On June 28, I placed an Amazon.com order for the 15 gram tube of Differin .1%. I was nervous, apprehensive, excited. I’ve had a rough history with retinoid products, which I talked a bit about in my guide to visiting a dermatologist.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt the desire to incorporate a retinoid into my routine for the benefits of improved cell turnover. As I talked about in my previous post on retinoids, adapalene is the most gentle of the retinoids, and .1% is the lowest dosage.
Ultimately, my goal is to be able to use .025% tretinoin (tretinoin remains the gold standard in dermatology for “anti-aging” benefits), but I felt that adapalene would be a good way to ease into this and make the transition a bit less irritating. While I’m not there yet, my first few months on Differin have been pretty painless, truth be told, and my skin looks better than ever.
My Skin Profile
My skin is in relatively good shape. For some background, I’ve burnt very badly twice in my entire life – both times as a child – and have worn sunscreen in some capacity since I was 12 or 13. I’ve been blessed with pretty good acne genetics and only see acne flares around times of stress, excessive tiredness, autoimmune disease flare-ups, hormones, and of course, product changes. In fact, I’d say that products are the number one reason for most of my acne woes, as many of you who read this blog may already know. The longer or more complex the ingredient list, the more likely I am to avoid it at all costs.
Unfortunately, where I did not win the genetic lottery is in my rosacea. While it is blissfully mild due to catching it pretty early, it is persistent. It frequently creates small bumps along infraorbital triangle of my face (the area beneath the eye, above the nasolabial folds, and right beside the nose) as well as pockets of flushing. Even on my best days I have a bit of a rosy complexion. It does not cover well with makeup due to the flaky nature of the skin in this area, due to the rosacean redness.
My cheeks are the most sensitive portion of my face with my forehead being the least sensitive. Even makeup removing wipes feel too harsh and abrasive against my skin many times, and I can only use a very soft washcloth on my skin once a week.
My skin responds to irritation with acne breakouts. If I’ve pushed it too far with acids: acne. If I’ve pushed it too far with retinoids: acne. If I push it too far with physical exfoliants or a washcloth: acne. These breakouts are always tender, firm, under the skin bumps that linger for days to several weeks and leave flat scars.
I scar pretty easily, even in spots that I do not pick. For example, I am still fighting away hyperpigmentation on a spot that appeared on my cheekbone back in March of this year. Arbutin, azelaic acid, and other melanin-suppressants do not seem to do much for me in this regard.
The First Few Weeks
For the first three weeks, I went extremely slow. I applied every third night with the following routine:
- Apply sunscreen
- Apply makeup
- Cleanse makeup and/or sunscreen with Clinique Take the Day Off Balm
- Pat eyes and beneath my jaw dry with towel, leaving face wet.
- Apply HadaLabo Premium Lotion generously to wet skin
- Apply Cheryl Lee MD Lotion to skin while it is still damp
- Allow lotions to dry about 20 minutes
- Apply pea-sized amount of Differin .1% all over
I stopped usage when I experienced excessive tenderness during the day and resumed usage the next day. I experienced light peeling that was only visible when base makeup (like foundation or concealer) was applied. Some small breakouts surfaced on my forehead, near my hairline, and along my jaw. Breakouts resolved quicker and did not leave marks.
After around three weeks, I noticed that my skin peeled less and seemed less sensitive, so I bumped up usage to every other night. This is where I stayed under about month four.
Every Other Night
After the initial “every third night” period, I was able to bump up usage to every other night. This was where I was for quite awhile.
Initially, bumping the frequency caused slightly more peeling, but this was the only side-effect I noticed, and it began to subside around the seven week mark. I followed the same routine of application after moisturizing.
I noticed that my skin started to look glowier, healthier, more even-toned, and pigmentation began to subside a bit quicker. Makeup glided on easier, foundation looked better, and the pockets of flakes around my infraorbital triangle weren’t quite as bad. My rosacea also appeared to flare up slightly less.
Everything was going great until I tried to adjust my usage to every night.
Achieving Every Night Usage
Around the middle of August, shortly after the above selfie was taken, I decided that my skin felt ready for every night usage. It was not.
Within three nights, I began to break out in small spots around my forehead and chin. My nose became very tender to the touch. I tried to exclude my nose from this nightly ritual for awhile, but the rest of my face quickly joined the rebellion. After five nights, I eased back and skipped two days of usage entirely to allow time to heal. I went back to using it every other night for roughly two more weeks. Unfortunately, the breakouts did not subside. My skin almost seemed to be reverting back to pre-Differin times with clogs and breakouts.
Around September 1st, I tried again with the same pre-Differin routine in place. This time, my skin responded perfectly. The breakouts healed within days, the small clogs in my pores began to roll out with my nightly oil cleanse, and my nose didn’t even feel excessively tender. There was not even a peel in sight. Just smooth skin.
I’m a little over three weeks into this routine of every night and my skin feels no different (irritation wise) than it did at every other night.
While many people feel that application of Differin or other retinoids on dry skin is paramount, my experience has actually been opposite. As someone with extremely irritation-prone skin, moisturizing before applying my retinoid (and gradual introduction) has unquestioningly been the biggest factor of success. For me, application on dry skin always lead to redness, peeling, and excessive breakouts, possibly due to the increased TEWL and more compromised nature of the skin barrier post-cleansing.
I’ve also moved extremely slowly and patiently, unlike in the past where I had bum-rushed my way into retinoid usage. This was also a factor in reducing irritation and subsequent breakouts.
One note is that I haven’t really experienced any dryness. In fact, the Differin base seems fairly moisturizing to me. Again, I attribute a lot of this to the application of moisturizer after cleansing and before using Differin.
I imagine I’ll be able to introduce tretinoin at some point early next year – maybe by late this year – but for now, things are going great.
Have you tried using Differin .1%? How do you use it and how long was your breaking in period?