Adapalene vs Tretinoin: What Is The Difference?

What are adapalene and tretinoin?

Adapalene and tretinoin are two different forms of vitamin A or “retinoids.” Both adapalene and tretinoin are known as the gold standard in dermatology. Retinoids bind to receptors in the skin, and they speed up cellular turnover. As a result, the bottom layers of your skin become thicker, and the old skin cells on your skin’s surface shed more quickly.

Because of this effect, they are known for treating acne and acne scars, fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. However, there is an important difference between the two. So, let's talk about the science behind these two different ingredients, how they work for your skin, and which one might be right for you.

To begin with, what is tretinoin?

Tretinoin is an ingredient originally used to treat acne, but researchers noticed how the ingredient also worked for fine lines, aging, wrinkles, dark spots, pigmentation, and yes, even rosacea!

Tretinoin is part of the vitamin A family, and did you know that Vitamin A is naturally made by our bodies? It’s primarily made in the retina of the eye. And as an ingredient in skincare, it’s super potent because it’s bioavailable, meaning the skin absorbs it quickly. The skin does not have to convert the ingredient into something else to absorb it properly. Tretinoin is actually so potent that it can cause stinging, flaking, peeling, redness, and irritation.

This is called retinization, and for this reason, most people build up or “titrate” how much they use when they’re first prescribed tretinoin. They may start by using it once a week and build up to decrease retinization. Another way to decrease retinization is to use it with a moisturizer or an occlusive barrier. First, you apply a moisturizer, then apply a pea-sized amount of tretinoin, and then another layer of moisturizer. This way, the tretinoin is diluted, and it doesn’t directly touch the skin either. 

What is adapalene?

Adapalene is a little different. It’s basically a cousin molecule to tretinoin, and it’s much more gentle. 

How is adapalene different from tretinoin?

Adapalene is a synthetic vitamin A molecule, and it was created to lessen retinization. Adapalene combines better with other acne-fighting ingredients such as antibiotics and benzoyl peroxide, and it’s not as sensitive to light. If you wear tretinoin outside, it’s going to degrade so it’s best used at night. On the other hand, adapalene doesn’t get degraded by light. You can wear it throughout the day with SPF. 

Moreover, adapalene is much gentler on the skin, and normally, it doesn’t cause as much redness, peeling, and tretinoin. It can still cause redness, irritation, and still bother some people. So, you should still titrate or build up with adapalene.

For Cassandra, tretinoin made her skin very red, and it was very drying. Adapalene took longer to work on Cassandra’s skin. It was effective, but it was more gentle, and she could use it during the day.

What can you combine adapalene gel with? 

When adapalene was created, it was known as Differin. It was a prescription, but there was also Epiduo which combines adapalene with benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide is also amazing for acne, but before combining it with adapalene, speak with a physician.

When it comes to pure tretinoin though, benzoyl peroxide and tretinoin don’t really mix well. The two together would cause a lot of irritation, and they could render each other ineffective since tretinoin is so unstable. 

What is the difference between tretinoin and adapalene?

Tretinoin is a very powerful ingredient for both acne and fine lines whereas adapalene has only been tested in the realm of acne. Some research proposes that adapalene works for wrinkles and fine lines. But, in general, adapalene is more gentle and acne-focused. However, both ingredients can be difficult to work into a skincare routine at first so you should always speak to a dermatologist to help build your skincare routine.  

You can get a custom blended prescription from Dermatica.

Dermatica custom blended formulas

Cassandra uses a custom-blended formula for acne from Dermatica, and she’s been recommending it for 2-3 plus years. With Dermatica, you receive a 28-day supply of skincare every month. Dermatica has many prescription ingredients that you can ask online physicians about,. Even when it comes to OTC ingredients, Dermatica takes a lot of the guesswork out.

Here are some OTC vitamin A or “retinoid” options as well. 

Acne Free Adapalene Gel - $9.99 


This is a cruelty-free version of Differin. Cassandra normally gets this on Amazon, but you can get this at some pharmacies such as CVS.

If you’re looking to go simple, The Ordinary has a retinol in squalane formula. Retinol is the most basic retinoid you can get. You don’t need a prescription because it’s not that potent. 

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane

So, which one is right for you?

If you have acne and more sensitive skin, adapalene might be a good option. If you want to wear vitamin A during the day, adapalene is the better choice. Adapalene isn’t as photosensitive, meaning it’s not as light-sensitive. If you want the most gentle version of a retinoid and one that you can fit into a skincare routine with greater ease, an OTC retinol might be a good choice. 

Who is right for tretinoin?

If you have resilient skin, you’re not afraid of retinization, and you want something powerful, this might be right for you. If you’re dealing with fine lines, wrinkles, deep acne, scars, pigmentation, or rosacea, tretinoin can be helpful too.

Before using either of these though, you should see a dermatologist. So, you can have a better understanding of what your skin needs and what it’s going through. For example, rosacea, especially if it’s pustular, can look like acne.

So, you need to get a diagnosis to make sure that you’re treating the right condition. And since  Dermatica is a compound pharmacy, they can match you with their dermatology care providers. Once again, even with getting OTC products, it’s important to visit with a doctor to know what you’re looking for.

It's also important to make sure you’re using SPF with a retinoid. Retinoids do not thin the skin, but they expose a new layer of skin. So, you want to make sure those new skin cells are protected from the sun.

Visit Dermatica or a doctor’s office to find out how to incorporate these things into your skincare routine. As for OTC products, remember what works for you may not be the same as someone else.