Ever since the FDA approved Differin Gel 0.01% for over-the-counter retail in 2016, it has become a medicine cabinet staple for people dealing with acne.

This topical product (which is also available in a stronger prescription-strength formula) includes the active ingredient adapalene. This retinoid has been proven to be incredibly effective when it comes to preventing acne.

How Does Differin Gel Work?

Differin increases cell turnover rates, which keeps the pores from clogging. This ultimately prevents acne from forming in the first place. While Differin has been proven to be successful, it can also cause dryness and irritation to the skin. This means that it is essential that Differin users find a hydrating and healing moisturizer to pair with the gel. Read on to learn more about the side effects, as well as the best moisturizers to use with Differin gel.

Why Does Differin Cause Dry Skin?

Differin is an effective form of treatment for preventing acne, but it does come with some side effects. One of the most impressive facts about Differin is that it typically leads to less irritating side effects in comparison to other topical retinoids. That being said, most users do experience at least some mild side effects, particularly when they first start to use the product.

In the first few weeks of using the gel, many experience some redness, dryness, itching, and overall irritation in the skin. This reaction is called retinization. During retinization, the skin is adjusting to using the retinoid. Typically, these side effects subside after 4 weeks of continued use. With Differin (and any retinoid) there is also a risk of increased photosensitivity. To protect the skin, it is essential that you use an SPF during the day.

How to Use Differin With Moisturizer

In order to lessen the effects of this irritation, some people choose to "buffer"the product. This essentially means using it with a moisturizer. You can buffer Differin by either applying it after a moisturizer, or by mixing it with a moisturizer. These techniques will lower the concentration, which in turn means less irritation.

6 Best Moisturizers to Use with Differin Gel

In order to counteract the dryness that comes with using Differin gel – especially in the first few weeks – it is vital that you use effective hydrating products. These are the best moisturizers to use with Differin gel.

1. CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion (Oily Skin)

CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion (Oily Skin)

This drugstore find is one of the best moisturizers to use with Differin gel. It is oil-free, non-comedogenic, and lightweight, so you won’t have to worry about it clogging pores. The moisturizer is formulated with niacinamide, which can calm skin dealing with irritation from Differin. It also has ceramides and hyaluronic acid, which lock in hydration. While it is marketed towards night use, it can be used day and night – just be sure to use a sunscreen during the day.

How to Use: After cleansing and applying Differin, dispense a pump into your fingers. Gently massage the product into your skin. Users can also apply it before using Differin, or mix the two together to lessen the side effects. You can use the product day and night.

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2. CeraVe Moisturizing Cream (Very Dry Skin)

CeraVe Moisturizing Cream (Very Dry Skin)

This thick cream is commonly referred to as “CeraVe in the tub.” The popular drugstore find can effectively fight dry, irritated skin. This makes it one of the best moisturizers to use with Differin gel. CeraVe Moisturizing Cream is formulated with ceramides and hyaluronic acid, which attract moisture to the skin and restore the protective barrier. It is non-comedogenic, non-irritating, and also free of fragrance and oil. The cream is heavy but non-greasy, so it won’t feel uncomfortable on the skin.

How to Use: After cleansing and applying Differin, get about a pea size amount on your fingers. Gently massage the product into your skin. Users can also apply it before using Differin, or mix the two together to lessen the side effects. You can use the product day and night.

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3. Paula’s Choice Hydralight Moisture Infusing Lotion (Combination Skin)

Paula’s Choice Hydralight Moisture Infusing Lotion (Combination Skin)

This incredibly light lotion is barely detectable on the skin, but delivers some serious hydration. It contains a variety of powerful antioxidants that soothe the skin, as well as moisturizing glycerin and sodium hyaluronate (a derivative of hyaluronic acid). The formula doesn’t clog pores, and it glides onto the skin with a matte finish. These features make the lotion one of the best moisturizers to use with Differin gel

How to Use: After cleansing and applying Differin, dispense about a pea size amount on your fingers. Gently massage the product into your skin. Users can also apply it before using Differin, or mix the two together to lessen the side effects. You can use the product day and night.

