Dermatologists On The Key Differences Between Adapalene & Retinol

Here's how the two stack up.

Dermatologists on the key differences between adapalene and retinol.
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Retinol is a household name skin care super-ingredient. Its benefits range from fading dark spots to improving skin cell turnover (and so much more). Adapalene, however, is its lesser-known cousin that you will probably see popping up more often in skin care aisles. Both products are in the retinoids family so it can get confusing to choose between the two, so experts are sharing everything you need to know about adapalene versus retinol.

Before getting into the differences, there are a few key things to understand about the two ingredients’ relation to each other. “Both adapelene and retinol are topical retinoids, which are derived from vitamin A,” says Dr. Brooke Jeffy, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at skin care destination Pore House. “All retinoids increase cell turnover, leading to an increase in the thickness of the epidermis and improvement in age-related texture changes and brown spots.” The ingredients are also known for their collagen and elastin stimulating properties, which help with aging and wrinkles.

There are misconceptions about the various retinoids that exist because the terms “retinol” and “retinoid” are often used interchangeably, according to Dr. Rachel Maiman, MD, a cosmetic and board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical. Retinols are a less potent type of retinoid — the ingredient found in over-the-counter products, whereas retinoids are prescription medications, she explains. Adapalene and retinol are both retinoids, but adapalene is not a retinol. And adapalene — at 0.1% — is the only over-the-counter retinoid you can buy. Read on for the key differences and how to choose between the two ingredients for your skin care routine.

The Benefits Of Using Adapalene Vs. Retinol

They target different skin concerns: Adapalene is more known for use in acne therapy than as an anti-aging treatment. It improves breakouts by regulating cell turnover in the follicles so they don’t get clogged with dead skin cells — which is the first step in the formation of a new acne lesion. Retinol may help with breakouts as well, but it’s more science-backed for its fine line-smoothing powers.

Basically, adapalene packs three skin-boosting punches. It stops “an inflammatory cascade” that’s triggered by clogged follicles, says Maiman. “Adapalene has potent anti-inflammatory effects independent of its activity on cellular turnover,” she tells Bustle — hence its breakout-reducing benefit. It also “speeds up how fast the outer layer of keratinocytes [skin cells] turns over, or exfoliates naturally.” And, by increasing your cell turnover and removing buildup within your pores, other products within your routine penetrate your skin more effectively, she explains.

Retinol, on the other hand, aids in fighting acne, but “is much more studied for its anti-aging benefits,” says Jeffy. “[Retinol] directly stimulates the production of new collagen and elastin, which thickens the skin and results in less noticeable fine lines and wrinkles over time,” adds Maiman.

One causes less irritation: Within the spectrum of vitamin A derivatives, adapalene is less potent than both retinol and prescription-strength retinoids, says Maiman. “Adapalene is overall considered to be the least effective topical retinoid relative to others on the market, but is also the best tolerated,” she tells Bustle. Retinol, because of its potency, can be more irritating. This is commonly known as “retinization,” which refers to the dry and peeling effects some experience when introducing the ingredient into their routine. In the worst-case scenario, even retinol “burns” can occur. Adapalene, however? Derms say it’s not known to have these retinization effects.

One is more stable: Not only is adapalene more gentle on the skin, but it’s also more chemically stable — which affects where it fits into your regimen. “It can be applied to the skin in the morning, versus retinol, which should generally be applied at night,” says Jeffy. That’s because retinol can break down when in the presence of UV light, says Maiman, which is less of a concern with adapalene. “Retinol is more susceptible to oxidation than most other materials,” adds Maiman, so when exposed to air it can become less effective. “To reduce this risk, pay attention to packaging and stick with retinol products that are contained in opaque containers and have a tight seal to avoid excessive oxygen entry,” she advises. Because adapalene is more chemically stable, this only applies to retinol.

Their usage with other ingredients differs: Adapalene’s stability also means that it plays well with other topical medications for acne, like benzoyl peroxide and chemical exfoliants, says Maiman. That differs from retinol, which can cause irritation when used with other active ingredients (like the two mentioned), she explains.

How To Choose Between Adapalene and Retinol

The TL;DR? “Reach for adapalene if acne is your primary concern and retinol for more of the anti-aging benefits,” says Jeffy. While they are both technically retinoids and have overlapping benefits, each one is targeted towards different goals. Regardless of which you end up using, you’ll reap the perks of a more even glow.

Studies referenced:

Kedishvili, N. (2016). Retinoic acid synthesis and degradation. Subcell Biochem.

Lucky, A. (2001). Efficacy And Tolerance Of Adapalene Cream 0.1% Compared With Its Cream Vehicle For The Treatment Of Acne Vulgaris. Cutis.

Piskin, S. (2007). A Review Of The Use Of Adapalene For The Treatment Of Acne Vulgaris. Therapeutics And Clinical Risk Management.

Rusu, A. (2020). Recent Advances Regarding the Therapeutic Potential of Adapalene. Pharmaceuticals.

Siddharth, M. (2006). Retinoids In The Treatment Of Skin Aging: An Overview Of Clinical Efficacy And Safety. Clinical Interventions In Aging.

Thielitz, A. (2007). Control Of Microcomedone Formation Throughout A Maintenance Treatment With Adapalene Gel, 0.1%. Journal Of The European Academy of Dermatology And Venereology.

Tolaymat, L. (2020). Adapalene. StatPearls.


Dr. Brooke Jeffy, board-certified dermatologist at Pore House

Dr. Rachel Maiman, cosmetic and general board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical