Azelaic acid comes with a range of benefits from gently exfoliating the skin to reducing inflammation, treating acne, and calming rosacea. Here’s everything you need to know about the wonder skincare ingredient
Azelaic acid may not be as well known as the likes of glycolic acid or hyaluronic acid but it’s become a hugely popular ingredient, generating more than 22,000 searches a month because of the benefits it brings to acne sufferers.
Not only do doctors swear by its ability to tackle mild to moderately inflamed acne, azelaic acid can also be used to treat moderate rosacea as well as hyperpigmentation.
Although higher strengths of azelaic acid are available via your doctor, the good news is you can get azelaic acid over the counter without a prescription, so if you haven’t tried it already it may well be worth trying products with azelaic acid.
There’s also an increasing number of skincare brands, including mamabella favourite The Ordinary, that now have bestselling products full of this wonder ingredient.
Read on to find out more about azelaic acid – from what it does to how it works, how to use it, and what to look for when adding it to your skincare routine.
This guide is the latest in our Ingredient Spotlight series where we attempt to demystify the art of understanding what the many, many ingredients in skincare and makeup do.
Azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid derived from grains, such as rye, wheat, and barley. It’s not an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), nor a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) and instead is produced by yeast that occurs on our skin naturally.
However, in skincare, it’s almost always chemically engineered in a lab to make sure it’s stable and effective.
In addition to being comedolytic, meaning it prevents blackheads and works to exfoliate deep within the pores, it’s also keratolytic, which means it breaks down excess keratin that causes rough or bumpy skin.
The reason azelaic acid is so good is because it has a range of benefits. It gently exfoliates, reduces inflammation, evens skin tone, helps with both acne and rosacea, and possibly in the future could be used to treat alopecia and hair loss.
Azelaic acid can be found in gel, foam, or cream skincare products and each is designed to be used on different parts of your body.
For example, a foam may be better for larger parts of your body, whereas a gel may be better to be used on your face.
The azelaic acid treatments available on prescription are usually prescribed in two concentrations of 15% or 20%. The azelaic acid products available over the counter are around 10% or less in concentration, but they’ll still benefit your skin in a big way and results can be seen after just eight weeks of use.
There is a wide number of azelaic acid benefits for a wide range of skin types and concerns.
Azelaic acid for acne: Azelaic acid has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which is why it’s good for acne. Azelaic acid can also prevent future outbreaks by cleaning the bacteria from your pores that cause acne. Azelaic acid works well for acne because it gently encourages cell turnover, so your skin heals more quickly and your acne scars are minimised. Note: If you have severe acne then azelaic acid is probably too mild for you. You may be better off using salicylic acid or glycolic acid instead.
Azelaic acid for rosacea: Azelaic acid treats rosacea in a number of ways. It is a mild exfoliator that helps to remove dead skin cells and reduce inflammation. It also has antibacterial properties that can help to reduce the overgrowth of bacteria on the skin. Additionally, azelaic acid can help to improve the appearance of redness and flushing.
Azelaic acid for hyperpigmentation and dark spots: Azelaic acid is known to block the enzyme tyrosinase, meaning it reduces melanin production within the skin. This makes it a good ingredient to treat hyperpigmentation and dark spots. Just be aware that the less melanin you produce, the less natural protection you have from the sun’s rays, so make sure to use an SPF daily.
Azelaic acid for textured skin: If you’ve found glycolic acid, lactic acid, or mandelic acids too harsh for your skin, azelaic acid is a great alternative because it’s a milder exfoliant. This means if you have rough, bumpy skin; mildly or moderately inflamed acne; as well as dry or sensitive skin, then azelaic acid is worth a try.
Azeliac acid for melasma: Melasma is a type of hyperpigmentation that appears are patches of dark skin on your face, chest, and other parts of your body. It’s sometimes called “pregnancy mask” because it is a common side effect of being pregnant. In the same way azelaic acid treats other forms of hyperpigmentation and dark spots, it’s good for melasma because it inhibits tyrosinase. This means it helps to block the production of melanin. Additionally, azelaic acid can help to exfoliate the skin, which can help to improve the appearance of dark patches.
Like with all new ingredients, when you first start using azelaic acid, make sure you introduce it gradually. Just in case it causes a reaction. This also gives your skin time to get used to the exfoliating properties. It’s more gentle than other acids, but that doesn’t mean it is always problem-free.