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4. Dr. Jart Ceramidin Cream (Very Dry Skin)

Dr. Jart Ceramidin Cream (Very Dry Skin)

The Dr. Jart Ceramidin Cream boasts a 5-cera complex. This is a blend of all 5 ceramides, which work together to moisturize and strengthen the skin. These ceramides make this cream one of the best moisturizers to use with Differin gel. It also contains hyaluronic acid, which locks in hydration.

How to Use: For the best results, the Dr. Jart team recommends warming the cream in your hands and gently pressing it into the skin for the best absorption. Users can also apply it before using Differin, or mix the two together to lessen the side effects. You can use the product day and night.

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5. Hadalabo Gokujun Hyaluronic Lotion (All Skin Types)

Hadalabo Gokujun Hyaluronic Lotion (All Skin Types)

This hyaluronic acid serum is a wonderful addition to any of the moisturizers mentioned above. Since hyaluronic acid attracts moisture and retains water in the outer layer of the skin, it is an excellent ingredient to use to fight the drying effects of Differin. The Hadalabo Gokujun Hyaluronic Lotion is lightweight and comfortable on the skin. It is ideal to apply the product before a face moisturizer to rehydrate the skin.

How to Use: After cleansing your face and applying Differin, dispense a few drops into your palm. Gently massage it into your skin. Follow up with a face moisturizer. You can use the product 1 to 2 times per day.

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6. Vaseline Healing Jelly (Very Dry Skin)

Vaseline Healing Jelly (Very Dry Skin)

If you experience some extra-dry spots while on Differin, Vaseline can help. It is an excellent tool to have on hand to complement one of the moisturizers mentioned above. The ointment is made of 100% petrolatum, with no additional ingredients. It works by locking in moisture, and has been clinically proven to help heal dry skin.

How to Use: After applying moisturizer, take some of the ointment and gently massage it into any areas that are extra dry, such as around the nose. Note that this has a heavier, slightly greasy consistency, so you may prefer to use it on the face at night.

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FAQs

Do I have to use differin forever?

You may not have to use differin forever, however, using it for a long period of time will deliver the best results. You should continue to use the product after your acne has faded, or you run the risk of it coming back. In fact, studies show that persistent use of retinoids deliver maximum results. Talk with your dermatologist about how long you'll be on differin. 

Can you put moisturizer over Differin gel?

It is essential that you use a moisturizer with Differin gel. The topical product can irritate and dry the skin, so a moisturizer will mitigate the effects. Applying a moisturizer after Differin will allow your skin to get the full concentration of the product. You can also apply moisturizer before Differin, or mix the two together. This will reduce the concentration, and lessen the risk of side effects.

Should I exfoliate while using Differin?

Since Differin aids in the cell turnover process, it helps the skin naturally exfoliate on its own. This means you may not even feel the need to exfoliate. It is best to stay away from physical or chemical exfoliants while using Differin, particularly when starting the product. They can lead to over-exfoliation, which can cause irritation. Once your skin has adjusted to using Differin, you may be able to use a gentle exfoliator, but they should not be used at the same time.

Can Differin make acne worse?

When using Differin, your acne may get worse before it gets better. If you stick through it and continue to apply the product, you should begin to see things turn around approximately 4 weeks after starting Differin. According to a clinical study, after 12 weeks, patients saw up to an 87% decrease in acne with continued use.

Summary: Best Moisturizers to Use with Differin Gel

The Bottom Line

  • Differin is an effective treatment for acne that generally has less irritating side effects than other retinoids.
  • The active ingredient in Differin is adapalene, which is a retinoid.
  • Side effects include dryness, irritation, itchiness, and redness, particularly during the first few weeks. This is due to a process called retinization. During this period, the skin is adjusting to the new retinoid.
  • The best moisturizers to use with Differin gel include CeraVe PM, CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, Paula’s Choice Hydralight Moisture Infusing Lotion, and Dr. Jart Ceramidin Cream.
  • Hadalabo Gokujun Hyaluronic Lotion and Vaseline are great additional moisturizing products to have on hand while using Differin.