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Adapalene vs Tretinoin- What’s better for you?

These terms can feel overwhelming when we have heard a lot about them & really wish to try but don’t really know much about them! Well, good that you are here, it shows you actually care about your delicate skin & don’t just use these active ingredients with half knowledge.

In the easiest way possible, let’s know everything about these fascinating & confusing terms, Adapalene and Tretinoin.

Adapalene Tretinoin
Can get over the counter Needs prescription
Majorly used to treat light to moderate acne Used to treat severe acne & all premature skin aging issues
Less effective than tretinoin highly effective
Less irritating on the skin compared to tretinoin Tretinoin can be irritating Cuz it’s very strong hence should be used carefully
Should be used at night Should be only used at night
Recommended Concentration- 0.1% 0.01-1%
Doesn’t show any data on treating photoaging Treats photoaging
 Adapalene vs Tretinoin

Let’s know these scientific terms in a non-overwhelming language here. So, to begin with, Adapalene and Tretinoin both are from the same family of Retinoid. Both are Topical Retinoids.

Retinoid is an umbrella name for all vitamin A ingredients you can find in the market. It is the head of the family with 7 children

Tretinoin & Adapalene family tree


Retinoid family tree

  1. Retinol
  2. Tretinoin/Retinoic acid/Retin-A
  3. Adapalene
  4. Tazarotene
  5. Retinyl Palmitate
  6. Retinal
  7. Isotretinoin

Know them quickly,

Hyperpigmentation cures stages from using tretinoin

Tretinoin before-after usage effects


Results with consistent usage of Retinoids


  1. The most popular kid of all. Retinol is mild and hence can be found over the counter. It is obviously superb for wrinkles, and pigmentation, increasing collagen production by going into the deep layers of the skin, eliminating dead dark cells & generating fresh ones for younger-looking skin.
  2. Recommended Percentage – 0.25-1%.
  3. If you’re a beginner, start with 0.25%, 3 times a week & gradually increase to 1%, every other night.

Tretinoin /Retinoic acid/Retin-A

  1. This is the gold standard topical Retinoid, a total bomb ingredient with the longest history of skin benefits. It is 20 times more effective than Retinol & is one of the best retinoids.
  2. It is used to treat severe acne vulgaris, aged & damaged skin with wrinkles & all sorts of lines on the face. It is also said to be amazing in treating melasma, acne lesions & hyperpigmentation.
  3. You only get it by prescription because it is very strong & needs to be used carefully.
  4. Only Retinoid which is FDA approved for photoaging
  5. Recommended Percentage – 0.01-0.1%


  1. It has solid data about treating acne. The exciting part is this amazing ingredient recently became available as an over-the-counter ingredient (under the brand name, Differin) making lives easy.
  2. This synthetic retinoid has been shown to be gentler than tretinoin. It also helps in clearing acne marks but not much data is available about adapalene treating premature aging issues or any photodamage.
  3. FYI: Don’t exceed the quantity more than a pea size.
  4. Recommended Percentage – 0.1%.


  1. Again, a beautiful derivative of Retinoid. Very effective for hyperpigmentation, acne, acne lesions, and white, and blackheads.
  2. It is also used to treat a skin disease called Psoriasis by slowing skin cell overgrowth & decreasing skin cell inflammation.
  3. Recommended Percentage – 0.1%

Retinyl Palmitate

  1. This stuff is pretty pointless according to the research & me. It is the weakest retinoid of all. Its Skin penetration ability is also questionable so no retinoid fighting power therefore a waste.
  2. Still Recommended Percentage – 1%


  1. Not the top effective retinoids because of their serious stability issues hence not even easy to find it in products.
  2. They just have slightly more efficacy than Retinol.
  3. Recommended Percentage – 0.1-1%


  1. It’s called Oral Retinoid. It’s also known by the name Accutane. It’s given for severe cystic acne.
  2. How does it work?  – it basically dries up acne by decreasing the size of sebaceous glands in the skin.
  3. Sebaceous glands produce sebum & oil which ultimately turn into Pimples by clogging pores.

How do you keep track of them all? I’ll break all these Retinoids simply into 3 classes for buying purposes: Prescription, Over counter & Cosmetic

Diagram of - 3 classes of Retinoids divided for shopping purposes


3 Classes of Retinoids- Over the counter, Prescription, and Cosmetic

Now, you know what & where to get the product from but wait!! First read all the rules, does & don’ts of these ingredients before just starting to apply them. Anything which has the potential to go deep into your skin layers & work from within needs to be incorporated & handled carefully.

Rules to apply Adapalene and Tretinoin

  • Always wear sunscreen when you’re out during the day. Using any of the Retinoids makes your skin highly photosensitive which means the skin is very sensitive to UV light.
  • Use them only at night.
  • Use a ‘sandwich method’ of applying Tretinoin. First, a layer of moisturizer then tretinoin, end with again a layer of moisturizer. This way you get all the tretinoin benefits but in a much safer way.
  • Do not mix Retinoids with any other ingredient except Niacinamide, Hyaluronic acid & Azelaic acid. They don’t gel up with most ingredients.
  • Do not use it very close to your eyes, mouth, or nose. (To be safer, Apply a layer of Vaseline around the mouth & eyes).
  • For sensitive skin types & beginners, always start with the lowest concentration.
  • Never exceed the quantity more than a pea size. Too much does more harm than good.
  • Don’t forget to use it on the neck as well.
  • Don’t apply it on damp skin. Pat the skin dry first.
  • Don’t forget to layer it with a non-comedogenic moisturizer.
  • Start with using it twice a week & then gradually increase it to every other night.
  • Try & avoid any other potential irritants like acids or chemical exfoliants when you’re beginning your Retinoid journey. This can minimize your excess flaking or chances of over-exfoliation.

