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Difference Between Differin and Retin-A

Differin is an ointment that contains adapalene and is used for treating acne. Retin-A is a substance that has tretinoin in, which is also used to treat acne.


What is Differin?


Differin is the brand name of a topical ointment containing the chemical adapalene and is used by people to treat skin conditions such as acne.


The active ingredient in Differin is 0.3% adapalene, which is a type of retinoid with molecular formula C28H28O3 and molecular mass of 412.52 grams per mol.

Mechanism of action:

Differin works because of the presence of the adapalene. This substance actually attaches to particular retinoic acid receptors present on the membrane of the nucleus inside the cell. This substance helps control how cells develop and also impacts inflammation and the deposition of keratin in the skin. Exactly how these processes help in treating acne is not known at this time.


The gel is mainly used to treat the skin condition acne vulgaris in people who are older than age 12. The treatment is only for external use and the gel should be applied over the parts of the body where there is acne; this should be done once a day and at night-time.

Side effects:

There are potential side effects and some patients have reported experiencing itchy skin after using Differin. Other possible side effects include dry skin, sunburn, and a rash. This medication does dry out the skin and should thus not be used combined with certain other ointments such as those containing salicylic acid or sulfur. Studies have shown, though, that Differin can be safely used with certain other anti-acne medications such as those that contain benzoyl peroxide.


What is Retin-A?


Retin-A is a gel or liquid substance containing tretinoin and it is used to treat the condition acne vulgaris.


The active ingredient that is present in Retin-A is tretinoin which has the molecular mass of 300.4 grams per mol. and the molecular formula of ‎C20H28O2.

Mechanism of action:

The substance tretinoin is known to help stop epithelial cells of the skin from sticking together, which helps prevent clogging of the pores that usually leads to plugs forming. The tretinoin also increases mitosis which is expected to aid in the extrusion of clogged skin pores. This again would assist in clearing the skin of acne.


The cream or liquid is used to treat acne and it is placed on the skin over areas where the acne occurs. Treatment should also be done at night before going to bed. The strength of the medication in cream form is from 0.025% to 0.05% and 0.1%. As a liquid, Retin-A is available in 0.05% strength and as a gel at 0.025% and 0.01%; it is also important to use the cream, gel or liquid exactly as specified since using too much may increase the risk of side effects. Retin-A has also been found to be helpful when used to treat skin that has been damaged by the sun.

Side effects:

One of the side effects that has been recorded with Retin-A is sensitivity to sunlight, meaning that you are more likely to get sunburnt if you are using Retin-A.  Another side effect is that the skin can become irritated and show redness or blistering.


Difference between Differin and Retin-A?


Differin is a topical ointment that has adapalene and is used to treat acne. Retin-A is a liquid or topical ointment that has tretinoin and is used to treat acne.

Form it is available in

You can buy Differin in gel form. You can buy Retin-A in cream, gel or liquid form.

Molecular formula of active ingredient

The active ingredient of Differin has the molecular formula of C28H28O3. The active ingredient of Retin-A has the molecular formula of C20H28O2.

Molecular mass of active ingredient

The molecular mass of the adapalene in Differin is 412.52 grams per mol. The molecular mass of tretinoin in Retin-A is 300.4 grams per mol.

Mechanism of action

Adapalene in Differin not only controls cell development, but also has an impact on keratin formation and inflammation. Tretinoin in Retin-A stops the cells from sticking together and increases the mitotic cell division of the cells of the skin.

Side effects

Developing an itchy, dry skin, rash, and sunburn are all possible side effects of taking Differin. Developing an irritated, blistered, red skin, or sunburn are all side effects of taking Retin-A.

Table comparing Differin and Retin-A


Summary of Differin Vs. Retin-A

  • Both Differin and Retin-A are classified as types of retinoids, derived from vitamin A.
  • Both Differin and Retin-A can be used to treat acne vulgaris.
  • Differin and Retin-A can both make the skin sensitive to sunlight so care should be taken when using these products.
  • Differin contains adapalene and is available as a gel.
  • Retin-A contains tretinoin and is available as a gel, cream or liquid at various concentrations.
  • Both Retin-A and Differin have possible side effects when taken, thus care should be taken to use the substances exactly as directed to try to prevent these side effects.

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References :

[0]Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adapalene_Gel_(Differin)_in_China.jpg

[1]Image credit: https://live.staticflickr.com/22/28338669_6c0cae7caa_b.jpg

[2]Caron, Daniele, et al. "Skin tolerance of adapalene 0.1% gel in combination with other topical antiacne treatments." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 36.6 (1997): S113-S115.

[3]Kligman, Albert M. "Guidelines for the use of topical tretinoin (Retin-A) for photoaged skin." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 21.3 (1989): 650-654.

[4]WebMD. "Differin gel ". WebMD, 2019, https://www.webmd.com/drugs/2/drug-6445/differin-topical/details

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