Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/29/2021
When you have serious acne lesions, you may feel a pull to overpower your pimples. We get that instinct: Blasting away your blemishes sounds satisfying, and no one medication has the effect of (gently!) blasting away at your skin like a retinoid.
Retinoids essentially work to clear a layer off your skin. It’s like a house reno, and you’re pulling up the carpet to reveal those beautiful hardwood floors (or new skin cells, if you will).
Unfortunately, that’s not how acne works. Acne is a bacterial infection within your pores caused by a combination of factors including dry and dead skin cells, the oil your body secretes to remove them and the bacteria that then flourishes in all that excess of oil and dead skin cells.
There’s more to it than that — and you can learn more about the mild and severe versions of acne in this guide to acne types.
So where do adapalene and tretinoin fit in? They’re both a type of retinoid.
Retinoids are synthetic compounds possessing the active ingredient vitamin-A and depending on your sources, they’re seemingly equal in effectiveness.
And yet, they’re not the same. Both compounds are retinoids, but because of how they’re formulated, they offer different risks and benefits.
Which one belongs in your skin care routine? Let’s take a look at each to help you find what’s best.
So what is tretinoin? Put simply, it’s a prescription strength retinoid.
While there’s some debate on whether or not everyone needs that level of strength (a healthcare professional will help you make that determination for your skin) there is plenty of evidence to show that tretinoin is effective.
Tretinoin is a chemical exfoliant. It’s helpful to understand that all retinoids (including adapalene) are capable of doing two things:
First, they can help remove dull skin cells and dead skin cell layers (which contribute to your acne problems and can also contribute to the appearance of wrinkles).
Second, retinoids can stimulate your skin’s production of new cellular growth.
This results in two benefits: The layer of older, dead skin cells is removed, and your younger skin underneath gets a growth boost.
That’s important because, when it comes to acne (like cystic acne), retinoids assist your struggling pores in shedding those dried out cells — and in the process, retinoids can help boost skin cell turnover. Tretinoin can also help with acne scar reduction.
Finally, tretinoin (unlike other retinoids) can actually boost your skin’s collagen production and help with anti-aging prevention.
We don’t fully understand the mechanics of it, but studies have shown this benefit with tretinoin usage, separate from other retinoids, including adapalene.
Side effects of retinoids can include a variety of irritation-related issues, and tretinoin is no different.
You may experience skin dryness and burning sensations, and you also might see peeling and photosensitivity when you begin using a prescription retinoid.
In higher concentrations of tretinoin, side effects can be more severe, too.
Adapalene is a retinoid. Retinoids are a type of vitamin-A compound frequently used in skin care products for a variety of purposes such as smoothing out an uneven skin tone and reducing pigmentation and dark spots.
Retinoids are also frequently recommended for cosmetic concerns like aging and acne.
Adapalene is a relative newcomer to the world of retinoids and prescription retinoids. It was FDA approved in the ‘90s, and has shown efficacy in comparison with other medications in the prescription retinoid class.
Like tretinoin, it can help remove dead skin cells which can contribute to acne.
Side effects of adapalene include many familiar retinoid effects, like the ones mentioned above for tretinoin.
Adapalene is known to cause skin irritation, and some of the rarer side effects include lip or eyelid swelling and facial edema.
If you experience anaphylactic symptoms like facial swelling or hives, and/or chest pain and shortness of breath — from using any retinoids — you should immediately discontinue use and seek guidance from a healthcare professional.
There are two main differences between adapalene and tretinoin: skin irritation and use as an anti-aging treatment.
As mentioned above, tretinoin can help treat signs of aging, as it has the ability to both reduce fine lines and stimulate collagen production.
Adapalene, on the other hand, does not have these benefits listed (though it does have some anti-photoaging effects).
Adapalene, however, does include statistically proven effectiveness when tretinoin is considered too strong, or when tretinoin causes irritation.
That alone should be considered a major adapalene benefit, because tretinoin is known to cause more severe irritation and other complications.
So which one is more effective? Adapalene vs. tretinoin? To be honest, it depends.
According to studies, both are considered approximately the same in terms of effectiveness toward acne.
Adapalene is primarily used for treating acne, whereas tretinoin is used for acne and/or anti-aging effects. (Tretinoin is therefore more effective for addressing wrinkles, sagging skin and other signs of aging.)
If you do desire anti-aging benefits, tretinoin might be your better choice. It can cause irritation and sun sensitivity, however, and might not be worth it if you have sensitive skin.
If you need to treat acne but have more sensitive skin, adapalene may be your optimal bet, since it is the more mild of the two.
Retinoids may offer many benefits for your skin health, and adapalene and tretinoin are two great, medically proven options.
It’s important to remember that both of these topical retinoids are proven to be effective for combating acne, and in the case of tretinoin, signs of aging, too.
Prescription medications like tretinoin have been prescribed safely and effectively since the 1960s.
As with any prescription medication, though, you’ll need to consult with a healthcare professional and look out for side effects. (And if you do experience side effects, it’s best to let your healthcare provider know.)
A healthcare professional can help you determine which retinoid might be best for you. They’ll consider your skin type, sensitivity level and signs of aging when making a recommendation.
They’ll also help diagnose what’s causing your skin concerns in the first place.
Retinoids are great for your skin when used as directed. If acne is your concern, this customized hers Prescription Acne Cream could be an excellent choice for you.