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Differin Side Effects: What Can You Expect?

Scott McDougall
Scott McDougallMPharmDirector & Registered Manager

Reviewed on 4 Jan 2023

Differin is one of the most popular acne treatments available today, but it isn't without its flaws. In some cases, it can cause side effects that make progress hard to gauge and cause you further discomfort while you're battling your acne.

Even the most frequent of these side effects don't happen that often, so there's no need to be reluctant, but it's still a good idea to know what they could be. Let's run through everything you need to know so you can proceed with confidence.

The most common side effects of Differin

Need some at-a-glance information before we get into the full article? Here are the most common Differin side effects you need to know about:

  • Unpleasant sensations (burning, stinging, tingling, and/or itchiness)
  • Unusual dryness, flakiness, and/or scaling
  • Skin redness (erythema) - more rarely with a rash
  • Sensitivity to sunlight (and artificial UV light)
  • Excessive exfoliation (when applied too liberally)

They only affect up to 1 in 10 people who use Differin, however, what you should do about any side effects will depend on their severity and the circumstances of your specific case. Check with a doctor if you're concerned, and read on for more.

Differin 0.1% Cream/Gel
Differin 0.1% Cream/Gel
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Why you need to know about all the side effects of Differin

So you've reviewed the various acne medications on the market, taken a close look at everything Differin has to offer and made the choice (supported by a qualified doctor or pharmacist) to buy Differin gel - or cream - to treat your acne. Good choice!

Many acne sufferers find that Differin is exactly what they need to keep their breakouts under control and achieve fantastic improvements in skin clarity, but it doesn't work out perfectly for everyone. Like any medication, Differin can have side effects - most minor, but some major.

Because we don't want you going into your course of treatment with no idea of the possible adverse effects of Differin, we decided to create this page covering its side effects. We'll look at everything that can go wrong when using Differin, giving you general information including the following:

  • How long Differin can take to get settled results
  • What the rarer side effects involve
  • What you can try if things aren't working for you
  • When you should stop applying Differin

That way, when you start using Differin, you'll know what to expect, and have a much better chance of having a positive experience. Let's get started by looking at what you can expect from starting your Differin treatment.

What's it like to start using Differin? How long can it take to work?

If you haven't used this type of acne medication before, you should know that it's typically a while before you see stable results. Differin can have positive effects quite quickly, but it's subject to what's known as the Differin purge: a period during which things can seem to be getting worse again.

As such, to begin with, you should expect a very mixed experience - one day the skin might look better, but the next it might look (and feel) worse again. This is totally normal. It's the general trend that matters, so see how your skin is responding from week to week.

A full course of Differin treatment is 12 weeks, and unless you're getting absolutely no positive results after 6-8 weeks, we recommend following it to completion before deciding if it's worth using it again. People who benefit from Differin can continue to use it (and see improvements) almost indefinitely.

For more information on using Differin, you can read our Differin reviews page.

What are the most serious side effects of Differin? How likely are they?

The side effects listed earlier in the article are usually quite mild and don't require any specific action to be taken. For instance, flaky skin is unpleasant, but it can be endured and won't cause any lasting harm. Additionally, they normally pass after the first few weeks of treatment. The more serious side effects of Differin are essentially the same side effects but at much greater intensities.

Probably the most serious side effect of Differin is serious contact dermatitis, which is a type of eczema that produces inflammation in response to an applied material. It can occur in two distinct forms:

  • Irritant contact dermatitis: In rare occasions, Differin can actually irritate the treated skin, making things worse. This will result in lasting swelling and irritation that will slowly fade when the application is ceased (or suitably reduced). Because of the Differin purge, it can be hard to tell what exactly is happening - if you have a severe reaction that lasts beyond a few weeks, it's likely a matter of contact dermatitis and a doctor should be consulted.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis: In even rarer occasions, Differin can produce an allergic reaction in the treated acne sufferer. This will result in contact dermatitis that can spread beyond the affected area. If this happens, Differin treatment must be ceased immediately, and a qualified medical opinion must be sought.

Mild side effects can occur in as many as 1 in 10 Differin users, while the more serious forms are around the 1 in 100 frequency. Something as bad as allergic contact dermatitis is rarer still, occurring so infrequently that there are no meaningful figures available. This means that Differin is generally considered to be a very safe treatment.

Also note that some claim to experience hair loss after using Differin, but it's more complex than that. It seems to be related to the role of Vitamin A (on which Differin is based) in keeping hair healthy by supporting its repair and reducing scalp dryness. In some cases (where there is a deficiency), it can stimulate hair growth.

If you have too much Vitamin A, though, your hair can grow too quickly, ultimately falling out before it can be replaced and leading to a net loss. If you do experience any hair loss from using Differin, you can either scale back your application frequency or simply wait until your treatment is done: the hair should grow back once your Vitamin A level evens out.

How can you adjust your application if you're not getting results?

If you're following your prescribed course of treatment and you don't seem to be getting any positive results, the first thing to do is consult your doctor. They may have specific suggestions for how you can change your approach. If not, they may suggest that you experiment with the following variables:

  • When you apply Differin
  • How much Differin you use
  • Which form of Differin you use (cream or gel)
  • What moisturizers (if any) you use with it
  • How you treat your skin in general
  • When you bathe or shower

Sometimes the problem is that the acne sufferer isn't applying enough Differin, or is applying too much. It can be hard to get the amount right - you need a thin layer that can readily be absorbed by the affected area. If necessary, visit your doctor and ask them to demonstrate the right amount for you.

When is it best to discontinue treatment and try something else?

There are two main reasons why you should stop treating your acne with Differin and pursue a different type of treatment:

  • You see no improvement after 6-8 weeks. Regardless of the Differin purge, the correct application of the treatment should produce some meaningful improvement in this amount of time. If nothing is getting any better, check with your doctor and have them sign off on discontinuing treatment before the suggested 12-week period is up.
  • The treatment is consistently making things worse. Some discomfort or irritation is to be expected as your skin adjusts to the Differin, but not to the point of anything extreme. If your acne is only getting worse after 3-4 weeks, it will suggest that your skin is reacting to the treatment, and you should stop immediately.

The overlap between the Differin purge and its side effects can make things very unclear, but it's really a matter of following the timing very closely: the purge will only last for so long, so any notable side effects after a month or so will be cause for concern.

For more information on different acne treatments and how they might affect you, we recommend reading our Adapalene Vs Tretinoin comparison page: it contrasts Differin, Treclin Gel, and various other topical acne treatments to help you decide.

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