While Differin shouldn’t be used with salicylic acid at the same time, you can use them in separate routines to address inflammatory skin conditions such as acne.
I typically recommend sticking to Differin because it’s a more effective acne treatment, but some people may find that using both products leads to better results.
However, if you decide to use these two strong actives together, incorporating them into your skincare routine could have potential side effects.
Therefore, in this guide, I will explain how they both work and how to use Differin and salicylic acid together without irritating your skin and damaging your skin barrier in the process.
How Does Differin Work?
First of all, Differin is the name of a product manufactured by a Swiss company called Galderma which specializes in manufacturing cosmetic products for acne.
The main active ingredient in Differin is adapalene, which is a retinoid that targets acne by increasing cellular turnover to unclog the pores and fight the overgrowth of the acne-causing bacteria.
Increased cellular turnover helps decrease acne by helping dead skin cells shed more efficiently, which can prevent the buildup of excess skin cells clumped together with hardened sebum inside the pores.
This is important because the mixture of sebum and dead skin cells serves as food for the acne-causing bacteria, enabling it to grow and triggering the immune system to fight against this bacterial overgrowth by turning clogged pores into inflamed pimples.
So, theoretically, any retinoid can help improve acne, but the form (adapalene) used in Differin is unique due to its high strength and efficacy.
Differin is the strongest retinoid you can get over-the-counter in the US; however, a prescription for it is still required in Europe.
And although Differin can be extremely effective against acne, it still comes with a few side effects experienced by most people when they first start using it.
Some side effects of using Differin include:
- Peeling and shedding.
- Increased sun sensitivity.
How Does Salicylic Acid Work?
Salicylic acid is a BHA and an oil-soluble ingredient that can cut through the superficial skin oil and travel deeper into the pores, where it works to dissolve the gunk made up of dead skin cells, sebum, and cellular debris that’s causing a stiff clog in the pores.
This will, in turn, allow for our natural oil to flow freely out of the pores instead of remaining stuck inside and causing issues such as blackheads and acne.
While it may sound similar to the action of retinoids, instead of increasing cellular turnover, salicylic acid works by dissolving the sticky clog so that it can be flushed out of the pores.
However, some potential side effects that occur when you first start using salicylic acid are similar to retinoids and can include:
- Peeling and flaking.
- Dryness and irritation.
- Increased sun sensitivity.
How to Use Differin With Salicylic Acid?
If you are already using one, it doesn’t mean that you should completely stay away from the other and Differin can be used with salicylic acid, but not in the same skincare routine.
Since Differin is a retinoid and requires consistency, it’s better to prioritize this active ingredient. What I mean by this is to start slowly with the goal of building tolerance and being able to use Differin every night.
This process could last anywhere from four weeks to three months, depending on how your skin adapts to it.
However, it’s important to remember that retinoids (Differin included) require consistency and are better when playing the long game. This means that the longer you use Differin – the better your skin will get, which is why prioritizing it is more beneficial.
On the other hand, you can use salicylic acid only when you need it. This could be once or twice a week in the morning or (ideally) in the evenings when you’re not using Differin.
After using salicylic acid for the first time since starting Differin, you should monitor how your skin behaves for the next two days before continuing your regular Differin application.
From there, you will be good to go with applying salicylic acid once or twice a week and Differin on other nights with at least a day break in between that you would reserve for a simple, barrier-focused routine that doesn’t consist of any active ingredients but instead focuses on strengthening the skin barrier with products that contain ingredients such as ceramides, peptides, and nourishing components.
This is how you will get the best of both worlds without hurting your skin and potentially damaging its protective barrier.
After using salicylic acid and Differin for a while, you will notice considerable improvements in how your skin looks.
Skin issues such as acne, uneven skin tone, uneven skin texture, and even active post-inflammatory pigmentary changes (or post-inflammatory erythema) will be improved, and your skin will have an overall nice, glowy, and healthy appearance.
Side Effects of Using Differin With Salicylic Acid
While salicylic acid is generally a gentle ingredient, using it with Differin still has the potential to cause irritations and damage your skin barrier.
This is because not every skin will take to both actives the same way, and while this combo might do wonders for some, there’s no way to tell whether or not it will work for you until you try it.
However, due to the drying side of Differin and salicylic acid, your skin might become dehydrated and unable to retain moisture.
When this occurs, the skin usually becomes red, irritated, or even itchy and uncomfortable even when in contact with everyday chemicals, such as plain water.
Short-term effects of a damaged moisture barrier are peeling, irritation, redness, and discomfort; however, the long-term effects could be extremely sensitive skin and even some permanent conditions such as rosacea or irritant dermatitis.
This is why it’s important to be extremely careful with both actives as well as heavily rely on other hydrating and barrier-repairing products that contain ingredients such as ceramides, panthenol, zinc, shea butter, etc., that will help soothe, calm, and hydrate the skin while you’re using Differin with salicylic acid.
Additionally, if you start noticing any of the side effects mentioned, it’s important to give both actives a break and heal your skin barrier until you can try using them separately again.
Best Salicylic Acid Products for Acne
When using salicylic acid with Differin, the first thing you need to pay attention to is the percentage of salicylic acid in the product.
Salicylic acid can be found in over-the-counter products in concentrations of up to 2%; however, this percentage can be too much for skin retinized by Differin. Which is why you should stick to anything from 0.5% to 1% maximum.
Here are some of my favorite products that contain a mild percentage of salicylic acid and are excellent to be used alongside Differin:
Paula’s Choice – Redness Relief 1% BHA – $32
Paula’s Choice Redness Relief 1% BHA is a mild exfoliating product that contains the necessary percentage of salicylic acid to be effective against minor breakouts without irritating your skin.
Formulated with skin-soothing plant extracts, including allantoin, oat and licorice extract, and green tea, to calm redness for overly reactive skin and soothe irritation caused by harsh products.
It’s so mild that it can even be used on rosacea-prone skin and in combination with stronger actives such as retinoids.
Caudalie – Vinopure Blemish Control Salicylic Serum – $49
Caudalie’s Vinopure Blemish Control Salicylic Serum is a super-gentle, purifying formula that helps address acne without stressing the skin.
It contains 0.5% salicylic acid, which is suitable for sensitive or irritated skin, alongside naturally nourishing grape polyphenols, brightening and barrier-strengthening niacinamide, and organic rose water to hydrate and calm the skin.
Benton – Aloe BHA Skin Toner – $19
Benton’s Aloe BHA Skin Toner is a nourishing treatment that contains a blend of 0.5% salicylic acid, aloe, snail mucin, hyaluronic acid, polyglutamic acid, and beta-glucans to simultaneously hydrate and exfoliate your complexion without causing any skin irritations.
My name is Simone and I am a certified skin specialist. I created this website to teach my readers how to take great care of their skin and I also like to occasionally share my honest opinions on skincare products I’ve tried. You can learn more about me here.
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