Human Guinea Pig : DIFFERIN

By now you’re probably well aware that I’ve been in an ongoing state of siege vs my skin for quite some time now. It comes at me with acne, and I attack it with salicylic acid, glycolic acid, mandelic acid, clindamycin, benzoyl peroxide, spironolactone, tretinoin, azelaic acid, niacinamide, and flamethrowers. Okay not that last one. Tho I’m frequently tempted.

It is much, much better than it was. These days I’m mostly pretty clear, except for one or two medium-severity cysts about a week before Rag-narok, and some congestion/crud/clogged pores. Lately though, I’ve been getting more frequent small breakouts on my chin — they’re not Dire Cysts Of Hateful Catastrophe, but still. IRRITATING. So! I’m trying something NEW. Differin!


Differin is a brand name for adapalene, which is a third-generation retinoid. That means it’s in the same class of drugs as tretinoin (Retin-A), isotretinoin (Accutane) and retinol — all are which are related to or derived from vitamin A. Tretinoin has been around since the 1940s-50s, and retinol even longer, but adapalene is much newer — it was approved for topical use on acne in 1996, and just made available without a prescription in 2016.

All of these compounds are similar in that they’re vitamin-A-derived, and in that they alter various skin functions. However, they do have different mechanisms of action. Tretinoin increases epithelial cell turnover rate, and also prevents these cells in follicles from sticking together, meaning they’re shed more easily and less likely to contribute to clogged pores. Adapalene, on the other hand, inhibits keratinocyte differentiation (thus the brand name Differin, I guess?).

I’m not 100% sure I have this right, but here’s my basic understanding of the process, with the usual caveat that I Am Not A Doctor Or A Scientist : Your skin contains a load of epidermal stem cells, and during the process of skin doing its normal turnover/renewal thing, those stem cells differentiate [i.e. develop] into a bunch of other types of cells. Some of them become keratinocytes, which are responsible for making various types of keratin. And as you maybe already know, keratin is one of the things that contributes to clogged pores. SO. Fewer keratinocytes, or keratinocytes with their normal process all jacked up by adapalene = your skin makes less keratin, which means your skin is less clogged up, which means there’s less gunk for acne bacteria to feed on in your pores. Hooray! Adapalene also has some anti-inflammatory properties, which is also helpful against acne, obvs.


Adapalene is more chemically stable than tretinoin, and it’s less likely to cause irritation in most people. Which is good, because I’m pretty sure my face doesn’t like tretinoin. Some people may experience drier skin, but it’s usually not extremely severe, and is easily addressed with moisturizers. According to the manufacturer, any irritation or stinging will probably occur within the first two weeks of use, and likely subside at around 4 weeks. Also, since adapalene is basically working by changing your skin’s natural regrowth cycle, results may not be lightning fast. The literature indicates that you should see some improvement in 1-2 weeks though, so that’s fairly speedy, all things considered.

The cost is pretty reasonable, at least compared to a lot of prescription options. Amazon has a 1.6oz/45 gram tube currently for $20.81, and a .5oz/15 gram tube for $11.29.  I went for the half-ounce size, as my one prior experience with a retinoid was Ungood, so I figured I’d be better off not buying the big tube and then being big mad if it wrecked my face. The small tube should last me about a month, which I imagine will be long enough to tell whether it helps, does nothing for me, or freaks my skin right the hell out.


The instructions say to apply a small amount once a day, at the same time each day. It’s a clear, watery, and very lightweight gel that absorbs super fast, so presumably you could apply it in the morning and it wouldn’t fight with your makeup. However, I’m going to do it at night, so that I can use a heavier moisturizer if I get dryness or irritation. I might even use a light moisturizer beforehand, because when I say this stuff absorbs fast…it absorbs so quickly into my clean dry skin that I kind of didn’t have enough time to smear it around my face. So, applying a light serum or something first might make the Differin easier to spread smoothly. [Ed. : ETA : Like all retinoids, adapalene may increase your sun-sensitivity, so DEFINITELY use a good sunblock — particularly if you’re applying it in the morning rather than at night.]

Also, one thing adapalene does NOT do : it doesn’t diminish acne bacteria. So my plan is to continue to use my current product — Skinoren Azelaic Acid cream, which does attack acne bacteria — but switch to using it in the morning rather than at night, and also possibly decreasing the amount or using it on alternating days. I don’t want to ditch my only bacteria-fighter, but I also don’t want to dry my skin to a crispy churro-like texture (azelaic also decreases keratin production, though via a different action, I think). We’ll see how it goes! I just put it on for the first time tonight, right after washing my face, and with no other serums or moisturizers. It’s been on for about an hour, and so far no irritation or stinging or anything. We’ll check back in a few weeks with an updated report!

BONUS : Unretouched “before” pic, highlighting my marvelous aging skin texture, enlarged pores, peach fuzz, and a bunch of smallish angry pink spots, plus a few tiny closed comedones you can’t really see here but TRUST ME THEY’RE THERE. This is right after washing my face and applying Differin. The black blob at right is part of my headphones, not some weird trendy ear jewelry you need to know about, and my hair is up in a bun so I’ve got a Baby-Hair Mullet Fringe going on too. Stylish.

BASELINE : Collier has oily and moderately acne-prone skin that’s frequently “congested” with gunk, often has small breakouts, and gets a couple of more serious/deeper cysts as part of the wonderful PMS cycle, usually on cheeks/chin. Currently regimen is a vitamin C serum and an azelaic acid cream at night, niacinamide/zinc serum during the day, occasionally an extra application of azelaic during the day, and various other moisturizers, treatments, and exfoliants. Not particularly “sensitive” on the whole, but very bad experiences with benzoyl and with tretinoin/clindamycin combo.

Ever tried Differin, via prescription or OTC? TELL US. If you’ve got the anecdotes, we’ve got the comment space!