Adapalene vs. Tretinoin: Which Retinoid Is Better For Your Skin?

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When it comes to achieving clearer, more youthful skin, one class of compounds has taken the beauty world by storm: retinoids.

Derived from vitamin A, these ingredients have captured the hearts of many skincare enthusiasts. 

Retinoids have become the holy grail of beauty regimens, from banishing acne to tackling wrinkles.

Two white cosmetic tubes in a flat lay with leaves and flowers isolated on a lilac background

Amidst the plethora of topical retinoids available, two stand out as crowd favorites: adapalene and tretinoin. 

These rockstars have earned their reputation for effectively managing acne and various skin conditions.

But which one is the right choice for your skin? Get ready as we explore the ultimate retinoid showdown: adapalene vs. tretinoin.

While they both provide skin-transforming magic, understanding their similarities and differences is crucial in determining the perfect retinoid for your needs.

In this article, we will explore the fascinating world of adapalene and tretinoin and closely examine their benefits and safety profiles.

Comparison of Adapalene vs. Tretinoin: An Overview of Their Differences and Similarities 

DefinitionThird-generation retinoid (new in the market)First-generation retinoids (has been in the market for a long time)
Mechanism of Action• Binds to specific skin receptors
• Regulates cell function
• Promotes skin turnover
• Binds to specific skin receptors
• Regulates cell function
• Stimulates collagen production
Medical Applications and FDA-Approved UsesAcne treatment Acne and photoaging treatment
EfficacyEffective in treating acne and preventing future breakouts; slow to deliver resultsEffective in acne, wrinkles, and photodamaged skin; quick to deliver results
Recommended Frequency of UseOnce a dayOnce a day
Potential Side Effects • Mild irritation
• Dryness
• Itching 
• Redness
• Sensitivity to sunlight
• Slight stinging
• Tenderness
• Itching 
• Dry skin 
• Burning sensation 
• Sensitivity to sunlight
SuitabilityAll skin types All skin types; may require those with sensitive or dry skin to take extra caution
Availability Over-the-counter (OTC) and with a prescriptionOnly available with a prescription
Price RangeGenerally more affordable Prices vary depending on brand and formulation

What Is Adapalene?

You may know adapalene under the brand name Differin.

Adapalene is a third-generation retinoid, meaning it’s a relatively new ingredient on the market. But it’s already FDA-approved for treating acne. 

Depending on its strength, adapalene is available over-the-counter and with a prescription in the form of creams, gels, and lotions.

Typically, adapalene gel with a 0.1% concentration of adapalene is available OTC. Other forms — lotions and creams — whether they have a concentration of 0.1% to 0.3% or higher are prescription-only. 

Adapalene shares similar characteristics with its older sister, tretinoin, but it’s less irritating,

Due to its difference in chemical structure, adapalene is more stable. 

As such, it will not lose potency even if exposed to sunlight. It can also be safely combined with other ingredients to fight acne, including benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin. 

Benefits of Using Adapalene 

Adapalene can work wonders for your skin. Here is a run-through of the benefits you can enjoy when using it:

  • Effective acne treatment. Adapalene is renowned for its effectiveness in treating various forms of acne, including blackheads, whiteheads, and inflammatory acne.
  • Improved skin texture. As adapalene promotes skin cell turnover (which is the process of shedding dead skin cells and replacing them with newer and younger ones), using it can lead to a smoother and more refined skin texture. 
  • Prevents breakouts. By regulating cell function and reducing pore blockage, adapalene helps prevent the recurrence of acne breakouts.
  • Minimal side effects. Compared to some other retinoids, adapalene is less irritating to the skin and less likely to cause side effects.
  • Suitable for different skin types. Adapalene is less irritating than tretinoin and is generally well tolerated by the skin, making it more suitable for various skin types, including sensitive skin.

Popular Brands That Offer Adapalene

If you are on the journey towards clearer, healthier skin, then you should try these reliable and trusted Adapalene products:

  • Differin. Differin is a well-known brand that specializes in adapalene-based skincare products. Their most popular product is the Differin Adapalene Gel.
  • La Roche-Posay. La Roche-Posay offers the Effaclar Adapalene Gel as part of their Effaclar line. 

