How to Know If You Should Be Using Differin for Acne

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

Differin for acne is one of nearly countless acne treatment options. It is a popular choice because it was the first retinoid product available without a prescription, but what exactly is a retinoid product? How does Differin work? Before deciding whether or not to use Differin for acne, it’s important to understand how acne forms and what Differin does to prevent and treat it.

Men and women with different skin colors smiling
Differin for acne is one of the most popular treatment choices.

Acne Formation

Scientists still aren’t completely sure why some people have significant acne and others only ever have 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 recently discovered that inflammation is really the root of the problem. Bacteria, along with oil production, still play a significant role, but all acne starts with some degree of inflammation.

The First Step: Inflammation

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. Everything from mindlessly touching the face to using the wrong kind of toothpaste can irritate the skin, and it becomes inflamed to prevent the irritant from penetrating deeper or spreading.

Stress can cause inflammation because our bodies don’t always distinguish between literal, physical stressors and emotional stressors. If we’re stressed about a big test coming up, our body prepares for a fight by going into fight, flight, or freeze mode. One way it protects itself is through the inflammation response. If the skin is inflamed, there is less of a chance anything dangerous will enter the skin. 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 skin cells under the surface of the skin. This can clog the pores, leading to 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 called p. acnes. They are anaerobic bacteria, meaning they can’t survive in oxygen for long, and without inflammation, they can actually benefit the skin. Because they’re anaerobic, they live in the oil our skin naturally produces and they consume that oil as their food source, meaning they can actually reduce the amount of oil on our skin and prevent oil buildup.

Once p. acnes are trapped in a pore due to inflammation, they become much less helpful. Cut off from air completely 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, and if 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 grow in number. The immune system cells eventually break down the skin cells, and the bacteria spread deeper into the skin. 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 acne 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, like they do during the teenage years, those changes can trigger an increase in oil production. Once hormones 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 skin types: dry, combination, and oily. Surprisingly, all three of these skin types can be affected by excess oil. Naturally oily skin can produce too much oil, which then combines with dead skin cells to clog pores, or combines with bacteria to create pimples.

Dry skin doesn’t produce enough oil, which exposes it to more irritation. When the skin is irritated, it tries to protect itself through inflammation, but it also produces a surge of extra oil to create a barrier between the skin and the irritant. Then, because of the inflammation, this oil is trapped in the pores. So even though dry skin doesn’t produce enough oil regularly, oil can still create acne problems for dry skin.

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

How Can Differin Help?

Differin for acne can help because it can regulate the life cycle of skin cells. Differin is actually a brand name for a gel that contains adapalene, a retinoid-like compound. A few other brands also contain adapalene, but Differin is the most popular because it was the first retinoid available over-the-counter. Although adapalene is technically a retinoid-like compound, it is similar to other retinoids in most ways, with a few important differences.

Retinoids are essentially concentrated forms of vitamin A that help reduce acne by regulating the life cycle of skin cells. Differin for acne works in much the same way, but it’s much milder than most retinoids, and it isn’t water soluble, meaning none of the adapalene is absorbed into the bloodstream.

The reason Differin and other retinoids work so well is because when skin cells have unusual life cycles, they can easily clog pores. For instance, during the teenage years and early 20s, new skin cells are being created rapidly, but they sometimes live too long and refuse to be shed as new cells come along. This can clog pores and lead to 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 clogs.

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

Differin acts like a pace car, guiding the skin cells through their lives at a steady rate. It changes skin cells so they are produced and die at a rate that won’t clog pores. This is a great mechanism for preventing blackheads and whiteheads, but retinoids can also help prevent cysts.

Differin and Cystic Acne

Although cysts are primarily caused by p. acnes bacteria, increased healthy turnover of skin cells can help reduce them. P. acnes release a chemical that bonds with the surrounding skin cells to trick the immune system into attacking the skin cells instead of the bacteria. Differin can’t prevent p. acnes from releasing this chemical, but it can help new, healthy skin cells take the place of the ones being attacked by the immune system.

Without Differin or another retinoid, skin cells are destroyed and the infection can spread further. However, with the help of Differin, these skin cells can be replaced more quickly, and potentially halt the spread of bacteria. If p. acnes can be contained to a small area, the resulting cyst will be much smaller and more manageable, or it might even stay a pimple.

Although Differin is a retinoid-like compound and it can help regulate skin cells, it is not as effective in treating cystic acne as some other retinoids, like Retin-A, Tazorac, or tretinoin. These retinoids are often more helpful in treating cystic acne than Differin—when it’s used alone. When combined with benzoyl peroxide, an acne-fighting agent that can kill 99% of p. acnes, Differin can significantly decrease cystic acne. There are some products that combine adapalene and benzoyl peroxide into one product, but it can also be effective to use Differin for acne and a benzoyl peroxide cream or wash separately.

Should You Try Differin for Acne?

With all the acne products available, it can be difficult to know which one is right for you. Differin for acne works best for people with persistent acne, consistently clogged pores, and to a certain degree it can work for people with sensitive skin looking to try a retinoid.

We recommend Differin for people who have already tried products that address inflammation and oil production, and still struggle with clogged pores. If your skin isn’t inflamed and it isn’t producing excess oil, then skin cells are likely the reason for your clogged pores, and regulating skin cell life cycles with Differin could help.

Retinoids are generally far too harsh for sensitive skin. It’s a common myth that an acne product is working if it stings or burns; stinging and burning are signals from you skin saying that it is being damaged. Damaged or irritated skin quickly becomes inflamed in an effort to protect itself, and that inflammation can actually lead to more acne. If your skin is easily irritated, then most retinoids will cause more harm than good. Because Differin is significantly milder than most retinoids, it is less likely to cause issues for people with sensitive skin.

Other retinoids come with a lot of side effects that can be avoided by using Differin for acne. Retinoids can cause skin irritation, peeling, or even scaling, where the skin dries out and flakes like scales, and most retinoids are significantly less safe for use on dark skin. Concentrated vitamin A can lead to discoloration and light spots on dark skin, but Differin can actually help reduce acne scarring.

Differin and Scar Reduction

Dermatologists offer a variety of services to help reduce scarring, but if an acne product could reduce acne and scars at the same time, that would be ideal. Differin cannot completely get rid of all acne scars, but it can make a significant difference because of the way it regulates the skin cells.

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 it’s there, so when acne takes a while to heal, it can leave behind PIH that might last a few weeks or even months. Differin can help prevent this because it makes sure skin cells are being produced and dying at a regular interval. The hyperpigmented cells don’t stick around long because they are quickly replaced by new, healthy cells.

This applies to pock mark scars as well. Differin can help generate healthy cells to take the place of the scar tissue cells, although you may need to see a dermatologist to get rid of pock mark scars 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 Differin for acne scarring is that it’s safe for 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 purple-ish color. Some retinoids are also guilty of this, but because Differin is a milder, retinoid-like compound, it can safely reduce scarring on light or dark skin without causing increased hyperpigmentation.

Products to Use with Differin

Although Differin can be very useful for treating acne, it produces the best results when combined with a gentle, consistent skin care routine. At Exposed Skin Care, we recommend using our Facial Cleanser and Moisture Complex while using Differin for acne. 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 itching that sometimes occurs as a side effect of Differin. Used together, these products make a great recipe for reducing acne.

How to Know If You Should Be Using Differin for Acne
When used with our Facial Cleanser, Differin for acne can be even more effective.