If you geek out on the SkincareAddiction subreddit, you’ve probably seen the topic of adapalene vs. tretinoin pop up a number of times. Both are derivatives of vitamin A known as topical retinoids. So there are, understandably, questions about which active ingredient is best for different skin concerns.
Adapalene (also known under the brand name Differin) and tretinoin (also known as retinoic acid) both fight acne, but tretinoin also treats premature skin aging. Use adapalene if acne is your main problem and you want to experience less irritation. But if you want to improve your skin’s tone, texture, and appearance, go with tretinoin.
Night Shift is a dermatologist-formulated tretinoin serum tailored to your skin type by doctors online. To ease the irritation that comes with starting a tretinoin treatment, your doctor may start you at a lower strength serum. As your skin gets used to it, you’ll ramp up to the concentration that’s ideal for your skin.
Adapalene vs tretinoin: What’s the difference?
The primary difference between adapalene and tretinoin is that adapalene has mostly been studied for treating acne, while tretinoin has also been proved through multiple studies to prevent and improve premature skin aging.
You will get an effective acne treatment with both adapalene and tretinoin but will probably see faster improvement with tretinoin. Everyone’s skin is different, so you might see different results. Keep listening to your skin, and talk to your derm about any concerns.
In clinical trials comparing adapalene and tretinoin, both ingredients have been equally effective at fighting acne. Patients find adapalene gel less irritating, but one study found more rapid acne improvement with tretinoin gel.
Both tretinoin and adapalene can be prescribed by your dermatologist, but low-strength adapalene can also be purchased over the counter (OTC). Even if you only need a low-strength product, we always recommend talking to your derm. By looking at your skin and talking to you about your goals, they can make sure you’re using the right product at the right strength for your skin. Plus, your doctor can consider these active ingredients alongside any other medications and supplements you use and offer advice if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, to make sure you’re using these ingredients safely.
Both can have temporary side effects, such as irritation, peeling, and purging as your skin gets used to your new skincare routine. So no matter which active ingredient you choose, ramp up slowly to decrease the intensity of these side effects.
The added benefits of tretinoin
While adapalene and tretinoin treat acne successfully, adapalene has not been studied enough for other potential skin benefits. If you want to go beyond acne treatment, tretinoin is FDA-approved for both acne and photoaging (aka skin damage due to sun exposure, which can lead to skin cancer). Tretinoin has been proved to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, minimize pores, make skin smoother, and improve pigmentation distribution.
Improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
By accelerating the production of collagen, tretinoin minimizes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Because the skin is 80% collagen, it’s worth having tretinoin in your skincare routine to maintain collagen health.
Collagen provides a flexible, supple support network to the skin. Collagen production in the skin drops by about 1% every year after the age of 20, which is what leads to wrinkles. In using tretinoin, one study found that collagen in the skin increased by up to 80%.
Tretinoin makes pores look smaller by clearing the oil, dirt, and dead skin cells that build up in enlarged pores. When you clear pore buildup and increase cell turnover with tretinoin, the pores become less visible.
To reduce buildup in the first place, also check your skincare and makeup products for comedogenic ingredients. These are pore-blocking ingredients that can cause blackheads and enlarged pores. Some common comedogenic ingredients include oils (like almond oil, coconut oil, and palm oil), beeswax, and alcohols (like cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol), among dozens more.
Make skin smoother
Tretinoin makes skin smoother by reducing the layer of dead skin cells — the same thing you get from exfoliation — and increasing glycosaminoglycans (GAGs).
GAGs attract water molecules, keeping connective tissue hydrated. They play a key role in skin-cell health, preventing dry skin and making it firmer and more elastic, so it looks and feels smoother.
Lighten dark spots
Melanin is a natural pigment that determines your skin, hair, and eye color. When melanin isn’t dispersed evenly, it leads to hyperpigmentation, or uneven skin tone. It shows up as melasma, freckles, and dark spots. Hyperpigmentation can happen with sun exposure, age, skin injuries, hormonal changes, disease, and medications.
Tretinoin disperses melanin granules, making skin pigmentation more even. By using tretinoin for 40 weeks, Black patients experienced a 40% lightening of dark spots due to postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. In a separate study, tretinoin lightened photoaging dark spots for 90% of Chinese and Japanese patients.
Which one should I use?
If acne is your only concern, adapalene can improve your acne with less irritation. If you want to go beyond fighting acne and improve skin texture, tone, and appearance, tretinoin is your best bet. Tretinoin is the only FDA-approved retinoid to prevent and treat photoaging.
While you can get low-strength adapalene OTC, it can be hard to figure out the right formulation for your skin and how to integrate it into your routine alongside your other products, supplements, medications, and other factors. So we recommend talking to your derm to get the right concentration for your skin.
Sensitivity to adapalene and tretinoin can be minimized by listening to your skin, reducing frequency if needed to let your skin adapt, using a good moisturizer, and applying sunscreen lotion with an SPF of 30 or higher.
Remember: Results take time. It can take weeks to months to reach your skin goals, but most people start seeing a difference with either product at four to six weeks. Everyone’s skin is unique, and individual results may vary, so keep checking in with your derm on how it’s going so they can adjust your treatment plan as needed.
Get derm-grade tretinoin delivered with Night Shift.
The most effective retinoid can’t be store-bought. Tretinoin is the only FDA-approved retinoid for photoaging and has over 50 years of research to prove its long-term safety and efficacy. Night Shift is a dermatology-grade, tailored tretinoin serum that comes with an online doctor’s consultation. It’s easier than ever to get healthy, glowy skin.
Here’s how it works: Share your skin story online. A derm provider will evaluate your skin profile and write a prescription for the right concentration of tretinoin for your skin, if applicable. Your customized retinoid serum will be delivered by mail. With Dear Brightly, you get the convenience of a doctor’s consult online without the cost of an in-person consult.
Sensitive skin? Retinoid newbie? Your provider may start you on a starter strength to ease you onto tretinoin. This will give your skin a chance to adapt to the increase in skin-cell production and minimize irritation.
Night Shift is formulated with hyaluronic acid to draw in moisture and reduce the temporary dryness and irritation that can occur when you start to use tretinoin. It’s cruelty-free, paraben-free, and fragrance-free, so you can feel good about using it.