Adapalene vs. Tretinoin [2018 Update] Which Acne Fighting Reinoid is Better

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Most of us can admit to dealing with acne at some point in our lives. Unfortunately, some people are forced to deal with it far more frequently than others. This can range from the regular appearance of small pimples to frequently suffering from severe breakouts. Retinoids are a class of medications primarily used to treat such breakouts.

Most retinoids work in a similar fashion. Their goal is to help regulate cell growth and turnover. This regulation reduces clogged pores and prevents acne breakouts. Retinoids can also greatly reduce inflammation, swelling, and discoloration. All of which are symptoms associated with acne. While retinoids work best to prevent future acne, they can be used to treat some of the symptoms of existing breakouts.

There are three different retinoids prescribed by doctors to treat acne. They are adapalene, tretinoin, and tazarotene. Tretinoin and adapalene are the most commonly prescribed of the three. Tretinoin is older and somewhat more effective than adapalene but leads to more severe skin irritation. Adapalene also happens to be the only retinoid for acne that can be purchased over-the-counter.

All retinoids are naturally a chemical component of vitamin A. They actually fill many significant roles within the human body. Aside from regulating cell growth, they also active genes that suppress tumors, improve vision and regulate bone tissue growth. But it’s only for that first role that they are used primarily in medications designed to treat acne.

Retinoids are divided into three generations. Tretinoin is from the first generation. Adapalene and tazarotene are both from the third generation.

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Tretinoin was patented more than 60 years ago in the late 1950’s. It wasn’t until 1962 that it was finally approved for use in medicine. It has since been added to the List of Essential Medicines that is maintained by the World Health Organization(WHO). The two primary uses of tretinoin are the topical treatment of acne and the treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia. The major difference is that it is taken as a pill for leukemia, but applied topically and in smaller amounts when treating acne.

Despite being an effective tool for fighting leukemia, the retinoid sees far more use with acne patients. What is most interesting is that the mechanism of action is not entirely understood. It is believed that one of the primary reasons it is so effective is that it prevents certain cells from sticking together, thus leading to fewer blackheads. It also causes those same cells to divide more quickly, which pushes out existing blackheads.

The retinoid is constantly being studied and tested for new uses. It is believed that it can be used to reduce the visibility of scarring and stretch mark. There are also new studies underway testing whether tretinoin could be used to reverse hair loss. For now, it remains a powerful acne treatment that is available only with a prescription.


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Adapalene is a newer, third generation retinoid. It was mostly discover4ed by Galderma Laboratories in France. In 1996, the FDA approved adapalene for the treatment of acne. There are three different preparations of the ingredient sold in America all by the same brand, Differin. Those preparations are a 0.1 percent cream, a 0.1 percent gel, and a 0.3 percent gel. There is also a gel version combined with benzoyl peroxide, another acne fighting chemical, but is sold by a different brand.

Adapalene gels, like Proactiv MD, are known to have a more stable chemical structure than tretinoin. For this reason, it can be applied with benzoyl peroxide without losing its efficiency. Tretinoin, on the other hand, cannot. That is one of the few major differences between the two retinoids.

Another major difference is that adapalene can inhibit differentiation of keratinocyte. This allows creams with adapalene to exhibit anti-inflammatory properties as well as exfoliating properties. In many ways, that makes adapalene a slightly better skin care product and is likely one of the reasons that it is quickly growing in popularity.

A third difference is that there have been no reported problems relating adapalene to pregnancy complications. Meanwhile, tretinoin is considered unsafe to use if you are pregnant. Adapalene still lacks a large number of studies on the subject so it’s still a good idea to speak with your doctor if you are pregnant and considering adapalene.

The final major difference between the two is the severity of skin irritation. Tretinoin is known for causing severe burning, itching, and even swelling of the skin. Using tretinoin to treat acne can be an overall unpleasant experience. Many people stop using it before it has had time to make a difference.

Adapalene can cause some of the same side effects, but they are milder. Less than 10 percent of patients reported experiencing uncomfortable side effects like burning or itching. And in most of those cases, the side effects would go away after four weeks. Most people are more willing to deal with the side effects of adapalene compared to tretinoin, thus causing it to rise in popularity.

Which One Can You Get Over-the-Counter (without a prescription)?

Perhaps the main reason that adapalene is rising to the top of the retinoid charts is that it’s now available over-the-counter. It’s the first and only retinoid for acne to be sold without a prescription. It is available in a 0.1 percent cream by the Differin brand. Now that more people have access to retinoids and the price is much lower than a prescription, undoubtedly it will become a lot more popular.

The rise in popularity means we’ll likely see multiple studies appearing over the next few decades. These studies will test the efficiency of adapalene and will help improve the medications that use it. The end result is that customers in the future will have access to even better acne treatments than we have now.

Final Thoughts

Until then, any acne treatment with adapalene is a great option. It’s easier to use than tretinoin and it’s gentle on the skin. And you don’t need to worry about being approved for a prescription if you want to try it for yourself.

Proactiv MD is our top-rated adapalene treatment, and they are currently offering some awesome deals to get you started! Follow this link for their latest discounts plus get a FREE gift when you sign up! 


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