A randomized, multicentre, investigator-masked study was conducted in 105 patients with mild to moderate acne vulgaris to compare the efficacy and safety of adapalene 0.1% gel with tretinoin 0.025% gel after three months of treatment, with particular emphasis on reduction in inflammatory lesion counts after one week of treatment and impact on quality of life. In terms of efficacy, adapalene gel was found to be superior to tretinoin gel after one week of treatment, with respect to reduction in inflammatory lesion counts (32% vs. 17%, respectively; P = 0.001), total lesion counts (28% vs. 22%, respectively; P = 0.042) and global severity grade (28% vs. 16%, respectively; P = 0.001). No significant difference between the two treatments was found after 12 weeks of treatment for any of these variables. Evaluation of facial skin tolerance parameters showed significant differences between the two treatments in favour of adapalene for dryness, erythema, immediate and persistent burning and pruritus for at least one time point. One patient in the adapalene group and three patients in the tretinoin group experienced medical events which lead to discontinuation of treatment (skin irritation; NS). Quality of life scores improved more rapidly in the adapalene group than in the tretinoin group, with significant differences (P < 0.05) appearing at week 1 for questions related to problems with partners, close friends or relatives and to skin symptoms. There was also a significantly greater improvement in social and leisure activity in the adapalene group at week 12. Adapalene 0.1% gel reduced inflammatory and total lesion counts more rapidly than tretinoin 0.025% gel, and was also better tolerated. These differences appear to result in an earlier and greater quality of life improvement for the patients receiving adapalene.