In the beauty world that’s largely dominated by cult-favorites like retinol, hyaluronic acid, AHAs and salicylic acid, azelaic acid is quickly emerging as the underdog of skincare that deserves its fair share of the spotlight.
Here, three board-certified dermatologists give the low-down on this underrated skincare savior:
First off, what is azelaic acid?
Azelaic acid, otherwise known as dicarboxylic acid, is an organic compound that can be found in grains such as barley, wheat and rye, tells Dr. Heidi Goodarzi, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Juvive Women’s and Pediatric Dermatology.
The versatile ingredient is well-regarded among dermatologists for the slew of skincare benefits it offers. Azelaic acid is effective in treating both comedonal and inflammatory acne as well as rosacea thanks to its antibacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, says Dr. Goodarzi. Besides, “azelaic acid is also used for treating skin pigmentation concerns, including melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)—especially among darker skin patients,” notes the skincare specialist.
In addition, “azelaic acid acts as a gentle exfoliant that can be a good option for those with sensitive skin,” says Dr. Marisa Garshick, New York-based board-certified dermatologist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Cornell University. Moreover, “because it is thought to selectively act on the abnormal pigment cells while sparing the normal pigment cells, it can safely be used on the whole face—not just the darker areas—if being used to treat hyperpigmentation,” tells Dr. Garshick. As if all that’s not enough, due to the keratolytic effects of azelaic acid, it can also be used by itself or in conjunction with other exfoliating acids for treating keratosis pilaris, adds the dermatologist.
Who should use azelaic acid?
While many people can benefit from using azelaic acid, it’s especially good for those dealing with rosacea and pigmentation (such as melasma), says Dr. Garshick.
It’s also great for treating acne, particularly in those who have more sensitive skin that’s unable to tolerate other zit-fighting active ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid or retinoids, notes the dermatologist. “I especially like it for those who develop post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from their acne as it can help with both the acne as well as the discoloration,” she adds.
Moreover, azelaic acid is considered safe to use even if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, tells Dr. Garshick.
“That said, as with any medication, it is always advised to check first with your OB-GYN to confirm if it’s okay for you to use,” she adds.
Azelaic Acid 101: Everything you need to know before you start using it
Although it is a gentle skincare ingredient, azelaic acid can cause mild irritation or sensitivity, especially if you’re using a higher concentration, tells Dr. Garshick. “This may result in redness, dryness or peeling of the skin. The condition typically improves within a few weeks of use,” says the skincare expert.
Dr. Garshick recommends doing a patch test before applying the product to your face. “If you experience dryness or sensitivity, start by using it two to three times per week or skip a few days if needed,” she suggests.
It’s also important to choose a skincare product that contains 15% to 20% azelaic acid. “Over the counter formulations of 10% or lower may or may not be effective,” says Dr. Goodarzi.
And once you incorporate it into your skincare routine, be consistent. It can typically take four to six weeks before you notice any desirable results, so patience is key, says Dr. Caren Campbell, Bay Area-based board-certified dermatologist. “I would use it along with a good moisturizer, a gentle cleanser and a sulfur wash (if you’re dealing with acne or rosacea),” tells the skincare specialist. In addition, avoid combining it with other acids like AHA/BHA as it can increase the chances of dryness and irritation, suggests Dr. Campbell.
Lastly, practice healthy skincare habits as well. “No single ingredient can do everything, so it’s important to make sure you’re taking care of your skin in all areas and not neglecting other key factors like sun protection, hydration, etc.,” adds Dr. Goodarzi.
The best azelaic acid-infused skincare products for you
So, are you ready to experience the benefits of azelaic acid yourself? Cool! Here are six derm-approved skincare products to try rn:
All three dermatologists are a fan of this lightweight, exfoliating face cream that’s enriched with azelaic acid and glycolic acid to help improve the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmentation. “It helps improve both tone and texture and leaves the skin brighter and radiant,” says Dr. Garshick. “Because both azelaic acid and glycolic acid are considered safe in pregnancy at the concentrations included in this product, it is also a good option for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, though it is always best to first check with your doctor,” she tells.
This pocket-friendly option is another derm-favorite. Its lightweight cream-gel formula works on your skin to reduce discoloration, boost radiance and improve skin texture and tone. Plus, “it’s gentle enough to use twice a day,” tells Dr. Garshick.
This fragrance-free gel features a potent cocktail of salicylic acid, azelaic acid and niacinamide to tackle breakouts and improve the appearance of acne scars. Its formula also contains probiotics extracted from chicory root to help brighten and even skin tone.
“This bar is a great option for those dealing with hyperpigmentation as it combines azelaic acid with kojic acid and niacinamide which helps to reduce discoloration and improve skin tone,” says Dr. Garshick. Plus, it’s gentle enough for daily use and safe for all skin types, she adds.
Dr. Goodarzi recommends this cream-gel that combines the goodness of azelaic acid and salicylic acid to soothe redness, improve the appearance of blemishes and smooth uneven skin texture. Its oil-free, lightweight formula makes it an ideal option for those who have combination or oily skin.
“I often recommend this 15% azelaic acid formulation to my patients as the foam is lightweight, easy to apply and helps to reduce breakouts and blemishes,” says Dr. Garshick. The foam-based formula spreads easily making it easy to use on the face, chest or back, adds the skincare expert.