    They combined the innate effectiveness of adapalene with their expertise in targeting acne and improving overall skin health.
  • Proactiv. Proactiv, a trusted brand in acne treatment, has introduced the ProactivMD Adapalene Gel Acne Treatment

    This gel aims to provide targeted treatment for acne-prone skin, which means it’s designed to clear breakouts and prevent future ones.

Adapalene and Other Compound Combinations 

Adapalene becomes even more impactful when combined with other key ingredients. 

These combinations provide a multifaceted approach to skincare concerns, targeting different aspects of the problem to deliver comprehensive results.

  • Adapalene and benzoyl peroxide: This combination provides a dual-action approach to acne treatment, targeting both the underlying causes of acne and the inflammation associated with it.
  • Adapalene and clindamycin: Another common combination is adapalene with clindamycin, an antibiotic that treats inflammatory acne effectively.
  • Adapalene and hydroquinone: Adapalene and hydroquinone, a skin-lightening agent, are used together to address hyperpigmentation and melasma, which are conditions characterized by dark patches on the skin.
  • Adapalene, benzoyl peroxide, and niacinamide: This powerful combination offers a comprehensive approach to treating acne and improving overall skin health. 

Now that we have discussed adapalene, it is time to learn more about its older sister: tretinoin.

What Is Tretinoin?

A white beauty tube isolated on a pink background

Tretinoin is a prescription-grade retinoid and the first of its kind to be approved by the FDA.

Used primarily as a treatment for acne and photodamage, it is a first-generation retinoic acid that has been widely researched for its efficacy and potency.  

You may have heard of tretinoin as retinoic acid under the brand name Treclin. 

Unlike adapalene, tretinoin is available only with a prescription. It is prescribed at different strengths. 

The lowest concentration is 0.015%. Health professionals may increase the prescribed concentration to 0.05% gradually in some cases. 

To treat inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne, most people start using 0.025% tretinoin in a cream or gel form and slowly go higher in dosage based on the results they experience and their skin’s reaction to the ingredient. 

In addition to treating acne, tretinoin is also known to increase collagen production and stimulate the production of new blood vessels, improving skin texture and brightness. 

Benefits of Using Tretinoin

Here is a run-through of the benefits tretinoin offers to your skin when you use it as medication:

  • Unclogs pores thus reducing acne breakouts. Tretinoin works deep within the skin to clear clogged pores and prevent the formation of acne.

    As it keeps pores clear and free from blockages, tretinoin reduces the occurrence and reoccurrence of breakouts.
  • Regulates sebum production. As a retinoid, it regulates sebum production and prevents excessive oiliness, promoting healthier, clearer skin.
  • Shrinks pores and makes skin smoother. It minimizes the appearance of pores and exfoliates the skin by getting rid of dead skin cells, resulting in a refined skin texture.
  • Improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. With its ability to promote collagen production, tretinoin improves skin elasticity and firmness, giving users a more youthful complexion.
  • Lightens dark spots. Due to its exfoliating properties, tretinoin promotes the replacement of older skin cells with newer ones. This helps improve wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.
  • Smoothens hard skin patches. By promoting cellular turnover, it softens skin texture improving hard skin patches and leaving skin more refined. 

Popular Brands With Tretinoin

As the demand for effective acne and anti-aging treatments continues to grow, numerous brands have stepped forward to provide tretinoin formulations tailored to consumers’ individual needs.

Here are your trusted brands that offer tretinoin products: 

  • Retin-A. One of the most well-known and widely prescribed brands offering creams and gels.
  • Renova. This brand specializes in tretinoin formulations for anti-aging purposes and is recommended for improving the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and sun-damaged skin.
  • Atralin. Another popular brand that offers tretinoin in a gel formulation. It is known for its lightweight texture, which is why it’s preferred by those with oilier skin types.
  • Refissa. It is commonly prescribed to individuals with more sensitive or dry skin, as its formulation helps minimize potential irritation while improving skin texture and appearance.
  • Avita. A well-known brand that offers tretinoin in a gel formulation used for treating acne as it helps unclog pores, reduce inflammation, and prevent new breakouts. 

