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What’s the Difference Between Tretinoin and Adapalene?

Seeking a solution to your skincare woes? Acne, fine lines, and other signs of aging don’t stand a chance against retinoids like tretinoin and adapalene. Retinoids like tretinoin and adapalene work by boosting collagen, improving cell turnover, and exfoliating dead skin cells.

While they’re both powerful compounds in their own ways, they’re not the same. Learning the differences between them can help you know which would be best in your fight for clear, healthy skin.

What Is Adapalene?

Adapalene is a third-generation retinoid. This means it was designed by scientists to bind to specific receptors in the skin, which increases its effectiveness and lessens the chances of unwanted side effects. Generally, it’s used to treat acne, but it can also be effective against fine lines and wrinkles.

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How Does Adapalene Work?

Adapalene works by binding to two specific receptors in the skin: retinoic acid receptor gamma and retinoic receptor acid beta. Once adapalene penetrates the outer layer of the skin and attaches to these receptors, it stimulates a few changes in the skin, namely the shedding of dead skin cells and the production of new ones. This can help stop new acne from forming by preventing skin cells and sebum (your skin’s natural oil) from building up in your pores. It can even help to alleviate existing pimples by exfoliating skin and clearing out clogged pores.

What Conditions Can Adapalene Treat?

Because adapalene is specifically formulated to target the skin receptors that exfoliate the skin, it’s best at treating acne. Not only will it stop future pimples from forming, but it can also help existing pimples heal faster. 

Of course, adapalene also offers the benefits of other retinoids as well. It can help reduce visible signs of aging, even out your skin texture, and reduce hyperpigmentation. Adapalene is available in two strengths — an over-the-counter 0.1% cream or lotion and a prescription strength 0.3% gel.  

What Is Tretinoin?

Tretinoin, also known as retinoic acid, is a synthetic version of vitamin A and is significantly more potent than natural forms of vitamin A like retinol. In fact, it can be up to 20 times stronger than other retinoids — meaning you’ll get quite the punch of anti-aging power.

How Does Tretinoin Work?

Tretinoin is slightly less targeted than adapalene and works by binding to all three retinoic acid receptors in the skin. It makes keratinocytes — or skin cells — less “sticky,” and therefore less likely to cause acne comedones. Tretinoin also promotes faster skin cell turnover, can help to unclog pores, and can help increase penetration of other medications, link those used for acne and melasma. 

As if that wasn’t enough, tretinoin also improves blood flow to the skin by encouraging the development of new blood vessels.

What Conditions Is Tretinoin Approved to Treat?

Tretinoin is currently approved by the FDA for the treatment of acne vulgaris. This means it can help tackle blemishes like blackheads, pimples, and other inflamed bumps you get on your face and on your torso as well.

Another important FDA-approved use for tretinoin is treating photoaging. Photoaging is a type of skin damage you get after too much exposure to the sun. After years of too much UV, you might experience fine lines or wrinkles on your face, as well as a rougher skin texture and patches of hyperpigmentation. Tretinoin is one of the few medications that have FDA approval to treat these symptoms.

How Are Adapalene and Tretinoin Dosed and Given?

Both adapalene and tretinoin typically come in topical creams or gels. This means you apply them directly on your affected areas and allow your skin to absorb them. You’ll likely receive them in a tube similar to but smaller than a toothpaste.

Adapalene is usually offered in both 0.1% and 0.3% doses. You can get these doses as a gel, lotion, cream, or liquid solution without a prescription. Your dermatologist might recommend you start at this level to see if it’s effective against your acne. If it’s not, they might suggest you move to higher-strength medicine. The 0.3% dose only comes as a gel and requires a prescription from your doctor.

Tretinoin comes in many different formulations that let you tailor treatment to your needs, which is useful because it can be irritating to the skin, especially when you first start using it. All are prescription only. The most common formulations are 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1%, though you may be able to find it in incremental doses as well. Usually, the 0.025% can be prescribed as a cream or a gel, while the 0.05% and 0.1% come in a cream. 

For both treatments, you’ll usually apply them once a day, likely in the evening, after you wash your face. At first, your dermatologist might recommend using them every other day to give your skin a chance to adjust. After your skin has become accustomed to a particular strength of adapalene or tretinoin and if you are tolerating it well without irritation, your provider may recommend increasing the strength.

How Effective Are Adapalene and Tretinoin?

Both adapalene and tretinoin have been proven very effective for treating acne. One study which followed 150 patients with acne vulgaris found that over 70% of patients had a complete clearance or marked improvement of their acne symptoms after using 8 weeks of treatment with adapalene or tretinoin. 

Separate studies have proven tretinoin’s effectiveness at treating fine lines and wrinkles as well. One study followed 30 patients over 4 months of treatment. Overall, 14 out of 15 patients who received tretinoin had an improvement in their fine lines and wrinkles. Another study that followed people using tretinoin over six months noticed that the surface of their skin was smoother and less wrinkled compared to the control group.

A large study that looked at 1,979 patients proved adapalene’s effectiveness against inflammatory and noninflammatory acne lesions. The study followed participants over 12 weeks. Those who used 0.1% adapalene gel saw a significant reduction in lesions, better than other acne treatments they had tried.

What Are the Side Effects of Adapalene and Tretinoin?

Both adapalene and tretinoin do come with some side effects. Generally, adapalene is milder than tretinoin, which is why it’s often prescribed first. Both medications can cause dry, itchy, or red skin at the application site. You might also notice your skin starts to peel or feels like it’s burning.

Also, keep in mind that all retinoids can increase your sensitivity to the sun, which means you might burn easier. It should already be a part of your skincare routine, but make sure you’re using sunscreen to protect yourself.

Can Tretinoin and Adapalene Be Used Together?

It’s not advisable to use tretinoin and adapalene together. Because they’re both retinoids, they perform the same functions, so it’s not necessary to double up. The combination of both will likely cause a lot of irritation, and make your skin pretty uncomfortable.

Which One Is the Best Fit for My Skin?

Adapalene Is Better for Sensitive Skin

Tretinoin is pretty powerful stuff, so if you have sensitive skin, it can often cause a ton of irritation. That’s why many dermatologists recommend adapalene if you’re likely to react to tretinoin. Adapalene was designed to be more precise in the receptors that it targets with the intention of decreasing side effects. 

Either is a Good Option for Treating Acne

Both tretinoin and adapalene are effective options for treating acne. As mentioned before, there is a slightly smaller chance of irritation with adapalene, so it might be the better choice. if your skin has a history of being reactive

Either is Effective for Minimizing Signs of Aging

If you’re struggling with fine lines, wrinkles, and other irksome spots, both adapalene tretinoin can help you fight back. Studies have shown similar efficacy between adapalene 0.3% and tretinoin 0.05%. 

Whether you’re leaning toward adapalene or tretinoin for your acne or anti-aging needs, Nurx can help. We take the hassle out of seeing a dermatologist with totally virtual processes. A licensed provider can prescribe medications based on your specific needs and have them sent straight to your door — no pharmacy pickup required. Learn more about our skincare treatments now!


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