If there’s one ingredient all skincare experts can agree on, it’s retinoids. These are chemical compounds that are derivatives of vitamin A — they are skin powerhouses and they find their way into many of the most effective anti-ageing and acne treatments.

Two topical retinoids you’ll hear us talk about are tretinoin and adapalene. But what’s the difference, and which one is right for you? Let’s take a look.

First, What’s A Retinoid?

Retinoids are a group of chemicals derived from vitamin A. They’ve long been the go-to treatment for acne and ageing, because they are so effective.

Retinoids come in many forms. Some feature as the active ingredient in over-the-counter skincare products, available in any pharmacy or supermarket. Most popular among these are ​​Retinol – which needs to go through a chemical reaction before it converts to the active form, known as retinoic acid. Retinal – another type of milder retinoid – needs to go through just one step to convert to the active molecule and get to work.

There are also more potent, prescription-strength retinoids which you can get from your dermatologist or from the dermatology experts at Dermatica. These (which include tretinoin and adapalene) are already retinoic acid – the active molecule – so can get to work immediately on the skin.

All retinoids work in a similar way, by increasing cell turnover. This stops the build-up of dead skin cells, increases skin renewal and unclogs pores. Retinoids also have an anti-inflammatory effect, which can be especially helpful for some types of acne. They also help to stimulate collagen production, reduce fine lines caused by photoageing, and can lighten pigmentation due to their exfoliating effect.

Essentially, this hero ingredient can help deliver a smooth, clear complexion.


Tretinoin, also known as retinoic acid, is the most widely-researched and potent retinoid. It’s been used to treat acne for at least four decades. It’s prescribed at different strengths, often starting as low as 0.015% and increasing to 0.1% as the skin adjusts.

What Are The Benefits Of Tretinoin?

Where do we start? Topical tretinoin has been widely researched and shows many skin benefits in studies. It’s a great all-round anti-ager, and can bring about significant changes in the structure of your skin, affecting how it looks and feels. The proven benefits include a significant improvement in:

– Fine lines
– Pigmentation
– Texture
– Elasticity

All-in-all, tretinoin will help to reverse the signs of ageing, including natural, chronological changes. It also reduces the visible signs of photoageing caused by sunlight exposure, such as fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.

Tretinoin also offers excellent benefits for treating acne. Studies have shown it effectively improves:

– Blackheads
– Whiteheads
– Papules (small bumps)
– Pustules (pus-filled spots)

What Are The Side Effects Of Tretinoin?

It’s effective, yes. But it can be associated with skin irritation when you start using it – especially if you’re prone to sensitive skin. Skin may become red or blotchy and flaky, and may burn or sting. This is called retinisation, and it’s really just a sign that the treatment is working, because it shows your skin is starting to exfoliate.
Everyone is different though, and if you don’t get any irritation, that doesn’t mean tretinoin isn’t working or effective for you.

How To Prevent Tretinoin Side Effects

The irritation will improve as your skin adjusts to the ingredients. And there are a few simple steps you can take to reduce this side-effect.

– Prep your skin: Try using a barrier-boosting moisturiser for two weeks before starting treatment. Look for one containing niacinamide, panthenol, and tocopheryl acetate.
– Start low and slow: We usually recommend the lowest dose to begin with, and suggest you only apply it twice a week. You can build up in frequency and strength as your skin adjusts.
– Make a skincare sandwich: Apply moisturiser before and after your treatment.
– Skip a day or two if you need to: You might need to give your skin a little break, and that’s fine. Wait until your skin has recovered and then re-introduce your treatment gradually. A short hiatus here and there won’t slow down your progress.
– Stick with it — this is powerful stuff, but the results are worth it.


Adapalene is a relatively new ingredient in the dermatological sphere. It’s a synthetic version of vitamin A with a slightly different molecular structure to tretinoin.

It has similar properties to tretinoin, but it’s a more stable chemical. This means it won’t lose its potency if exposed to sunlight, as tretinoin does which is the reason you apply it at night It also means adapalene can more easily be combined with other ingredients to combat acne, such as bacteria-flighting benzoyl peroxide, or clindamycin, an antibiotic.

What Are The Benefits Of Adapalene?

There’s good evidence that adapalene can work wonders for acne. Many studies have compared it with tretinoin, and found that it’s just as effective, and in some studies even more so, for treating both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne.

There is some evidence of anti-ageing effects too — it’s been shown to reduce pigmentation and improve wrinkles. But we need more studies in this area to understand its full potential.

What Are The Side Effects Of Adapalene?

This is where adapalene may have the advantage over tretinoin.

Studies have shown that adapalene causes less skin irritation than tretinoin. This has been the case in several different strengths and formulations — even compared to tretinoin at a low dose of 0.025%.

Adapalene vs. Tretinoin: Which Should I Use?


If your aim is anti-ageing, tretinoin is your answer. There is currently more evidence for tretinoin than there is for adapalene when it comes to achieving younger-looking skin.

You may need to be prepared for the side effects of the retinisation process. But follow our advice, and you can minimise irritation. They should subside within 1-2 weeks, and you can be fairly confident that you’ll achieve noticeably more youthful skin if you stick with it.

As evidence builds for adapalene, this may yet become the first choice for anti-ageing. But until then, we’ll suggest you try tretinoin first. You may want to switch to adapalene if your skin just can’t tolerate tretinoin.


If you’re looking for an effective acne solution, adapalene is the active ingredient for you. There are a few reason why this is the one to go for:

– There’s plenty of evidence that it’s effective against acne, and it may work faster than tretinoin.
– It results in less irritation than tretinoin.
– It’s more stable, which means it can be combined with other acne-busting ingredients, such as clindamycin or benzoyl peroxide.

Find out what formulas are suitable for your skin by visiting our website here.

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