Tretinoin Medicine Combinations

 As dermatological science continues to advance, you can experience the power of synergy with the remarkable combinations of tretinoin in skincare. 

These combinations leverage the unique benefits of tretinoin alongside other active ingredients:

  • Tretinoin and clindamycin: Combining the benefits of a retinoid with clindamycin, an antibiotic provides a dual-action approach to treating acne.
  • Tretinoin and hydroquinone: This combination is used for treating hyperpigmentation and melasma.
  • Tretinoin and corticosteroids: The combination of tretinoin and corticosteroids is used to address certain skin conditions, such as psoriasis or eczema.
  • Tretinoin, clindamycin, and benzoyl peroxide: This trio is used to treat moderate to severe acne. Tretinoin promotes cell turnover, unclogs pores, and reduces inflammation, while clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide fight acne-causing bacteria and reduce excess oil on the skin.

Adapalene vs. Tretinoin: What Are Their Differences?

While adapalene and tretinoin are both derivatives of vitamin A (commonly known as retinol) used in acne treatment and skincare products, they differ in a few important ways. 

Here’s a breakdown of the differences between adapalene vs. tretinoin in terms of strength, side effects, and price. 

Strength or Potency

First off, adapalene is less potent and slower to deliver desired results than tretinoin.

This means adapalene may be able to address skin concerns quickly. Its use is geared more toward calming skin irritation and inflammation and gradually treating mild to moderate acne. 

On the other hand, tretinoin offers a broader range of positive effects on the skin, including increasing collagen production and reducing the production of sebum.

Tretinoin also has a stronger effect on increasing cell turnover, which means it can more effectively shed dead skin cells and promote the growth of new skin cells. 

This enhanced potency leads to faster and more noticeable improvements in the skin compared to adapalene.

Side Effects

It’s true that tretinoin is more potent than adapalene. But because of its strength, it poses a higher risk of side effects, particularly on sensitive or easily irritated skin. 

On the other hand, adapalene is gentler on the skin, so it poses less risk of irritation. 


Another difference is the price. Tretinoin is more expensive than adapalene.

During its initial development, patents protected tretinoin, allowing the manufacturer to set higher prices to recoup research and development costs. 

Adapalene, on the other hand, was developed and introduced to the market later, which means it has fewer patent restrictions and lower production costs.

Ultimately, the choice between using adapalene and tretinoin depends on your individual needs. We highly recommend consulting with a healthcare professional or dermatologist first before choosing between the two.

Improve Acne, Wrinkles, Hyperpigmentation, and Other Skin Concerns With Adapalene and Tretinoin 

A woman with acne on her face.

Get ready to unlock the secrets of these skincare powerhouses and embark on a path to radiant, healthy, and revitalized skin.

In this section, we will delve into adapalene and tretinoin’s transformative effects on acne, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and a myriad of other skin concerns.

We’ll also discuss which one of them is more effective at addressing different issues. 

Adapalene vs. Tretinoin for Acne

Let’s start with tretinoin vs. adapalene for acne. 

Tretinoin and adapalene are both highly effective in treating acne. Multiple clinical studies have demonstrated the efficacy of both retinoids in reducing acne over time. 

A comparison study found that a 0.05% tretinoin gel had more potent anti-acne properties than a 0.1% adapalene gel. 

Also, tretinoin showed faster visible improvements in reductions of inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne lesions. 

Although adapalene took a back seat in delivering fast results, it definitely steals the spotlight in terms of being less likely to cause skin irritations. 

In the same study above, researchers stated that tretinoin exhibited a higher potential for skin irritation. 

Meanwhile, in a review of 0.3% adapalene gel, only 21% of users experienced common side effects. This led researchers to conclude that adapalene is safer to use for long-term treatments. 

While these studies highlight the effectiveness of both tretinoin and adapalene in treating acne, it’s important to note that individual responses vary.

Factors such as your skin type, acne severity, and consistency of use can influence outcomes.

VERDICT: All in all, tretinoin is considered slightly more potent in treating acne than adapalene. So if you’re dealing with a severe case of acne, tretinoin may be more suitable to your needs. 

