of the way it regulates the skin cells.

What Is PIH?

As the name suggests, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) refers to the dark spots left behind after a breakout. These are created as acne heals because the body uses melanin as part of the healing process. The melanin deposits more color the longer acne lasts, so when acne takes a while to heal, melanin can leave behind PIH that might last a few weeks or even months 📅.

Differin acne treatment can be helpful in preventing this because it ensures a balance between the rates of cell production and cells dying off. Put even more simply—the hyperpigmented cells don’t stick around long because they are quickly replaced by new, healthy cells.

What About Pockmarks and Raised Scars?

This process applies to pockmark scars as well. The product can help generate healthy cells to take the place of the scar tissue cells, although you may need to see a doctor or a dermatologist 👩‍⚕️ to get rid of those completely.

Unfortunately, Differin is not overly helpful in reducing raised scars. These need to be addressed by a dermatologist as well.

The best part about using the gel for scarring is that it’s safe for nearly all skin types. Many skin lighteners or acne scar reducers work fine on light skin but are less effective with dark skin. Some products can even make discoloration worse in dark skin 🧑🏽, turning it a purplish color. Some retinoids are also guilty of this, but because Differin is a milder retinoid, it can safely reduce scarring on light or dark skin without causing increased hyperpigmentation.

How To Use Retinoid Products Every Day

Normally, low-concentration adapalene is safe for use in all skin types. Here are the steps on how and when to use Differin for acne, as advised by the manufacturers:

  • After washing with a non-medicated soap, pat dry your face. Then apply a thin layer of Differin gel to the affected area every evening. Adapalene is safe to use once every day, but no more. This includes lower concentrations such as adapalene gel 0.1%. Increased use doesn’t automatically mean increased efficacy, and it may be harmful.
  • Avoid application to the skin around the eyes and lips 👄, and on the inside of your mouth and nose.
  • Don’t apply to sunburnt skin.
  • Be careful when using any adapalene product with other acne treatments.
  • A mild sensation of warmth or slight stinging may occur shortly after application, but this should be transient.
  • Avoid direct sunlight during the day and use an SPF 30 or higher sunblock when going out. Retinoid products can make the skin more sensitive to harmful UV rays ☀️.
  • Apply a good moisturizer if the affected area gets dry.
  • It may take up to 12 weeks for the product to work, but if no significant improvement is noticed by then, you should reevaluate the use of Differin.

The manufacturers also advise that you should stop using the product and consult with a doctor or dermatologist immediately, if you find that any side effect persists or worsens.

For Use on Sensitive Skin

It’s hopefully clear that if you have any pre-existing dermatological condition, and on sensitive skin especially, it is necessary to use Differin and other retinoids with care. These products may have a role in the treatment of stubborn acne and can prevent pimples, but they’re not suitable for everyone.

Also, consider using Differin with other acne treatments to increase its efficacy and to ensure proper hydration. The Exposed Skin Care range just may take your acne healing to the next level because it is designed to protect and enhance.

Products To Use with Differin Gel

Although Differin can be very useful for treating acne and preventing it from forming, it produces the best results when combined with a gentle, consistent skin care routine. Clean deep in the pores without causing dryness or irritation and then moisturize with our products renowned for their gentleness.

At Exposed Skin Care 🏆, we recommend using our Facial Cleanser and Moisture Complex Hydrating Facial Gel as acne treatments while using Differin gel. Our Facial Cleanser gently exfoliates the skin so the Differin can access the pores more easily, and our Moisture Complex helps prevent any dryness or itchiness that sometimes occurs as a side effect of Differin. Used together, these products make a great recipe for reducing acne.

When used with our Facial Cleanser, Differin for acne can be even more effective.