They’re two ingredients that are often recommended for acne-prone skin, but how do they compare? Is there much difference between adapalene vs benzoyl peroxide?
If you’re torn between the two ingredients, this article will help you decide which one is the better choice for your skin. As well as discussing whether you can use both adapalene and benzoyl peroxide together.
Adapalene (Differin) is a third-generation ‘retinoid’ – a catch-all-term for vitamin A derivatives including; retinyl esters, retinol, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tazarotene, tretinoin, etc. They’re key skincare ingredients in any anti-aging, anti-acne, or anti-pigmentation routine and work by increasing your cellular turnover rate (the rate your skin produces new cells and transports them to the surface of your skin).
A higher cellular turnover rate = brighter, fresher, younger looking skin
A low cellular turnover rate = clogged pores, acne breakouts, dull and rough complexion.
Your cellular turnover rate reduces as you age, may change with the seasons, and is lowered in certain skin conditions, like acne.
Although retinoids increase cellular turnover, they do not have an exfoliating effect on your skin (if you’re experiencing flaking/peeling it’s likely down to skin barrier damage and irritation).
Retinoids offer a wide-range of benefits for your skin (both related and unrelated to their ability to increase cellular turnover), including:
- Boosting collagen production
- Reducing sun damage
- Reducing hyperpigmentation (e.g. dark marks, age spots, etc)
- Increasing skin hydration (although they can initially decrease hydration by disrupting your skin barrier)
- Acting as an antioxidant to protect your skin from free radical damage
- Treating and preventing clogged pores
- Reducing the inflammation associated with acne and acne scarring
- Minimizing the appearance of enlarged pores
- Improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- Preventing the growth of bacteria on your skin
Compared to tretinoin, the original topical retinoid, adapalene is a lot less irritating, more stable, and is better able to penetrate the oil glands which makes it particularly suitable to treat acne.
Lower concentrations of adapalene gel are available over the counter in some countries, but higher concentrations usually require a prescription.
Benzoyl peroxide is an acne medication that can be found over-the-counter or by prescription. When you apply it to your skin, it breaks down into benzoyl radicals and benzoic acid.
Benzoyl radicals are a type of free radical that create oxygen in your skin. The bacteria that cause acne (c.acne) prefer an oxygen free environment (which is why they only really become an issue when your pores are clogged).
No oxygen = Increased c.acnes growth
By releasing free oxygen radicals in this way, benzoyl peroxide is able to kill the acne-causing bacteria in your skin.
Benzoic acid is thought to work in a similar way to salicylic acid and helps to exfoliate and unclog your pores.
Benzoyl peroxide may also target the inflammatory immune cells in your skin which prevents them from releasing the inflammatory molecules that can make acne look red and angry and sometimes feel painful.
Overall, benzoyl peroxide is:
- Oil controlling
However, it’s generally considered to be less effective at treating acne than retinoids and salicylic acid unless it’s combined with other ingredients.
Because it produces free radicals, benzoyl peroxide has been shown to deplete your skin levels of vitamin E, so using it alongside an antioxidant serum or moisturizer is recommended.
(Note that there is no evidence to suggest that the free radicals produced by benzoyl peroxide contribute to skin aging – there is also no evidence that they don’t but the anti-inflammatory effect of benzoyl peroxide may have anti-aging benefits)
Adapalene vs Benzoyl Peroxide
As you can see, there are a few similarities in the skin benefits offered by adapalene vs benzoyl peroxide but there are also a number of ways that they differ.
One example is how they treat acne. For example, benzoyl peroxide targets all four of the main causes of acne which are dead skin cell build-up, overproduction of oil, bacteria, and inflammation.
Adapalene increases cellular turnover and renewal which can help prevent dead skin cell build-up (although it’s not exfoliating) and reduces inflammation but there is limited research on its ability to reduce c.acne bacteria (although retinal can) and control oil production.
However, retinoids, like adapalene, are generally considered to be a more effective acne treatment than benzoyl peroxide, particularly when it comes to unclogging pores.
Adapalene would also be the better option if you’re looking to treat other skin concerns, like fine lines and wrinkles and/or hyperpigmentation, alongside acne as it has a much wider variety of skin benefits.
Can You Use Adapalene and Benzoyl Peroxide Together?
If you’re still not sure whether adapalene vs benzoyl peroxide is the best option for your skin, the good news is that you don’t necessarily have to choose between the two – they actually work better when paired together!
Usually, it’s advised to avoid layering retinoids with benzoyl peroxide as the oxygen created when benzoyl peroxide penetrates your skin can deactivate the retinoid (although see this article for the full scoop on that). However, adapalene is more stable than other retinoids and is not deactivated by light or oxygen.
(It’s even fine to use in the day, although I personally think it’s better used in the evening as your skin’s natural renewal process peaks overnight)
You can use the two in a multi-ingredient product, like Epiduo (usually requires a prescription) or you can layer benzoyl peroxide and adapalene together in separate products.
Research has demonstrated that benzoyl peroxide and adapalene are more effective at treating acne when combined together than either ingredient used alone.
The combination of benzoyl peroxide and adapalene has also been found to be effective at improving pitted acne scarring – although this was over 24 weeks which is a pretty long time to patiently wait for results.
How To Use Adapalene vs Benzoyl Peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide can be used 1-2x per day, although if you have sensitive skin you can use it less frequently. Adapalene can be used nightly, however, to begin with you may find that your skin is better able to tolerate adapalene if you build up slowly. This can reduce the risk of irritation and the severity of the ‘purging’ that can often be experienced when commencing retinoid treatment.
‘Purging’ refers to the acne flare-ups that are often experienced when starting a treatment that increases the rate of skin cell turnover. This can bring your usual break-outs to the surface of the skin faster which may make acne appear more severe. Purging can last from weeks to months but will eventually subside.
Both adapalene vs benzoyl peroxide can cause irritation and purging, however, the risk is higher when using the two ingredients together because both increase cellular renewal.
To reduce this risk, you can begin by building up tolerance to adapalene by using it once a week for one-to-two weeks, then increasing use to twice a week for one-to-two weeks, then three times a week, and so on. Continue this pattern until you are able to use adapalene every night without irritation.
It’s also better to introduce one ingredient at a time to allow your skin time to adjust and to make it easier to identify if either ingredient is not reacting well with your skin.
Summary – Adapalene vs Benzoyl Peroxide
They’re both effective acne ingredients but if you’re trying to decide whether to add adapalene vs benzoyl peroxide into your skincare routine, retinoids, like adapalene, are usually the better choice.
However, if your skin can handle it, the most effective option is to use both ingredients together – particularly if you can get them in a prescription product like EpiDuo (ask your dermatologist for advice).