However, it can cause skin irritation. So if you have skin that gets uncomfortable, itchy, and irritated easily, it’s best to choose adapalene instead.

Adapalene vs. Tretinoin for Signs of Aging

When it comes to fighting the signs of aging, tretinoin takes the cake. 

Various studies validate tretinoin’s efficacy in addressing photoaging. 

In a review of several studies and randomized clinical trials testing the effectiveness of retinoic acid in combating aging, researchers found that tretinoin is effective at treating photoaging. 

Also, tretinoin is known for stimulating collagen production, which improves the skin’s elasticity. 

As a matter of fact, a study showed that using topical tretinoin long-term resulted in an 80% increase in collagen, which helps get rid of fine lines and wrinkles. 

However, adapalene is not that far behind tretinoin; it’s shown similarly promising results in treating signs of aging as well.

A comparative study between 0.3% adapalene gel and 0.05% tretinoin cream showed that both retinoids were equally effective in the treatment of photoaged skin. 

Moreover in another study, both 0.03% and 0.1% concentrations of adapalene were revealed to be safe and effective in improving the appearance of dry, wrinkled skin. 

VERDICT: So when it comes to addressing photoaging and wrinkles, adapalene is considered a safer and gentler option for the treatment of mild or moderate photoaging. 

But for those who want to address more advanced signs of aging or boost their skin’s collagen production, tretinoin may be better. 

Adapalene vs. Tretinoin for Hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation, characterized by patches or areas of darkened skin, is a common skin concern that can arise due to various factors and shows up as melasma, freckles, and dark spots.

When it comes to addressing hyperpigmentation, both adapalene and tretinoin have demonstrated effectiveness, although they may differ in their approach.

Adapalene manages hyperpigmentation through its exfoliating properties. By promoting cell turnover, adapalene helps fade dark spots and even out skin tone.

But is adapalene better than tretinoin when it comes to treating hyperpigmentation? Research says no. 

In fact, tretinoin may even be more effective than adapalene for hyperpigmentation because it works by dispersing high concentrations of melanin from affected areas throughout the body. 

In a study where participants used tretinoin for 40 weeks, 40% experienced lightening of the dark spots caused by postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. 

In a separate study, 90% of the participants who used tretinoin over 40 weeks observed the lightening of dark spots caused by photoaging or sun damage. 

VERDICT: Because tretinoin works deep within the skin, intervening with melanin production, it is a better choice to use to address hyperpigmentation. 

Adapalene vs. Tretinoin for Acne Scars 

Scarring is an unfortunate outcome of acne. Atrophic or depressed scars are the most common type of acne scars. They are formed when the skin produces insufficient collagen as acne heals. 

Now a 2018 study showed that adapalene is effective at treating acne scars. Subjects in the study used a 0.3% adapalene gel once daily for the first four weeks, then used it twice daily for the succeeding 20 weeks.

By the 24th week, 50% of the participants saw an improvement in skin texture while 80%  reported reduced scar appearance. 

This study concluded that the daily use of 0.3% adapalene gel for treating atrophic acne scars showed clinical efficacy and improved quality of life. 

On the other hand, research on the local application of 0.05% tretinoin gel proved to be clinically effective in decreasing acne scars in 79% of the patients in three and a half months. 

The study also revealed improvements in pore size, skin moisture, and skin firmness and elasticity. 

VERDICT: In terms of addressing acne scars, both adapalene and tretinoin are effective. This one is a tie. 

What Are the Potential Side Effects of Using Adapalene or Tretinoin?

While adapalene and tretinoin are renowned for their ability to transform the skin, it’s important to be aware of the potential side effects that may accompany their use.

A woman examines dry skin and peeling on her face

You may experience the following when using either retinoid:

  • Dry skin 
  • Peeling
  • Redness
  • A burning sensation 
  • Itchiness
  • Increased sensitivity to the sun

Take note as well that when using tretinoin, you may experience what most call a “tretinoin purge,” which is a short period where your breakouts get worse after using tretinoin before it gets better.

This may last from a few weeks to a month. 

To manage this, it’s important to stay hydrated, apply moisturizer twice a day, and reduce tretinoin use if necessary. 

