The Independent Pharmacy

Differin Purge: How Long Does It Last and How to Cope With It

Donald Grant
Dr Donald GrantMB ChB DRCOG MRCGP Dip.orth.medGP & Clinical Advisor

Reviewed on 1 Dec 2023

Differin is one of the most effective and widely-used acne treatments on the market, but it can require an eight week ‘purge period' and cause other side effects.

You need to consider a lot before purchasing, so it's a good idea to do your research before spending your money.

Below we discuss the Differin purge, how to cope with it and the difference between Differin purge and suffering from a reaction.

The purge period – How long does Differin take to work?

Differin results timeline (this is an approximate timeline, results will vary from user to user):

  • Week 1: After a week of use the user may start to see some small improvements in acne (don’t worry if you haven’t yet)
  • Week 2: Acne may return slightly or completely as clogged pores in lower layers of the skin surface
  • Week 3: Results should begin to be more positive with some noticeable improvement in acne (keep using for 8 - 12 weeks for best results)

We mentioned that Differin can give rise to the ‘Differin purge’, and even though it isn't a sign that the skin is actually getting worse, it's still very unpleasant for the acne sufferer - so how long does it take to push through the purge and see positive results?

Well, when you first start applying Differin daily, there's an excellent chance that you'll see some results within a week, and possibly even a significant reduction. This is a great thing, but it's also false dawn of sorts because of what follows, and it's important not to get too excited at this stage.

This is because the second week is likely to see the acne return, either slightly or in full force (it will depend on the severity of your case): with the blockage removed and the top layers of skin cleared, the clogged pores in lower layers will quickly reach the surface and leave the skin vulnerable once again.

How to cope with the Differin purge

This purging phase is threatening because it can lead acne sufferers to think that the Differin isn't actually going to work, causing them to stop applying it and seek alternative treatment. While Differin isn't right for everyone, you should have your symptoms inspected before you even think about discontinuing treatment.

In most cases, all that must be done to escape the purge is to endure it for a week or so. Once all the blockages lurking beneath the surface have been cleared, the skin can begin to truly get better, and Differin shines in this regard - users often continue to see improvement for many months after beginning treatment.

How to tell if you're suffering a reaction

Because of the Differin purge causing the acne to (seemingly) return, it can be difficult for a Differin user to tell when they're suffering an actual reaction to the treatment. There are four situations in which you should have your symptoms inspected by a medical professional:

  • You break out in new areas. The Differin purge will only bring existing blockages to the surface, not create new ones.
  • The acne gets significantly worse than ever before. A resurgence of your acne shouldn't be markedly worse than it was before you began treatment.
  • Major side effects become apparent. Aside from your original acne, the development of pain or swelling on the application area, or irritation, redness, itching or swelling of the eyelids.
  • You see no improvement after 2 months. A purge shouldn't pass 2 weeks, so if there are zero improvements after 8 weeks, you should discuss other options with your doctor.

If we've prescribed you Differin and you've found yourself in such a situation, let us know. We'll take a close look at your symptoms and find a better alternative.

How does Differin work?

Differin is an acne medication containing the active ingredient of adapalene, which is a form of vitamin A (check out our product page to view the full range of Differin ingredients). Applied to the area affected by acne, it works to help your skin heal by unblocking your pores (allowing natural oils to escape) and boosting the exfoliation process.

Proving effective in mild to moderate cases, Differin has great reviews and is a great choice for many acne sufferers because it provides enough potency to make a difference without being strong enough to cause major harm. That said, it does have one notable issue known as the Differin purge - an initial period during which your skin seems to get worse, not better.

However, that may not be the truth of the matter. It's believed that this purging period actually results from existing clogged pores coming to the surface, giving the inaccurate impression that things have got worse. If you keep applying Differin as recommended, you should see improvement once the purging period has concluded (usually after 6-8 weeks at the latest).

 Differin 0.1% Cream/Gel
Differin 0.1% Cream/Gel
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What is Differin gel? How does it compare to Differin cream?

Differin is produced in two formulations: a gel, and a cream. Differin gel is transparent and quite dense - when applied, it will be absorbed relatively quickly. Differin cream, though, is white and much oilier - it will take longer to be absorbed, but it also has moisturizing properties that will help if the affected area is uncomfortably dry.

In most cases, the gel formulation of Differin is easier to use because it applies clear and soaks into the skin rapidly, but it will depend on your particular case. If you're not sure, you may want to try each form to see which you prefer.

How does Differin differ from other acne treatments?

As a mid-range treatment, Differin is an excellent first option for acne sufferers - other available treatments can be weaker (for very mild cases), stronger (for particularly severe acne), or designed with broader actions (often containing antibiotics).

For a more detailed explanation of how Differin (and its active ingredient adapalene) compares to other treatments, you can view our acne treatment comparison page.

