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The topic is topical retinoids: understanding adapalene and tretinoin

Are you struggling with acne?

Do you want to improve your skin's tone or texture?

Despite being different issues, your dermatologist may recommend adapalene or tretinoin to help solve your skin concerns.



Both adapalene and tretinoin are retinoids, a type of vitamin A derivative. As topical medications, they typically come in a cream or gel form. They are applied directly to the skin as a part of a treatment plan.

These medications effectively treat acne by unclogging pores, reducing inflammation, and promoting skin cell turnover. They also address texture and tone concerns through cell turnover, effectively improving the appearance of fine lines, dark spots, and sun damage.

You must wear broad-spectrum sunscreen when using these medications. Retinoid-activated cell turnover exposes new skin cells, increasing photosensitivity - meaning you are at increased risk for sunburn. Not only is skin sensitive, but the medications themselves are sensitive to sunlight, too. Sun exposure can deactivate some retinoid formulations, making treatment less effective.


Tretinoin is generally considered stronger and more potent than adapalene; therefore, tretinoin may be slightly more effective in treating acne. However, dryness and irritation are more common with tretinoin. Patients with sensitive skin may better tolerate adapalene.

Tretinoin is available by prescription only; you must consult a physician to purchase it. Adapalene is available over-the-counter and by prescription, making it more accessible. Your insurance may cover some or all of your medication costs when prescribed.

Your dermatologist will determine an appropriate concentration for your skin condition and sensitivity if prescribed or recommended as an over-the-counter treatment.

Which topical retinoid is right for you? 

Choosing between adapalene and tretinoin depends on your skin's needs and your dermatologist's advice. If you're new to retinoids or have sensitive skin, starting with adapalene might be a good option. Tretinoin could be the way to go if you require a more potent treatment or have more severe acne. 

Consistency is key when using retinoids. Following your complete treatment plan is essential, including all cleansing, moisturizing, and sun protection instructions.

Our board-certified dermatologists can help you understand the best clinical care options for your skin. To get help for your skin and learn more about adapalene, tretinoin, and other treatment alternatives, start an online visit with DermatologistOnCall. The process is simple - answer a few questions about your health, upload 2-9 photos of the affected area, and submit your concern. Your provider will review your information, make a diagnosis, and provide a comprehensive treatment plan with any necessary prescriptions sent to your local or mail-order pharmacy. Your visit will remain open for 30 days post-care, so you can ask your doctor questions and share concerns throughout the treatment process.

Ready to look and feel your best? We're here to help.