Precautions When Using Tretinoin and Adapalene 

When using tretinoin or adapalene, it is important to take certain precautions to ensure safe and effective use. Here are some safeguards to keep in mind:

  • Use sun protection. Using retinoids can increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Wearing sunscreen with SPF 50 or higher is crucial to prevent sunburn, further skin damage, and potential complications.
  • Avoid harsh or irritating products. To minimize skin irritation, it is advisable to avoid using harsh or irritating skincare products.

    Do not use tretinoin or adapalene combined with keratolytic agents such as glycolic acid and lotions with alpha hydroxy acids, sulfur, resorcinol, or salicylic acid.

    These can exacerbate dryness, redness, and peeling that may occur with retinoid use.
  • Use gradually. When starting with retinoids, introduce them gradually into your skincare routine. Start with a lower concentration and frequency of use, allowing your skin to adjust and minimize the potential for irritation.
  • Use as directed. Using more than the recommended amount or frequency of application may increase the risk of side effects.
  • Avoid the eye and lip area. Avoiding contact with the eyes, nostrils, mouth, and areas around the lips as these areas are more sensitive and prone to irritation.
  • Ask your physician if you are pregnant or lactating before use. This is vital because these retinoids may pose potential risks to the fetus or infant.
  • Do a patch test. Before applying tretinoin or adapalene to your face, perform a patch test to determine if you have any allergic reactions or excessive sensitivity to the medication.


When it comes to achieving clearer and healthier skin, adapalene and tretinoin are two popular names that often pop up in skincare conversations.

In this section, we’ll dive into the frequently asked questions about adapalene and tretinoin, unraveling the mysteries behind these powerful retinoids. 

Can I Use Adapalene and Tretinoin Together?

Using an adapalene product like the Differin Adapalene Gel and a tretinoin product together is generally not recommended without proper medical guidance.  

Combining them may increase the risk of skin irritation, dryness, and other adverse reactions.

Is Tretinoin Stronger Than Adapalene?

Yes, tretinoin is stronger than adapalene. It’s one of the reasons why it is available only with a prescription.

Is Switching From Adapalene to Tretinoin a Good Idea? 

If you want faster results when treating acne or addressing signs of aging and don’t mind the possibility of experiencing the tretinoin purge, then switching to tretinoin may be a viable option for you.

However, deciding to switch from adapalene to tretinoin should be first discussed with a physician or with your dermatologist, so you will have a better understanding of what to expect from using tretinoin.

Tretinoin vs. Adapalene: Choosing the Right Retinoid for Clearer, Smoother, and More Beautiful Skin

In the realm of skincare, the choice between adapalene vs. tretinoin — two popular topical retinoids — is a matter of understanding your skin’s unique needs and considering each option’s potential benefits and drawbacks.

Adapalene, with its gentle nature and well-tolerated profile, is favored by those with sensitive skin or individuals seeking a milder retinoid.

On the other hand, tretinoin, with its potent effects and proven track record, is preferred for those looking for more noticeable results in addressing acne, wrinkles, and other skin concerns.

Two beige colored plastic tubes as concept of hypoallergenic or eco friendly cosmetic product with cotton extract. Soft treatment. Cotton twigs on blue background.

We’ve discussed their mechanisms of action, medical applications, availability, efficacy, and potential side effects at length to help you make the right choice.

But ultimately, the decision to use adapalene vs. tretinoin should always be made in consultation with a healthcare professional who can assess your specific needs and guide you toward the most suitable option.

The good news is you can rest assured that whichever one you select can contribute to helping you achieve clearer, healthier skin.

Remember, consistency and patience are key when incorporating retinoids into your skincare routine.

With all the studies, precautions, and guidelines we’ve provided above, you can make an informed decision and embark on a journey toward the skin you desire and deserve.

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  • Stephanie Martin

    Stephanie Martin blends her beauty industry background with expertise in communications to lead in the fashion and beauty world. As a fashion and beauty editor, she is known for engaging and informative articles. Her lifelong passion for fashion, makeup, and hair shines through her work, earning her widespread respect among readers and clients. Stephanie's style, a mix of classic and contemporary, makes her a dynamic and influential figure in the industry, inspiring others with her knowledgeable and approachable insights.

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