Dark Spot Correcting Serum
Differin’s Dark Spot Correcting Serum has a key ingredient that puts it in contention to treat hyperpigmentation – then takes a step back with some poor ingredient choices.
This gel-serum comes in an opaque bottle with a pump dispenser, which protects its beneficial ingredients from light and air exposure, so they last longer. While initially somewhat viscous, it absorbs quickly without a sticky residue, leaving skin smooth. Its non-pilling texture works well both over or under other skin care products.
The star of the show here is a 2% concentration of hydroquinone, the gold standard when it comes to addressing dark spots on skin such as those caused by sun damage or hormonal changes. Serving as support is sea buckthorn oil, which is a good source of vitamin C and other antioxidants. Unfortunately, that’s where the positives end.
Drying denatured alcohol is among the inactive ingredients (though because this is an over-the-counter drug, its ingredients are listed in alphabetical order rather than the order of concentration, so it’s hard to tell how much of it is here), and alcohol compromises skin’s barrier (see More Info for details on why alcohol in skin care is so problematic). The alcohol is so prominent that you can smell it as soon as you pump out this product! Also disappointing is the inclusion of fragrance, which puts skin at risk for irritation.
A quick comment about Differin’s claims that this lightens post-acne marks: hydroquinone will only do this if melanin (skin pigment) is a component of these marks. Melanin is often a factor in the tan to dark brown post-acne marks on dark skin tones, but hydroquinone will not lighten pink-to-red marks that tend to occur for fair to light skin tones.
While the active ingredient here is proven and effective, there are far better options that are gentler to skin and just as potent.
- Includes 2% hydroquinone, the gold standard for brightening dark spots.
- Contains antioxidant-rich sea buckthorn oil.
- Packaged to protect its light- and air-sensitive ingredients.
- Contains drying alcohol, which puts skin at risk for irritation.
- Includes fragrance, which poses additional risk for irritation.
Alcohol-Based Skincare Products: Research makes it clear that alcohol, as a main ingredient in any skincare product, especially one you use frequently and repeatedly, is a problem.
When we express concern about the presence of alcohol in skincare or makeup products, we’re referring to denatured ethanol, which most often is listed as SD alcohol, alcohol denat., denatured alcohol, or (less often) isopropyl alcohol.
When you see these types of alcohol listed among the first six ingredients on an ingredient label, without question the product will irritate and cause other problems for skin. There’s no way around it—these volatile alcohols are simply bad for all skin types.
The reason they’re included in products is because they provide a quick-drying finish, immediately degrease skin, and feel weightless, so it’s easy to see their appeal, especially for those with oily skin. If only those short-term benefits didn’t lead to negative long-term outcomes!
Using products that contain these alcohols will cause dryness, erosion of skin’s protective barrier, and a strain on how skin replenishes, renews, and rejuvenates itself. Alcohol just weakens everything about skin.
The irony of using alcohol-based products to control oily skin is that the damage from the alcohol can actually lead to an increase in breakouts and enlarged pores. As we said, the alcohol does have an immediate de-greasing effect on skin, but it causes irritation, which eventually will counteract the de-greasing effect and make your oily skin look even more shiny.
There are people who challenge us on the information we’ve presented about alcohol’s effects. They often base their argument on a study in the British Journal of Dermatology (July 2007, pages 74–81) that concluded “alcohol-based hand rubs cause less irritation than hand washing….” But, the only thing this study showed was that alcohol was not as irritating as an even more irritating hand wash, which contained sodium lauryl sulfate. So, the study is actually just telling you that one irritant, sodium lauryl sulfate, is worse than another irritant, alcohol.
Not all alcohols are bad. For example, there are fatty alcohols, which are absolutely non-irritating and can be beneficial for skin. Examples that you’ll see on ingredient labels include cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and cetearyl alcohol, all of which are good ingredients for skin. It’s important to differentiate between these skin-friendly alcohols and the problematic alcohols.
References for this information:
Chemical Immunology and Allergy, March 2012, pages 77–80
Aging, March 2012, pages 166–175
Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, November 2008, pages 1–16
Dermato-Endocrinology, January 2011, pages 41–49
Experimental Dermatology, June 2008, pages 542–551
Clinical Dermatology, September-October 2004, pages 360–366
Alcohol Journal, April 2002, pages 179–190
Differin Dark Spot Correcting Serum helps to lighten post-acne marks, hyperpigmentation, blotches, age spots, and even freckles. Made with hydroquinone 2% to gradually fade post-acne marks, hyperpigmentation, and blotches to improve overall tone and clarity. Clear serum formula goes on invisibly under makeup. With antioxidant sea buckthorn berry oil to help soothe skin and citric acid to help renew the skin's surface.
As a brand, Differins come a long way in just a few short years. Originally Differin was the brand-name of the prescription retinoid adapalene, but in addition to the original adapalene-containing Differin Gel, they now offer a growing number of products available over the counter with a focus on treating and preventing acne.
The biggest change for Differin came in 2016, when, after two decades of being prescribed by doctors for acne, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the original Differin Gel for use over-the-counter. The move marked the first new drug approved for OTC acne treatment since the 1980s!
With the formula essentially unchanged since its introduction, Differin Gel remains a good alternative for those with stubborn acne that hasnt responded to more traditional treatments. To supplement their star product, Galderma, the parent company behind Differin, now offers additional products, such as a cleanser and a few moisturizers, each designed for breakout-prone skin. Overall, theyre relatively stripped-down formulas and dont offer much in the way of cutting-edge ingredients, but they are fragrance-free and gentle on acne-prone skin for the most part.
For more information about Differin, visit https://www.differin.com or call 1-866-735-4137.
Note: Because Differin is a pharmaceutical company, the original Differin Gel formula was tested on animals. However, the brand has stated in an email that their other non-drug skin care products are not tested on animals. As such, this brand's animal-testing status is a sort of grey area for consumers and we've decided to err on the side of caution and keep them on our list of brands that do test on animals, with this caveat, so each individual can make this very personal decision for themselves.
About the Experts
The Beautypedia team consists of skin care and makeup experts personally trained by the original Cosmetics Cop and best-selling beauty author, Paula Begoun. We’re fascinated by skin care and makeup products and thrilled when they meet or exceed our expectations, but we’re also disappointed when they fail to perform as claimed, are wildly overpriced, or contain ingredients scientific research has proven can hurt skin.
Our mission has always been to help you find the best products for your skin, no matter your budget or preferences. Beautypedia’s thorough and insightful reviews cut through the hype and provide reliable recommendations for all ages, skin types, and skin tones.