It’s summer 2016, I’m training in a community pharmacy (H-Medix), a dermatologist walks in and asks for ‘Differin’, I’m standing there wondering what the heck that is. So, I ask him questions to learn more about this drug, look it up on my Medscape app and soon realize that it’s a topical treatment for acne vulgaris (fancy term for acne). I chuckled as I thought to myself; new finding, I probably won’t ever need that. 

Fast forward to March lockdown 2020, here I am testing out Differin for 12 weeks (and beyond) to see if it’s going to work wonders on my acne and hyperpigmentation.

A Brief Intro on Differin

Differin (active ingredient – adapalene 0.1%) is a synthetic, third-generation retinoid that binds to retinoic-acid receptors and modulates the differentiation of follicular epithelial cells, keratinization, and inflammatory processes.

In English:

Adapalene is a man-made retinoid that works on a deeper level (i.e unlike our regular moisturizers that sit on the outer surface of the skin, this one goes deeper to communicate with our skin cells) to prevent & reduce the formation of blackheads, whiteheads, comedones, and also reduce pain/inflammation associated with acne. The expected result? newer, clearer, healthier, firmer skin cells that don’t carry old problems along.

Fun fact: Adapalene 0.1% was previously available only on prescription, but thanks to the FDA, now this bad boy is just a counter away from your troublesome acne.

My Experience with Differin (12 week-test)

The thought of trying out Differin was initiated sometime last year when my acne was getting out of control. However, I couldn’t access it until beginning of this year (we’ll leave the story of what happened with my order and NIPOST for another day). At that time, I was unsure whether to go ahead with it or just return/sell it out, my skin was experiencing a bad breakout from some K-beauty product (again, we’ll leave that story for tomorrow).

Prior to this, I had read about the side effects of Differin such as purging, dryness, irritation and all that scary stuff. So, I left it in my closet until late March, when the pandemic hit and we were forced to go into lock-down; my skin was doing better and I knew it was the perfect time to experiment with adapalene. Mind you, adapalene is not the kind of product you use for 3 weeks and give up. It only rewards those who are patient enough to stick with it.

Disclaimer: This review is not in anyway intended to influence the overall claims of this product. Skin is unique to everyone, and what works for Susan might not work for Aisha. Several factors influence how a product yields results. These include, but not limited to –  frequency & method of application, skincare habits (hydration, sun protection, picking the skin) and other internal factors. If you’re struggling with severe acne, please seek professional advice from a doctor, dermatologist, or aesthetician.

Week 1 – 4

I started with once daily (PM) application 3 times in the first week. Then, moved on to 4 times a week in the second week before proceeding with daily (PM) application in week 3 and 4. I cut down chemical exfoliation; no glycolic acid, salicylic acid whatsoever (mistake number one – i’ll explain later), I relied on a peeling gel (reviewed here) which provided a decent, manual exfoliation.


Week 1-4

Week 1 and 2 went smoothly with no notable differences apart from a little reduction in the number of acne lesions. Week 3 was going well until towards the end when the angry comedones turned to full force papules with inflammation. Mann… it was actually painful! At this point, I felt like all the purging reviews I read online started to manifest. Week 4 was slightly better, at least the breakouts didn’t hurt anymore. The Etude House Soon Jung toner did help with that.

Week 5 – 8

Week 5 to 10 was so inconsistent mannn; keep reading for more details…

Week 5 started off with more closed comedones but the overall skin texture looked and felt better. I only applied once or twice throughout the entire week.  Week 6 was worse than week 5 in terms of comedones. Only applied 3X in that week. I had just exhausted a hydrating ampoule (reviewed here) that was keeping my skin well hydrated. At this point I was just tired. My pores became more visible, my skin was dehydrated and appeared oilier than normal.

Week 5-8

The morning I took the Week 6 photo, I woke up and decided to incorporate salicylic acid into my routine. I had been playing safe for too long (all in the name of experiment), forgetting that while Differin boosts cell turnover, it doesn’t exfoliate the skin or control oil production like salicylic acid. I purchased the Stridex 2% salicylic acid pads (thanks to Beauty & Glamour for coming through despite the lock-down).

I applied it in the morning after washing my face using the short contact therapy; i.e I leave it on for 30 minutes and wash it off before proceeding with the rest of my routine. This reduces any potential irritation from the menthol and sulfates contained in the product.

Week 7 and 8 was meh… same story (battling with them blemishes), but the latter was better.

