This $12 Acne Gel Has Over 20,000 Perfect Ratings on Amazon

You don’t need a prescription or a bundle of cash to banish blemishes forever. This affordable treatment can work miracles on your skin.

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Whether you’re 14 or 40, chances are you’ve had some experience battling acne. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, acne is the most common skin condition in the country, impacting up to 50 million people annually. This is why the skin-care industry is flooded with thousands of products—prescription and over-the-counter—promising to help clear your skin of pesky pimples once and for all. The only problem? The majority of them don’t work. Ask anyone who has battled acne how much money they have invested over the years in hopes of finding a solution and you might be shocked by their response.

However, there is one over-the-counter acne treatment that does work: Differin Gel. It has the seal of approval from dermatologists, the FDA, and more than 20,000 Amazon reviewers who gave it a perfect five-star rating. Find out how it works, if it can help you, and whether you should incorporate it into your everyday skin-care routine.

What is Differin Gel?

Differin 0.1% is a type of retinoid called adapalene, a derivative of vitamin A, explains Nazanin Saedi, MD, a dermatologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals and the director of the Jefferson Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatology Center. Up until recently, you couldn’t walk into your local drugstore and pick it up off the shelf or buy it with the click of a button on Amazon. “It used to be available by prescription only, but a few years ago, the prescription-strength dose became over the counter,” she explains.

It was first approved as a prescription drug in 1996, and it quickly became a favorite acne treatment among teenagers and adults alike. If you didn’t want to see a doctor, your options mainly consisted of products containing benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Twenty years later, in 2016, the FDA approved Differin 0.1% as the first retinoid to be made available over the counter for the treatment of acne, noting that it contained the first new active ingredient for acne treatment for over-the-counter use since the 1980s. Differin 0.1% cream, 0.1% lotion, and 0.3% gel are still available with a prescription.

By the way, you might be interested in these LED masks for their acne-fighting and anti-aging benefits, too.

How it works

Differin’s adapalene works by increasing your skin’s cell turnover, Dr. Saedi explains. In layman’s terms, cell turnover is the constant process of your skin shedding old cells and producing new ones. When you have acne, the cell turnover process isn’t quite so efficient: More dry cells are produced, and they don’t shed properly; this promotes clogged pores. Differin helps to restore your skin’s natural cell turnover rhythm. “This works for acne,” Dr. Saedi notes, “because it prevents whiteheads and clogged pores from forming.” In addition to preventing further outbreaks, it helps to clear up any existing blemishes, as well.

FYI, the product is not intended for one-off pimples as a spot treatment, or for a period of breakouts. According to the company, “if you get acne on the face, Differin Gel should be applied to the entire face. It’s meant for once-daily use, even when you see no signs of acne.” Wondering why you’re breaking out? Here’s what the acne on every part of your body is trying to tell you.

It has some other perks

In addition to treating and preventing acne, this miracle gel addresses acne-related inflammation and even scarring. “It also helps with any discoloration from acne by increasing the turnover so you get rid of the hyperpigmentation,” Dr. Saedi adds. Basically, as it helps to shed your dead, damaged, and inflamed skin, it simultaneously promotes the growth of new skin, unveiling clearer skin.

There are also anti-aging benefits to using Differin. After all, it is a retinoid. By promoting cell turnover, it stimulates collagen production, which results in younger-looking skin. Dr. Saedi sometimes uses it for this purpose herself, in lieu of other stronger, prescription-only retinoid treatments. “I personally use it in the winter months because it is less irritating than Retin-A,” she reveals. If you need something with more hydration, check out these anti-aging creams dermatologists trust the most.

Who it is good for?

Differin is approved for use for anyone over 12 who suffers from acne. It is safe for any skin type—normal, combination, or oily. Plus, as Dr. Saedi mentioned, it’s a great option for anyone who is looking for an anti-aging product but doesn’t want to go to the doctor to fill a pricey prescription, such as Retin-A, or who finds prescription-strength retinol products too harsh for their skin.