We recommend applying it at night three-four times a week for a fortnight before increasing the frequency. Once your skin is used to it, you can use azelaic acid daily, morning and night.
For the best results, use it after cleansing and toning but before applying moisturiser.
Azelaic acid is safe to use when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding but if you’re unsure, or if you have acne and you’re using other acne treatments, we recommend you speak to your doctor or dermatologist first.
Yes, azelaic acid can be used with retinol. In fact, the two ingredients can be very effective when used together.
Retinol is a type of Vitamin A that was originally developed as an acne treatment before its anti-ageing benefits were discovered. It can help to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as improve the overall texture of the skin.
When used together, azelaic acid and retinol boost each other’s effects. Retinol can help to increase the production of collagen, while azelaic acid can help to reduce inflammation and improve the skin’s texture.
However, it is important to start slowly when using these two ingredients together. You may want to start by using each ingredient on its own for a few weeks before combining them. This will help to assess your skin’s tolerance for both ingredients.
Just be aware that azelaic acid is an exfoliant, so just make sure you don’t use too many other acids and if you do use more than one, maybe start with just one other resurfacing ingredient and then build up to more.
Although azelaic acid is milder than other acids, there’s still a small chance it could make your skin flare up and become red if your skin is overly sensitive.
FURTHER READING: The truth about the acids lurking in your skincare
If your skin is congested and you haven’t used azelaic acid before there is a chance that it will cause skin purging.
Purging is your body’s way of clearing out all the gunk and while it can be disconcerting when a product you’re using to treat acne makes it look worse, this is usually temporary. It can also be more than worth the hassle.
This is because, after a few weeks of purging, your skin will start to clear and look much better than before. You just need to be patient and persevere. We explain more about purging and how to handle it here.
The one caveat to add to this, however, is that if you find your skin becomes more inflamed or your acne becomes more painful, you may be having a reaction to the azelaic acid. This isn’t purging and you should stop using the product, or reduce its usage.
Here’s our pick of the best azelaic acid skincare products for a range of skin conditions and budgets.
£40 | Buy now
This lightweight serum is formulated with 10% azelaic acid.
The serum also contains niacinamide, which helps to brighten the skin and reduce the appearance of blemishes.
It is particularly good as an alternative for people sensitive to benzoyl peroxide and it visibly fades brown spots caused by sun damage, reduces breakouts and red marks from past blemishes as well as making the skin look more radiant and even.
£9.90 | Buy now
This affordable serum is a great option if you’re looking for a simple, effective azelaic acid treatment. It contains 10% azelaic acid, which is suspended in a silicone base.
This makes the serum lightweight and easy to apply however, it can be drying for some skin types so is great for oily skin types but might be worth avoiding if you have combination or dry skin.
We explain more about why we love this serum in our The best The Ordinary products for all your skincare concerns guide.
£26 | Buy now
Face Theory is a brand renowned for helping clear acne and skin problems and its Lumizela Azelaic Acid serum is now exception.
Formulated with 15% azelaic acid, which is a higher concentration than many other azelaic acid products, the serum also contains niacinamide, licorice extract, and hyaluronic acid, which help to soothe and hydrate the skin.
£19.99 | Buy now
The Dermatica Clarifying Azelaic Acid cream is formulated with 20% azelaic acid.
It’s non-comedogenic and fragrance-free, making it a good option for those with sensitive skin, too.
If you’re not sure if this serum is right for you, you can book a consultation with a Dermatica specialist and they’ll be able to explain more and create a personalised formula.
£26 | Buy now
If you haven’t heard of Typology, it’s a no-BS, affordable skincare brand from France. It recently launched in the UK and one of its bestselling products is the Mattifying serum.
It’s formulated with 10% azelaic acid well as niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and green tea extract.
As the name suggests, this serum helps to mattify the skin, reduce the appearance of blemishes, and protect the skin from free radicals.
All of these products are effective in treating a variety of skin conditions, but they have different strengths and weaknesses. It is important to choose the product that is right for your individual needs and skin type.
Kat is a freelance journalist, photographer, and the founder of Simply Gender Free – a company dedicated to smashing gender stereotypes in kids’ products. As a mum of two, Kat is passionate about making the world a better place for the next generation