Week 9-12

Clearly a girl was fed up in Week 10

I incorporated a 10% Niacinamide serum in Week 9 and it did a good job at oil control and brightening my complexion overall. Only applied 3-4x that week. I took a break from Differin in Week 10; all actives actually, no salicylic acid, no Niacinamide; just good old’ Aloe Vera gel (not plant) and a light layer of petrolatum aka Vaseline. Week 11 and 12 was beautiful! Most of the blemishes had cleared up and my skin was a lot calmer than the previous weeks. The only sad thing was the amount of PIH (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) left behind. Another long treatment journey *inserts crying face*.

Tips to get the most out of Differin

Always read the label

Whew! We’ve come to the end of the experiment and I have a few tips to share with you. These tips will help you get the maximum benefit out of this, while reducing the risk of side effects

  • Hydrate! Hydrate!! Hydrate!!! No, I don’t mean drink water.  Differin can dry out the skin, so you have to up your topical moisture game. This can be easily achieved through hydrating toners, serums, essences. A personal favorite which I enjoyed during the experiment was the Etude House Soon Jung Toner and Farm Stay All-in-one Hyaluronic Acid ampoule. Don’t forget to lock in that moisture with a good emollient/occlusive.
  • Application: Differin should be applied once daily (either AM or PM) all over the face. After washing your face, apply a hydrating toner or any lightweight hydrating product in your routine (no acids here! if your toner contains glycolic acid or the likes, skip this).  This serves as a buffer and reduces irritation without reducing the efficacy of Differin. Next, apply the Differin gel; you only need a little. It says to apply a pea-sized all over the face but tbh that rule can’t work for everyone, including myself. However, keep it as close to pea-size as possible. The toner also makes it easier to spread as opposed to applying on a dry face. Then move on to heavier formulations (hydrating serums, antioxidants, moisturizers, oils…)
  • If you don’t have a hydrating toner, essence, ampoule or serum, it’s fine. After washing, just apply your moisturizer on a damp face, then apply Differin afterwards. Don’t worry, this won’t reduce the efficacy of Differin.
  • Don’t shy away from your acids. It’s still okay to exfoliate with AHAs and BHAs while on Differin, as long as you do it right. I dropped my acids when I first started (for experimental purposes) but as you could tell, clogged pores couldn’t handle it throughout the journey.  It’s best not to use high-strength acids or any keratolytic agents within 24 hours of using Differin. You can also leave exfoliation to AM (as long as you wear sunscreen) while you do Differin at night (this works well especially with salicylic acid).
  • Niacinamide is your friend. As long as your skin is not sensitive to Niacinamide, it’s worth incorporating one into your routine. Yes, it can be used in the same routine with Differin. A study showed that Niacinamide improves tolerance to retinoids. It’s no surprise my skin was doing better when I incorporated The Ordinary Niacinamide serum in Week 9.
  • Try not to pick! Trust me, I understand how hard this can be as I struggle with it as well. Picking the acne on your face will only cause more harm; talk about deep scars, dark spots, slowing down healing time… Just don’t, please.
  • Be Consistent! Don’t be lazy like me. Differin can be used daily once you have built tolerance.
  • Wear sunscreen, religiously! And that’s on that. Periodt! Lol don’t mind me. For real tho, you need sun protection especially when using any agent that boosts cell turnover.
Week 14; after abandoning AHAs for 12 months (yes 12 weeks without my glycolic acid felt like 12 months),  I incorporated Lactic Acid 10% into my routine and I’m so glad I did.


As you can tell, adapalene didn’t tackle my skin concerns single-handedly. To highlight the major results I noticed from this experiment would be: improvement in overall skin texture, little to no improvement in hyper-pigmentation and reduction in the number of acne lesions. Writing this now on Week 16, I can definitely say that niacinamide, salicylic acid and lactic acid played a role alongside adapalene to improve the condition of my skin.

Where to purchase: Amazon, Beauty Frenzy, Buy Better

Would I repurchase? Maybe. It wasn’t bad but my skin is much better now, and I’ll rather look into low-strength tretinoin  or retinol for maintenance.

How I combine acids and retinoids in my routine
Current skincare routine layout. ‘/’ indicates ‘or’

It takes an army of ingredients to tackle several skin concerns, so don’t be afraid to cocktail away! Just take it one at a time and make sure you hydrate like your life depends on it. Have you tried adapalene before? What was your experience like?



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  4. Great blog! Thanks for sharing your journey. I just started Differin two days ago.

    • Hawwa

      Glad you found it useful! How’s the journey with Differin going so far?

  5. Thanks for the detail you put into this post! I really appreciate the last two pictures on how you paired acids with the retinoid. So helpful 👏🏼

    • Hawwa

      Hi! I’m glad you found it helpful. I hope you stick around for more detailed reviews.

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