Who shouldn’t use it? While there is no evidence that Differin is dangerous for pregnant women, the brand suggests checking with your doctor “if you are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or breastfeeding.” Most medical professionals will recommend not using it during pregnancy, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Additionally, it should not be used in conjunction with products containing alpha-hydroxy, salicylic, or glycolic acids, as the combination of products can worsen irritation. “Irritation may occur if using more than one topical acne product at a time,” the brand explains.

While it is totally fine to shave while using the product, it’s not a great idea to wax any areas where the product has been applied. (Ouch!) Additionally, take extra caution when heading outdoors, since acne treatments can leave skin more vulnerable to the sun’s rays. Make sure to limit your time in the sun, and get in the habit of using a sunscreen every day. Check out this list of face sunscreens you’ll be happy to wear.

How you should use it

Portrait of young Asian woman applying acne cream/moisturizer on her face by looking a pocket mirror.Boy_Anupong/Getty Images

Dr. Saedi suggests easing into Differin Gel use. “It is irritating at first, so I recommend using it every third day, then every other day, then eventually every night,” she says. As the product is working its magic and shedding dead skin cells, you might experience dryness, redness, and slight burning or stinging—something derms refer to as retinization. This is totally normal and all part of the process, but, of course, if your reaction seems extreme, talk to a professional.

As with any retinoid treatment, be sure to use sunscreen during the day, as your skin will likely be more sensitive. Also, users suggest washing your face and then thoroughly drying it before applying the gel. And whatever you do, don’t try to accelerate the process by popping pimples.

It works…but not overnight

This gel has more than 26,800 reviews on Amazon, averaging a 4.5-star rating, and it is one of the online retailer’s top-selling skin-care items. Many reviewers have shared before-and-after photos documenting their transformation using the product, and they are pretty impressive, to say the least.

However, many users point out that it takes time to work (the brand suggests giving it at least 90 days) and that during the retinization process, your skin might look worse before it gets better. However, remember that it is just part of the process of cell turnover. “Be patient and be realistic!” one reviewer writes. “Your acne did not appear overnight and will not disappear overnight. If you stick with this, it WILL work.” (If you want to know exactly what to expect, Differin outlines the process on its website, explaining what will happen each week.)

Still on the fence? Another reviewer raves, “This is the only product that has ever cleared up my acne, and I have tried many, including prescriptions. It took about six to eight weeks to see a difference…but it works. It has made my skin look so much better. It also doesn’t dry my skin out like every other product.”

How much it costs

Currently, a 30-day supply of Differin Gel (0.5-ounce) is $12.88 on Amazon—and even less if you subscribe to repeat deliveries. Before you check out, you might also want to pick up a few of these other Amazon products you’ll also use every day.

You might also love these other Differin products

If you become as obsessed with this gel as the thousands of Amazon reviewers, you might want to check out Differin’s other products. Other worthy picks include a dark spot correcting serum, a cleanser, and a restorative night moisturizer, and they’re all under $20. Next, learn the other beauty and style secrets of women who always look put together.

Differin acne gelvia amazon.comDifferin Gel, $12.88

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Next, read about another skincare product we love: the Aztec clay mask.


  • American Academy of Dermatology: “Skin Conditions by the Numbers”
  • Nazanin Saedi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals and the director of the Jefferson Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatology Center
  • FDA: “FDA approves Differin Gel 0.1% for over-the-counter use to treat acne”
  • American Academy of Dermatology: “Is Any Acne Treatment Safe to Use During Pregnancy?”

Leah Groth
Leah Groth covers everything from cleaning hacks and consumer products to travel and pets for Reader’s Digest. When she isn’t working on a piece, you’ll find her chasing after her four children (two humans, a Vizsla and a German Shorthaired Pointer) or working on her 100-plus-year-old home outside Philadelphia.