How to use Differin

Whether you get Differin as a gel or a cream, it should be applied to the affected area daily as long as you continue to suffer from acne. If your acne completely clears up, you can stop the treatment, but be aware that your acne may return at some point.

To apply Differin, take a pea-sized amount and spread it thinly across the affected area until it has been fully absorbed - if you don't notice a difference a week or so, try applying a little more, but be careful. To avoid disrupting the effect, you should apply it in the evening before sleeping, and ideally after showering (or bathing) to clear your skin.

If you experience significant discomfort trying to spread the gel across the affected area, consider using the cream instead. Alternatively, apply a small amount of moisturiser to the area before applying a slightly larger amount of the gel. Make sure, however, the moisturiser you use is non-comedogenic, so it doesn't make your acne worse and make sure it is fully absorbed into your skin before you apply the Differin gel.

Note that applying Differin will raise the affected skin's sensitivity to UV light, so take steps to avoid exposure to direct sunlight or you'll risk further skin damage. Keep the skin covered during the day (though allow it to breathe) or when around strong artificial UV light sources.

See our product page to find out how to buy Differin.

Off-label applications: other uses for Differin

Vitamin A (a form of which constitutes Differin's active ingredient) confers various benefits to the skin, so Differin - on the advice of a dermatologist - can be used for off-label purposes:

  • It can reduce the prominence of lines and wrinkles, clear up stretch marks, and even produce a more even skin tone through stimulating collagen production.
  • Through inhibiting skin production, it can treat calluses and areas of thickened skin caused by various conditions (though dedicated treatment is always advised).

Be mindful not to do anything unusual or extreme without the advice of an expert, because things can go easily go wrong.

For instance, if you use it to reduce the appearance of wrinkles but fail to keep the skin suitably moisturized, the wrinkles will likely end up looking worse. In general, we strongly recommend that you don't deviate from the recommended practices without the advice of a dermatologist.


Can I wear makeup with Differin?

You can wear cosmetics or moisturisers while using this medication, but you should not apply them at the same time. Wash your skin thoroughly before applying Differin, wait for it to be absorbed into your skin, then use any cosmetics and moisturisers. Make sure that any makeup and moisturisers are non-comedogenic so they don't block your pores and make your acne worse.

Can I use other acne treatments with Differin cream?

Yes, in severe acne you can combine Differin with oral antibiotic acne treatments such as Tetralysal (Lymecycline), Minocin (Minocycline) or Oxytetracycline tablets. These combinations can be used to provide better effects than either treatment on their own, prevent antibiotic resistance, and cure acne particularly persistent cases of acne.

For moderate acne, Differin can be used with topical antibiotic treatments like Dalacin-T or Zineryt.

Differin should not be used with any similar acne creams containing a retinoid or benzoyl peroxide as it may cause excessive drying or irritation to your skin.

Topical treatments like Differin are frequently used in addition to oral treatments like Accutane (Isotretinoin), but this would need to be started by a dermatologist.

How is Differin affected by the sun?

Avoid exposure to sunlight, sunlamps or sunbeds while using this medication, as it increases your skin's sensitivity to UV light. If exposure to sunlight cannot be avoided, use sunscreens or protective clothing over treated skin.

If your skin is sunburnt, you should not use this medication until your skin has fully recovered. Severe irritation may result.

Does this medication help with acne scars?

This treatment speeds up the regeneration process of the skin, which may help reduce the appearance of scars. This cream/gel can also prevent future breakouts, which in turn leads to reduced numbers of scars.

Avoid popping your spots, as this can worsen the problem and create scars. Laser and derma rolling treatments are recent developments, available from cosmetic dermatologist clinics, which are designed to fade scars.

Can I use Differin for my rosacea? Or melasma?

Spots and pustules are one of the main symptoms of rosacea. Differin is therefore often prescribed to treat this condition by dermatologists, however, it is not something that we can prescribe online.

Melasma (brown spots/hyperpigmentation on the skin) is also treated by Differin if prescribed by a dermatologist.

Is Differin the same as Retin-A?

Retin-A and Differin work in much the same way, but they are slightly different treatments. One should not be used in replacement of the other.

Can this treatment damage or bleach my clothes and bedsheets?

Unlike many topical acne treatments, Differin does not bleach fabrics.

What parts of my body can I use Differin on?

This treatment can be used to treat the causes of acne on all parts of the body, including (but not limited to) the face, chin, back and chest.

What other treatments are available for my pimples, besides topical and oral medications?

Several cosmetic treatments can be provided by a cosmetic dermatologist to treat acne. These can be used in addition to or instead of topical or oral medications, like Tetralysal 300. These treatments include microdermabrasion and laser treatment. However, you should always let the treatment provider know what medication you are on before engaging in treatment. See our acne page for more info.

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