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Adapalene vs. Tretinoin: Benefits For Acne + Aging, Use Tips & More

Andrea Jordan
June 21, 2021
Andrea Jordan
Contributing writer
By Andrea Jordan
Contributing writer
Andrea Jordan is a beauty and lifestyle freelance writer covering topics from hair and skincare to family and home. She received her bachelor's in Magazine Journalism from Temple University and you can find her work at top publications like InStyle, PopSugar, StyleCaster, Business Insider, PureWow and OprahMag.
June 21, 2021
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When it comes to skin care, there are tons of hard-to-pronounce, scientific ingredients and terms that even us beauty editors find hard to understand. And if you've found yourself searching for the best retinoid to use for your skin care needs, we totally get that it can be a bit, well, overwhelming. 

That's why we're here to talk about the two most common retinoids for acne-prone skin: adapalene and tretinoin. Don't fret; most don't have but a clue what they are, let alone what they're good for. And if you've done a quick Google search on either of the two, you might feel slightly afraid at the thought of applying these powerful ingredients to your skin. But the truth is, they're actually not that scary—as long as you use quality formulas and use them appropriately. Thankfully, there are skin care pros to help answer frequently asked questions like what is adapalene and what are the side effects of using tretinoin? 

We tapped a few dermatologists to get the scoop on these two retinoids, how they work, and how to use them properly. 

What is adapalene? 

According to board-certified dermatologist Tiffany Libby, M.D., adapalene is a topical retinoid FDA approved for the treatment of acne. It's available in both prescription and over-the-counter formulations and is the active ingredient found in the Differin Acne Treatment Gel.

"Adapalene penetrates hair follicles and helps prevent and treat acne, exfoliates skin, and minimizes inflammation," Libby says. 

Board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., says that adapalene is a third-generation retinoid that has been studied in numerous trials that show it's highly effective and has a low risk of skin irritation. In one study, 74% of users found a decrease in acne-induced inflammation1 with the use of this retinoid. 

What is tretinoin?

Tretinoin is by no means new to skin care. In fact, it was the first FDA-approved retinoid to help treat and prevent acne. "Tretinoin is another topical retinoid, derived from vitamin A, that also helps to prevent and treat acne," Libby says. "It is more well studied for its anti-aging benefits and works to increase cell turnover, improving the thickness of the epidermis and minimizing fine lines while improving discolorations and treating acne," she says.  

Unlike adapalene, you can't buy tretinoin over the counter. This retinoid is only available by prescription. One of the downsides of tretinoin is the timeline it takes to see results and the possibility of pesky side effects. 

For example, if you have sensitive skin, this may not be the retinoid for you. Tretinoin works by irritating further to activate cell turnover; you may experience redness, irritation, blisters, and even a change in skin pigmentation. So it's important to only use this product under the supervision of a doctor. And even with the undesirable side effects, research shows that tretinoin helps to reduce fine lines and wrinkles2, correct skin texture and tone, and even reduce hyperpigmentation.  

Is one stronger than the other? 

According to King, tretinoin is generally considered stronger. "This is in part because there are more percentages available, but there haven't been head-to-head studies, yet." She also notes that just because adapalene is generally less irritating, it shouldn't be mistaken for being less effective. (And people still may find it irritating, even if it is less so than prescription-strength options, so just be careful.) 

Libby agrees and says, "Adapalene is perceived to be less efficacious, but in reality, studies suggest that it has similar efficacy to tretinoin, just with better tolerability." So if you're not sure which is best for you, we suggest consulting your dermatologist for a more detailed perspective on which retinoid works for your skin type and concerns. 

Which is better for aging and wrinkles? 

In short, King and Libby each agree the answer is both. "Both of these retinoids work to stimulate collagen and elastin production, which thickens the skin and reduces noticeable fine lines and wrinkles over time," Libby says. 

Which is better for acne? 

Again, King and Libby agree that both tretinoin and adapalene are great options for treating acne. "They both work to decrease comedone formation, which is the start of the acne lesion," Libby says. Although it's worth noting that adapalene is better tolerated by most skin types, so Libby says if a patient experiences irritation to tretinoin, she will either suggest mixing tretinoin with a moisturizer or switch the patient to using adapalene. 

Is there any reason I should not use these medications? 

As with all new skin care products, it's best to consult your local dermatologist before beginning a new regimen. But it's important to note that neither adapalene or tretinoin should be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. "But other than that, anyone, even as early as teens and 20s, can incorporate these into their skin care routine," Libby says. 

How do I use them? 

Because retinoids are affected by sun exposure, it's best to apply these products at night. Nighttime is also when skin cell renewal and repair is at its peak. 

To help reduce or prevent irritation, Libby suggests using the retinoid sandwich technique and apply on the four quadrants of the face and the neck. "In the retinoid sandwich technique, the moisturizer is the bread and the retinoid is the meat," Libby suggests. "So, apply a thin layer of moisturizer first, then a pea-sized amount of retinoid, followed by another layer of moisturizer." This will not decrease the efficacy of the retinoid, but it will increase the tolerability of the product. 


Both adapalene and tretinoin are effective options for treating acne and signs of aging. While adapalene is the gentler of the two, they have both been proved to work effectively on a variety of skin types. To better understand which option is best for you, talk with your dermatologist before adding either of these ingredients to your skin care routine. 

Andrea Jordan author page.
Andrea Jordan
Contributing writer

Andrea Jordan is a beauty and lifestyle freelance writer covering topics from hair and skincare to family and home. She received her bachelor's in Magazine Journalism from Temple University and you can find her work at top publications like InStyle, PopSugar, StyleCaster, Business Insider, PureWow and OprahMag. When she's not writing, you can find Andrea tackling new recipes in the kitchen or babysitting one of her many nieces and nephews. She currently resides in New Jersey with her husband and cat, Silas.