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Differin vs Tretinoin: 5 Things That Make Them Different

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So, you are ready to head into the world of retinoids. But, you have quickly discovered that there are a few to choose from. 

The retinoid confusion may quickly set in as you start your hunt for the best retinoid for you when you suddenly realize that some are available over-the-counter, some are prescription, some are indicated for acne only, and the percentages available all seem to be different -- how do you decide?

Two of the most popular retinoids are Adapalene (brand name Differin) and Tretinoin (brand name Retin-A). And, while both of these can be good choices for various skin concerns, there are some key differences that may help scoot you in one direction over the other.

Of course, the best start to your retinoid journey is to consult with your doctor or dermatologist first, but learning a little more about the choices on your own beforehand can’t hurt and may help you have a more productive appointment.

Below, we will cover some of the most important differences between Differin and Tretinoin to help you become more informed and confident in your skincare regimen.

1. Differin may be found over-the-counter while Tretinoin is prescription only

Tretinoin is a prescription-only medication in all strengths. But, you can find the lower strength of Differin over-the-counter for acne. 

In 2016, Differin 0.1% was approved for over-the-counter sale by the FDA. You can find Differin 0.1% in gel, cream, or lotion formulations over-the-counter at drug stores and grocery stores -- or anywhere else that sells general pharmacy products. However, if you need the stronger 0.3% Differin gel, that still remains a prescription-only medication and you will need to speak with your doctor for that one.

2. Tretinoin has been around for much longer than Differin

Tretinoin was the very first retinoid to be FDA-approved for acne vulgaris treatment -- and that was way back in 1971. So, clearly, we have had a long time to learn about the pros, cons, benefits, and long-term use of Tretinoin. The sheer length of time we have had to study and use this medication gives patients and providers a lot more information on Tretinoin vs the relatively new Differin.

Differin, on the other hand, is a comparatively new addition to the retinoid world. Differin is also a retinoid, meaning that it is also a derivative of vitamin A, but has a different chemical structure than Tretinoin. 

Differin was first FDA-approved for acne treatment in 1996, as a prescription-only medication. Differin remained prescription-only for 20 years, until the 0.1% was switched to OTC status in 2016.

3. Tretinoin is FDA approved for photoaging and acne while Differin is approved for acne only

Tretinoin is FDA approved for the treatment of either acne vulgaris, or photoaged skin (skin damage from the sun). But, Differin is only currently FDA approved for the treatment of acne vulgaris.

Does this mean that Differin cannot help with photoaging? Not necessarily. This just means that we have the studies and FDA approval to back up the indication of using Tretinoin for photoaging, but that we do not currently have the same data or approval for Differin. 

4. Tretinoin may be stronger and give faster results than Differin but may also have a high irritation potential 

In an overview that compares Adapalene 0.1% (generic form of Differin) to Tretinoin 0.05% for acne, the researchers report that Tretinoin may have a greater anti-acne efficacy, although that may come with a higher potential for skin irritation (at least in the beginning). 

Both retinoids have the potential for skin irritation when using the medication, and this irritation may be worse in the beginning but go away with continued use.

The potential irritating effects of retinoids may include skin irritation, redness, burning, stinging, dryness, or peeling.

If you have extremely sensitive skin or want to reduce the risk of irritation, Differin may be a good choice for you, but it is possible that it won’t be as effective for acne as Tretinoin in the long run.

5. Tretinoin and Differin are available in different percentage strengths

The different strengths of Tretinoin and Differin are another thing to note. Both Tretinoin and Differin tend to report their strengths in percentage form, but they come in different strengths. It is important to keep in mind that just because Differin comes in the highest strength of 0.3%, and Tretinoin comes in the highest strength of 0.1%, Differin 0.3% is not 3 times stronger than Tretinoin 0.1% -- it is not a 1 to 1 conversion.

The commercially available Differin strengths are:

  • 0.1% gel, cream, or lotion (over the counter)
  • 0.3% gel (prescription)

The commercially available Tretinoin strengths are:

  • 0.025% cream or gel (prescription)
  • 0.05% cream (prescription)
  • 0.1% cream or gel (prescription)

Strut Health tretinoin-containing prescription formulations online

At Strut Health, we know that skin concerns like acne, scars, or fine lines are extremely common. We also know that these things can be embarrassing to discuss with a doctor face-to-face. For this reason, we offer expertly crafted compounded tretinoin-containing prescription formulations to help with these concerns -- all through a discreet telemedicine platform.

If you are dealing with acne, photoaging, or acne scarring, you can have a free online questionnaire and image-based telemedicine consultation with our U.S. licensed doctors today to see if one of our formulations is a good fit for you.

If you are a good candidate for treatment, your medication can be shipped to your front door with our free shipping. If you have any questions during your treatment, our team and doctors are available for free, unlimited follow-ups.

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