Differin Gel is a branded version of a drug called adapalene which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. to treat acne.
In this article we’ll review the medical research on Differin Gel to determine if it’s likely to be safe and effective for acne treatment, and share a natural alternative that consumers may want to consider.
Does Differin Gel Work?
Adapalene, which is the active ingredient in Differin Gel, is a Vitamin A derivative that’s been studied extensively in medical trials. Differin Gel contains adapalene at a concentration of 0.1%.
An extensive medical review of adapalene published in the Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management journal analyzed the results of over 30 individual clinical trials on the drug, and found that it was effective on average for acne vulgaris, which is the most common type of acne.
Interestingly, the researchers noted that adapalene gel at 0.3% was significantly more effective than a concentration of 0.1%, which suggests that prescription creams at this concentration (adapalene 0.3% isn’t available over-the-counter) may be more effective than Differin Gel.
The study authors compared the efficacy of Differin Gel to other popular acne treatments.
Differin Gel was found to be equally effective to tretinoin 0.025% (brand name Retin-A) on average, but more effective for non-inflammatory skin lesions.
Differin Gel was found to be similarly effective to benzoyl peroxide (brand name Benzoyl) at various concentrations, and noted that combination of the two treatments wasn’t shown to be more effective than benzoyl peroxide treatment alone.
A more recent research review of adapalene highlighted some of its potential off-label uses that are backed by some clinical trial data. We do not recommend using OTC drugs for off-label use without the approval of a doctor; we’re simply highlighting the study results.
The authors found that adapalene has anti-inflammatory as well as immunomodulatory properties, and may promote collagen synthesis. They suggested that future studies may even show an anti-cancer effect of the drug, because it has a proven antiproliferative effect.
We can conclude from the above-linked research that Differin Gel is likely to be effective for treating acne in most patients.
Differin Gel Side Effects
The most common side effects from use of Differin Gel based on medical research are photosensitivity (increased sensitivity to UV rays), irritation, redness and dryness.
Because the drug isn’t well-absorbed into the body, most of the side effects are topical and relatively minor. This is why it was approved for use over-the-counter (OTC).
Patients may want to consider using sunscreen and/or covering their face with a physical barrier like a hat after using Differin Gel, due to the increased risk of photosensitivity.
There is a rare side effect of severe allergic reaction, but that’s present for many OTC acne medications and not necessarily unique to Differin Gel.
We find these side effects to be relatively mild and tolerable compared to many prescription pharmaceutical medications for acne; especially when compared with systemic drugs like doxycycline.
How to Use Differin Gel
Most of the medical studies we’ve reviewed and linked in this article referenced a once-daily topical application. They didn’t specify time of day, but it seems logical to apply the gel after a daily shower when skin is clean.
Differin Gel’s label (for both the 0.1% and 0.3% concentrations) recommends once daily use. The instructions specify to use on dry skin, so make sure not to apply directly after a shower without fully drying your face off first.
Can Differin Gel Reduce Wrinkles?
One of the off-label uses for Differin Gel is wrinkle reduction. There doesn’t appear to be much clinical data backing its effectiveness for this outcome.
A single medical trial on adapalene found it to be effective for clinical signs of skin aging, including wrinkles, but the concentration used was 0.3% or 300% of the amount in Differin Gel.
We can’t locate any medical data suggesting that Differin Gel (adapalene 0.1%) is effective for treating wrinkles. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily ineffective, just that there’s no proof currently.
One of the most effective botanical treatments for acne is unrefined coconut oil. It’s been proven to have many protective properties for skin, including anti-inflammatory effect and natural protection against UV rays. This means oil when applied topically has a (relatively weak) sunscreen effect, which is pretty incredible. It’s the only botanical ingredient we’re aware of that has a natural sun protection effect.
Another study that we discussed at length in our recent review of cosmetics brand Crépe Erase found that coconut oil had anti-aging effects and aided with skin moisturization.
Coconut oil may cause breakouts in patients with oily skin, but we believe it’s worth trying since it’s proven to be effective and it’s a totally safe, non-toxic botanical ingredient. It’s also much cheaper to use coconut oil to treat acne than pharmaceutical OTC drugs like Differin Gel. A large jar of unrefined coconut oil is likely to last for months if not years if it’s only used for skin treatments.