 Who should not use Tretinoin and Adapalene?

  • If you’re trying for pregnancy, are pregnant, or breastfeeding. DO NOT use any of the Retinoids. Both Topical & Oral retinoids have multiple side effects on the developing embryo & fetus like a variety of birth defects. Miscarriages etc.
  • People with Rosacea and Eczema shouldn’t use them, it can increase skin irritation.

Few people have really good skin built-up & they don’t get much irritation with Retinoids. Although the number of such people is less, honestly. So, heads up! You might get irritations, mild burns or simply purging when you start using Tretinoin/Adapalene newly hence, you should know all the imp tips on your fingers to undo the backfires!

How to handle Adapalene and Tretinoin skin allergic reactions?

Over peeled skin of a woman in a picture from Exceeded usage of Tretinoin


Over-peeled skin from exceeded usage of Retinoids

  1. Take cold showers or ice your face (wrapped in a thin cloth). Avoid hot showers at any cost.
  2. Avoid using cleansers or moisturizers with fragrances.
  3. Use Thermal spring water to calm the skin (Try from La Roche Posay)
  4. Don’t use any exfoliating fancy gadgets to wash your face, simply hands.
  5. Give a lot of moisture & hydration to the skin for it to feel better. Apply moisturizers loaded with ceramides (Helps in skin barrier), Hyaluronic acid & Niacinamide.
  6. Now, seal the skin with a light layer of Vaseline. It locks in all the goodies we’ve given & let the skin heal faster.
  7. Stop using any other exfoliants, acids, AHAs, BHAs, peroxides, salicylic acid, or chemical peels until you are completely healed.
  8. Cica Balms, Shea butter, Glycerin & Aloe vera, are great soothing & calming agents for the skin.
  9. Product suggestion- Try Avene- Cicalfate + restorative protective cream
  10. Apply sunblock before stepping outside. Remember your skin is already in a vulnerable state. UV rays at this point can make it worse.
  11. All the reactions are temporary, so don’t freak out, your skin will be back to its original state & if you continue your retinoid journey correctly, your skin will be back to a much healthier state.

With these tips, you will be able to handle any irritation, mild burn, or your purge phase. Purge phase?  What is that?

What is Tretinoin/Adapalene Purge?

purge phase of a woman

purge phase of a woman

Tretinoin/Adapalene purge simply means, when you incorporate them in your skincare routine for the first time, your skin temporarily reacts to it by either breaking out, peeling, or drying. A range of black/white heads & red papules may also appear.

So, how does this purge make the skin better?

By the process of exfoliation & rapid skin cell turnover, it kicks out the impurities, excess sebum, dead skin cells & dirt to the surface of the skin making the skin clean from the inside & activating young skin cells. The purging phase should last for 4-6 weeks maximum & then your skin should start looking healthy!

How can you tell if your skin is purging & not having some allergic reaction to the product?

If your skin feels a sensation of ‘itching’ or ‘burning’, that’s probably an allergic reaction & not purging.

Does Tretinoin/Adapalene packaging & storage matter?

Picture of a Tube form to store Tretinoin/adapalene


Tube form

Quite a lot! Keep all your active ingredients away from sunlight Else they will go rancid & you will never know why your skin isn’t improving! Your bathroom cabinets work just fine and always buy the tube form packaging. It’s the best & the safest form for Retinoids.

When should you stop using Adapalene and Tretinoin?

When you get allergic reactions like,

  • A rash or hives
  • Blisters
  • Watery eyes
  • Burning sensation
  • Red itchy skin

Symptoms of the allergic reactions are temporary & are mostly not very severe, in extremely rare cases a person may experience anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction that requires emergency medical attention. Call 911

Now, even after applying Tretinoin or Adapalene correctly & consistently for a few weeks if it doesn’t suit you, it probably means your skin is very fragile and can’t take Retinoids at all. Try Bakuchiol (A vegan brother of Retinoid, gentle for even sensitive skin types)


Ideal skin of girls in a picture from consistent usage of tretinoin and adapalene


Your ideal skin is just underneath that purge phase

If you want to treat light acne, go for Adapalene. It’s also easy to find over the counter & is less irritating than Tretinoin.
If you have moderate to severe acne & are probably dealing with fine lines, wrinkles, pigmentation, or photodamage, go for Tretinoin. It has to be prescribed & must be used carefully but if you stick, the results are worth it.
Adapalene vs Tretinoin

Love ~ Beauty Stroll

By Aayushi S
By Aayushi S
Aayushi is a New York based freelance writer and a content strategist. She is a computer science graduate, a health and skincare fanatic and is also the founder of “Beauty Stroll “. She aims to make science-backed skincare easy to understand for her readers.

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