If there were awards for skin-care ingredients, retinoids would definitely take home “Most Talked About.” The vitamin A derivative is the gold standard in anti-aging and acne prevention, and it’s beloved by facialists, dermatologists, and beauty aficionados alike. Retinoids work by speeding up cell turnover, reducing keratin debris buildup (aka clogged pores) and increasing collagen production, as well as decreasing discoloration. They’ve become the go-to for anyone hoping for baby-like skin for decades to come, and have been touted as a skin savior for acne. But on the flip side, retinoids are notorious for being irritating, which is why the most efficacious formulas are only available via your dermatologist. Well, except for adapalene.
The only over-the-counter retinoid, adapalene has been clinically proven to be just as effective as tretinoin—a popular prescription retinoid—but less irritating for your skin. According to board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD, adapalene can also reach higher concentrations in the skin, which helps it to work quickly. Plus, it’s cheap. A tube of Differin or Acne Free Adapalene 0.1% Gel will run you about $10, while tretinoin can cost upwards of $40 a pop without insurance.
Even though adapalene is less irritating than other retinoids, you should use it similarly. That means using it at night (retinoids make the skin more photosensitive) and introducing it slowly into your routine. “Start using adapalene every other night,” Dr. King recommends. “If the skin isn’t becoming irritated, then you should increase the frequency to every night.” To apply, use a tiny amount on clean skin before bedtime and follow up with a thick moisturizer to help with potential dryness.
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Once you introduce a retinoid into your routine, Dr. King recommends staying away from other exfoliators (such as AHAs and BHAs) to avoid irritating the skin. But that doesn’t mean you need to toss out your skin-care stash just yet. Other acne ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are fine to use, just not with adapalene. “I recommend using these products in the morning and using adapalene at night,” Dr. King shared, “If applied at the same time, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide can make adapalene less effective.”
It’s also important to use daily, broad spectrum SPF when adding any retinoid to your routine. Although you should be using SPF all the time (yes, all the time), it’s non-negotiable when using a retinoid — especially if it’s your first time. “Photosensitivity can occur when people first start using retinoids, so sun safety and protective measures are advised,” Dr. King cautions. That means avoiding direct sunlight if you can and slathering on a layer when you go outside. The reward for maintaining a solid adapalene/sunscreen routine, though, is nothing less than fresher, healthier skin. And who doesn’t want that?