If you’re looking to treat acne, hyperpigmentation, or the signs of aging, then retinoids are your best friend. However, there are multiple types of retinoid to choose from – some are available over the counter (OTC), while others require a prescription.
So how do you know which retinoid is best for your skin type? What’s the difference between adapalene vs tretinoin vs other retinoids?
Here’s everything you need to know about adapalene vs tretinoin and whether either would be a good option for you and your skin…
What Are Retinoids?
‘Retinoid’ is 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
What’s The Difference Between Adapalene vs Tretinoin?
In order for retinoids to have any effect on your skin, they need to convert into their active form of retinoic acid. Unlike retinyl esters, retinol, and retinal, which have to go through a few conversion steps to get there, adapalene and tretinoin are already in this active metabolic state.
Tretinoin has been around a lot longer than adapalene and was first approved for use in the early 60’s. It’s a first generation retinoid, while adapalene is a third generation retinoid.
There are four generations of retinoid in total:
First Generation: retinol, retinal, tretinoin, isotretinoin (accutane), and alitretinoin
Second Generation: etretinate and acitretin
Third Generation: adapalene, bexarotene, and tazarotene
Fourth Generation: trifarotene
Adapalene wasn’t approved as an acne treatment until the mid 90’s which means that there’s an extra 30 years of research behind tretinoin vs adapalene.
Another difference between adapalene vs tretinoin is the receptors in your skin that they bind to.
Once retinoic acid enters your skin, it has to bind to certain receptors and activate them which triggers the activation of specific genes and results in a specific biological response (e.g. cellular differentiation)
There are two main types of retinoic acid receptors, both with 3 subtypes (alpha, beta, gamma):
- Retinoic Acid Receptors (RARɑ) (RAR𝛃) (RAR𝞬) – 16% of overall retinoid receptors, of which, 90% are RAR𝞬
- Retinoid X Receptors (RXRɑ) (RXR𝛃) (RXR𝞬) – 84% of overall retinoid receptors, of which, 90% are RXRɑ
Tretinoin binds to all six receptors, while adapalene binds to only RAR𝛃 and RAR𝞬 – the latter of which regulates how skin cells in your hair follicles (pores) function.
As one of the main causes of acne is a build up of dead skin cells in your pores, adapalene appears to have an ability to selectively target acne. Plus, its receptor selectivity also makes it less likely to cause skin irritation.
Overall, adapalene is often considered to be less effective than tretinoin. However, multiple studies have found that, when it comes to treating acne, 0.1% adapalene is as effective as 0.025% and 0.1% tretinoin but causes less irritation.
It’s also oil-soluble which means that it’s easier for adapalene to penetrate your pores.
Research has suggested that skin aging is associated with increased RARɑ expression which regulates the enzymes that break down collagen.
By binding with these receptors, tretinoin can normalise their activity and prevent the breakdown of collagen.
As adapalene doesn’t bind with the RARɑ, it’s unlikely to be as effective as tretinoin when it comes to treating aging skin.
Tretinoin, on the other hand, has a lot of research to back up its anti-aging effects.
So, if you’re looking to treat acne, adapalene is probably your best bet, but if you’re looking to treat pigmentation and/or the signs of aging then tretinoin would be more effective.
Adapalene is not affected by light or air which makes it more stable than tretinoin. This means that you can use it during the day without its effectiveness being reduced.
It also means that you can use it alongside benzoyl peroxide (an ingredient that causes the production of oxygen and can prevent some retinoids from working).
How To Use Adapalene vs Tretinoin
As adapalene and tretinoin are both prescription drugs, you should always follow the advice of your prescriber on how best to use them but here are a few tips for getting started with adapalene vs tretinoin.
1. Start slow
If you’re new to retinoids then you should always introduce them slowly and allow your skin to build tolerance. For example, using them 1x week for two weeks, then 2x week for 2 weeks, and gradually building up until your skin can tolerate it daily.
(Note: some people’s skin may not be able to handle tretinoin daily but research suggests that you can still achieve excellent results using it 1-3x per week).
2. Use at night
Although adapalene is fine to use during the day, there may be more benefit using it at night. That’s because your cellular turnover rate is higher, and most cell renewal happens overnight.
Tretinoin is also better suited to nighttime use but, if you wanted to, you could use it during the day under sunscreen.
3. Use Plenty of Moisturizer
When using retinoids, moisturizer is your best friend! Tretinoin and, to a lesser extent, adapalene are well-known for causing skin irritation and barrier damage.
When the lipids that hold your skin cells together become depleted, your skin barrier is weakened, which means that water can escape and irritants can enter.
Replacing these lipids by using moisturizers that contain barrier-identical lipids or ingredients that increase lipid production (e.g. niacinamide) can help keep your skin barrier strong and prevent retinoid irritation.
Looking for a moisturizer to use with your retinoid? Check out The Best Moisturizers To Use With Tretinoin (Retin-A).
Buffering is a common tactic used to prevent retinoid-induced irritation and involves applying the retinoid after your moisturizer. This way, the retinoid takes longer to penetrate your skin which reduces the risk of irritation.
You can also use the ‘sandwich’ technique where you apply moisturizer before AND after your retinoid – this may be particularly beneficial to anyone starting tretinoin.
5. Wear sunscreen
Daily sunscreen use is the most important part of any skincare routine. In fact, you’re wasting your time if you’re using a retinoid without wearing sunscreen everyday.
Plus, you’re probably causing even more damage to your skin as retinoids make your skin more sensitive to sun damage (the number one cause of skin aging).
6. Skip the exfoliation for a while
Chemical exfoliants, like glycolic acid, work in synergy with retinoids to increase cellular turnover.
Retinoids encourage the production of new skin cells and increase the rate they reach the surface of your skin while chemical exfoliants help you shed those cells from the surface of your skin.
While this means that you can get better results using both together, it’s almost guaranteed to cause skin irritation and barrier damage, at least when you’re first starting out.
Whether you’re using retinol vs tretinoin, you should skip the exfoliants for at least the first month of retinoid use.
Once your skin has adjusted to your retinoid you could consider reintroducing an exfoliant 1x per week to start and, if tolerated, increase use up to an absolute maximum of 3x per week.
7. Use alongside niacinamide
Research suggests that, not only does niacinamide help reduce retinoid-induced irritation, it can also enhance your results.
To get the most out of this skincare combination, use niacinamide for a month prior to starting retinoids. Research suggests that this helps strengthen your skin barrier so that you experience less irritation when commencing retinoid use.
Please note that the majority of research, including these studies use niacinamide at a maximum concentration of 5%. Many niacinamide serums contain 10% which may increase your risk of irritation.
Summary – Adapalene vs Tretinoin
If you’re wondering whether adapalene vs tretinoin is a better choice of retinoid for your skin, the first question you need to ask yourself is what skin concerns you are trying to treat.
If you’re looking to treat acne, then adapalene is the better option as it binds to specific receptors that give it an advantage when treating acne. Plus, because it’s less likely to cause irritation, you’re more likely to continue using it.
However, if you’re looking to treat fine lines, wrinkles, or pigmentation, then tretinoin is the gold-standard.
Whichever retinoid you choose, it’s very important that you’re wearing sunscreen everyday. All retinoids increase your skin’s susceptibility to sun damage and, without sunscreen, you will be doing more harm than good.
Laura is a skincare addict and sunscreen enthusiast with more than 10 years of experience working in healthcare and over 5 years of experience working as a nurse. She has experience in plastic and reconstructive surgery, dermatology, and aesthetics and has received training in laser treatments. Laura is currently working in healthcare education and writes for ScienceBecomesHer in her spare time. Read More.