While it’s been around for quite some time, azelaic acid has picked up steam in the past few years. Many skincare enthusiasts are working it into their routine, since the ingredient offers a range of benefits. But there’s one big question on many people’s minds: does azelaic acid help acne? Let’s talk about whether you should add this ingredient to your acne-fighting skincare routine.
What is Azelaic Acid?
Azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid that can be naturally found in grains (although cosmetic formulas use a synthetically made form of this acid). In skincare, its benefits primarily come from its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It is also known to help brighten the complexion.
When you hear the term “acid”, you might think of exfoliating acids, such as glycolic and salicylic acids. While azelaic acid does have exfoliating properties, it’s much less aggressive than alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids. Like these ingredients, it can help improve texture and tone while clearing away pore-clogging debris. That said, it is a much milder exfoliant, and isn’t going to exfoliate as effectively as these ingredients.
Does Azelaic Acid Help Clear Acne?
Azelaic acid can play a role in helping to keep the complexion clear. Many use azelaic acid for hormonal acne, blackheads, whiteheads, and many other forms of breakouts. Many also use azelaic acid for fungal acne, since it has antimicrobial effects.
Research has shown that both prescription-strength azelaic acid formulas (around a 15% to 20% concentration) and over-the-counter formulas (at a 10% concentration) can help reduce acne. Since it has anti-inflammatory benefits, the ingredient can calm inflammatory acne and reduce irritation and redness tied to current breakouts. The antimicrobial properties also means it is able to kill-acne causing bacteria that can cause inflammation and lead to breakouts. Additionally, since it acts as a mild exfoliant, azelaic acid can help clear away dead skin cells and other debris that may clog the pores.
One thing to note is that azelaic acid isn’t known to have quite as powerful effects against acne compared to other extensively studied ingredients, such as benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and retinol. With this in mind, azelaic acid isn’t typically the first treatment recommended for tackling acne.
That said, azelaic acid can still be a particularly great addition to any acne-fighting skincare routine, and may be better tolerated by those with sensitive skin. It also plays well with a lot of other skincare ingredients, making it an easy ingredient to work into your routine. Ultimately, this means that azelaic acid can still be incredibly beneficial, even if it doesn’t completely eradicate breakouts on its own.
What are the Side Effects of Azelaic Acid?
Although azelaic acid is fairly gentle on the skin, this doesn’t mean it’s completely free of side effects. Azelaic acid can aggravate sensitive skin in some people, causing irritation or dryness. If you are thinking about adding it to your routine, you should try it on a small patch of skin to see how it reacts before using it on your entire face.
Since azelaic acid is gentle, it is generally considered to be a safe option for those with sensitive skin. Of course, if you have sensitive skin, you should still patch test to make sure your skin can tolerate the ingredient.
There’s another big question that many people have: is azelaic acid safe during pregnancy? Thankfully, azelaic acid is considered to be safe to use while pregnant. Since it’s a multitasking ingredient (we’ll cover some of its other benefits below), azelaic acid is often considered to be an excellent alternative to many other popular skincare ingredients that aren’t pregnancy safe, such as retinol, hydroquinone, and benzoyl peroxide.
Best Azelaic Products for Acne
If you’re considering adding azelaic acid to your skincare routine, there are a few different formulas on the market that are particularly great for acne-prone skin. While more potent prescription-based formulas (at 15% to 20%) have been shown to offer the best results, you can still benefit from over-the-counter formulas. I recommend sticking with options made with a 10% (or higher) concentration, as this has been proven in studies to be an effective concentration for acne.
Paula’s Choice – 10% Azelaic Acid Booster
Suitable for all skin types.
Serum is vegan and cruelty-free, and doesn’t contain fragrances or oils.
Fights Acne and Improves Tone and Texture
Azelaic acid, salicylic acid, and licorice root extract work together to diminish breakouts while brightening the complexion and improving uneven texture.
Potent Azelaic Acid Concentration
Formula is made with a 10% concentration of azelaic acid, which is on the higher side for over-the-counter formulas.
The Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster is all around one of the best azelaic acid products on the market, and is one that I personally use and highly recommend. It uses a potent 10% concentration of azelaic acid to target uneven tone and texture and reduce blemishes.
In addition to the azelaic acid, this formula is made with a 0.5% concentration of salicylic acid. The low concentration of this beta hydroxy acid works to gently exfoliate the skin, unclogging pores to further reduce the risk of breakouts. It also helps promote a more even skin tone. Licorice root extract also works to calm the skin and reduce redness, while also adding to the brightening abilities of the formula.
Beyond the great blend of ingredients, what also makes this product standout is the texture. It has a unique, lightweight cream-gel formula that absorbs quickly into the skin and works well under makeup. The flexible product is designed to either be used alone, or to be mixed with another serum or in your moisturizer. It’s also made without fragrances or oils, and is vegan and cruelty-free.
Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster Pros:
- Made with a potent and effective 10% concentration of azelaic acid.
- Formulated with salicylic acid, which unclogs pores to further fight breakouts.
- Vegan, cruelty-free, fragrance-free, and oil-free.
Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster Cons:
- On the pricier side for the amount of product you get.
The Ordinary – Azelaic Acid 10% Suspension Brightening Cream
Features Azelaic Acid
To help diminish post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation
Excellent for soothing acne, redness, and post-inflammatory red spots
Can be used by all skin types, including sensitive and reactive skin
Dries down into a matte finish
The Ordinary Azelaic Acid 10% Suspension Brightening Cream is the ideal choice for anyone looking for an affordable and super concentrated over-the-counter azelaic acid product to add to their routine. Like the Paula’s Choice option, it’s made with a powerful 10% concentration of azelaic acid. It works to treat and prevent breakouts while improving tone and texture, helping you achieve a clear and smooth complexion.
What makes this product different from the Paula’s Choice product is that azelaic acid is the only active ingredient. The formula is otherwise fairly simple.
The cream-based formula is lightweight, and penetrates quickly into the skin. This formula is also vegan, cruelty-free, and made without oils or fragrances.
The Ordinary Azelaic Acid 10% Suspension Brightening Cream Pros:
- Made with a potent 10% concentration of azelaic acid to improve texture, tone, and breakouts.
- Vegan and cruelty-free, and made without oil or fragrances.
The Ordinary Azelaic Acid 10% Suspension Brightening Cream Cons:
- Azelaic acid is the only active ingredient in this formula (which can be a con for those looking for a product with multiple actives).
Best with Glycolic Acid:
Glytone – Enhanced Brightening Complex
This powerful cream-based serum from Glytone combines azelaic acid with glycolic acid to tackle multiple forms of hyperpigmentation and acne
Suitable for all skin types (although those with sensitive skin should patch test).
Formula is made without pore-clogging ingredients, making it a suitable option for acne-prone skin.
Azelaic acid works to kill acne-causing bacteria and mildly exfoliate while calming inflammation for a clearer and more comfortable complexion.
Improves Texture and Tone
Glycolic acid and azelaic acid work together to brighten, lighten hyperpigmentation, and improve rough texture.
If you are dealing with acne and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (or any other forms of hyperpigmentation), a serum that I highly recommend checking out is the Glytone Enhance Brightening Complex.
This exfoliating formula is made with a powerful 12% concentration of azelaic acid, which makes it a slightly more potent option compared to the other recommendations on this list. This allows you to get the full benefits of this ingredient, as it’s almost as concentrated as prescription-based formulas.
Additionally, the serum is made with a 3% concentration of glycolic acid, which is an alpha hydroxy acid. Together, these ingredients are able to fight acne by killing acne-causing bacteria and exfoliating away pore-clogging debris. They also brighten the skin and fade the appearance of multiple forms of hyperpigmentation, and help to improve texture for a smoother and softer complexion.
The formula is also non-comedogenic (meaning it doesn’t contain ingredients known to clog pores), and is made without fragrances.
Glytone Enhance Brightening Complex Pros:
- Combines azelaic acid with glycolic acid for a powerful remedy against hyperpigmentation, uneven texture, and acne.
- Non-comedogenic and fragrance-free.
Glytone Enhance Brightening Complex Cons:
- May be too aggressive for more sensitive skin.
How to Use Azelaic Acid
Azelaic acid is generally considered to be safe to use up to two times per day, although this can depend on your skin type and how your skin reacts to the ingredient. This means most people can use it both morning and night (if desired, and if doing so works with the other products you currently use in your routine) to fight acne and get the other benefits of this multitasking ingredient.
It is best to work the ingredient into your routine gradually to ensure you don’t experience any adverse side effects. Even if you don’t end up using it twice daily, you’ll get the best results by using it consistently.
How Long Does It Take Azelaic Acid to Work?
Azelaic acid won’t immediately clear breakouts, so be sure to give it a bit of time before throwing in the towel. As a general rule of thumb, you can expect results around six to eight weeks for stronger prescription-based formulas. Over-the-counter products will typically take a bit longer.
Other Uses of Azelaic Acid
As mentioned, azelaic acid is a multitasking ingredient that can do a lot more than just treating acne. Azelaic acid is often considered to be an excellent treatment for rosacea-prone skin, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. It helps soothe the skin, reducing signs of inflammation (like redness and irritation) caused by this condition. Formulas made with a 15% concentration have been shown to be incredibly beneficial for those battling rosacea.
Azelaic acid is also often used to lighten hyperpigmentation (such as melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) and generally promote a brighter and more even skin tone. This is partially due to its ability to block the effects of tyrosinase. This enzyme plays an essential role in the production of melanin, which is responsible for skin pigment. Azelaic acid is often used as a gentler alternative to hydroquinone, an aggressive prescription-based skin lightening agent that can typically only be used for a short amount of time.
As mentioned, azelaic acid gently exfoliates and encourages skin cell turnover. This means that many use azelaic acid for acne scars. While it may help reduce the appearance of these scars, it likely won’t completely eradicate acne scars on its own.