Azelaic is popping up more frequently in skincare, but what exactly is it good for?

liquid gel or serum drop
Why you need to add azelaic acid to your routine Anna Efetova - Getty Images

As a beauty editor I can always tell that an ingredient is destined for greatness when it starts to flies solo on product packaging. Usually, it's a distinction reserved for the established actives such as hyaluronic, retinol and vitamin C, the type of MVPs that doctors and dermatologists have been hyping for years. Lately however, there is one trendy active that's landing front and centre on tubs and bottles: Azelaic acid.

One of it's biggest advocates is dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting, who recently revealed 'this powerhouse ingredient has been my go-to for years for its many benefits, including antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, redness-reducing and unclogging properties.'

Not au fait with the the latest superstar of the skincare world? Consider this expert your 101 from the UK's leading skincare figures.


What does azelaic acid do for your skin?

When it comes to this under the radar acid there isn't much this high achiever can't do.

Azelaic acid (pronounced 'ah-zeh-lay-ik') belongs to a class of ingredients called dicarboxylic acids and has been shown to do the following

  1. Significantly reduce the number of acne-forming bacteria on the skin

  2. Reduce the amount of free fatty acids and lipids on the skin surface all of which contribute to acne.

  3. Inhibits tyrosinase, the enzyme responsible for the release of the pigment melanin which causes hyperpigmentation

'It is one of the lesser known skincare ingredients but it has multiple actions and uses,' explains Dr Christine Hall at the Taktouk Clinic. 'As a result of its anti-inflammatory, anti-pigmentation, antioxidant and anti-microbial proprieties it is especially useful for those with acne, rosacea and hyperpigmentation,' she adds.

Can all skin types benefit from azelaic acid?

The good new is yes, Dr Ophelia Veraitch from Get Harley, tells me. 'It is a good general skincare active for most people particularly those prone to acne, rosacea, pigmentation, as well as those with ‘normal’ skin and those who want some rejuvenation. I would just be careful using azelaic in patients with dry or inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema.'

Is azelaic acid as good as retinol?

Hate to break it to you but a direct comparison between these two just can't really be made. Dr Hall explains why. 'Azelaic acid is different to retinol. Whilst retinol will remain my gold standard for anti ageing, azelaic acid is an underused ingredient.'

How are they different you ask? While exfoliating acids such as azelaic work by dissolving the surface layers of the skin, triggering the production of new cells from deeper layers to replace those lost, retinol instead binds itself to receptors within the skin cells, revving up the production of new cells so much so that the top layer sheds to reveal brighter, healthier skin. This is what makes retinol powerful but also irritating to some skin types.

'Unlike retinol, one big bonus of azelaic is that it is safe to use in pregnancy. It is also really good for those with sensitive skin who cannot tolerate a retinol or for those with acne who cannot tolerate ingredients like benzoyl peroxide,' adds Dr Hall.

What should you not mix with azelaic acid?

First off, you need to try using it by itself to make sure your skin agrees with it and to avoid irritation. 'This will prevent your skin from becoming overwhelmed, irritated and dry,' advises Alice Henshaw, Founder of Skincycles and an aesthetic nurse.

'Azelaic acid pairs well with niacinamide and hyaluronic acid and most people will tolerate this combination. Everyone is different and those with sensitive skin will want to avoid pairing it at the same time as other acids, vitamin C and retinols. They can certainly be used in a weekly routine however. Ie, use azelaic acid on 1-2 nights a week, explains' Dr Hall.

'Of course if you're using a product on prescription, check with your doctor first on what products are safe to use with the strength of your prescription,' adds Henshaw.

Is it okay to use azelaic acid every day?

It sure it and best as well using it daily, it can also be used morning and night if you wanted to. 'You only need a small pea sized amount and should avoid sensitive areas like around the eyes, and mouth as some dryness can occur but it is tolerated by most,' says Dr Hall.

Dr Ada Ooi, Celebrity Facialist & Founder of 001 Skincare adds that 'it's best to follow with an intense hydrator to ensure you don’t dry out the skin. Like any other acid or retinol, I recommend to use twice every other day when you are starting and gradually build up the frequency.'

In terms of application, Dr Bunting recommends her 13 step technique to ensure even application. And because it's acid, you still need to make sure you're diligent with your SPF.

Is azelaic acid same as salicylic?

'They are similar in that they’re both exfoliators, but azelaic acid is gentler compared to salicylic,' explains Ooi.

'If you want to fight acne but suffer from dry and sensitive skin, use azelaic acid, and if you want a reduction in breakouts and you have oily skin then salicylic being oil-soluble can work best to balance your sebum secretion and combat acne with its ability to deeply exfoliate.'

''If you’re looking for a product to target hyperpigmentation, azelaic would be the ingredient to look for over salicylic acid, as azelaic inhibits the tyrosinase enzyme,' adds Ooi.

5 of the best azelaic products to for clearer, brighter skin

Looking to add an azelaic acid to your routine? Here are 5 WH favourites.

1/ Best all round azelaic product

This brilliant all-rounder pairs 10 percent azelaic acid with other powerhouses such as niacinamide, vitamin C and bakuchiol. It contains everything you face needs to combat daily aggressors as well as evening out skin-tone and soothing acne flair ups.

2/ Best mask with azelaic

This leave on mask is a dream if your skin is looking severely dull and is in dire need of a pick me up. Come morning, expect a glowy and happy looking complexion.

3/ Best budget azelaic acid product

If you're feeling the pinch then you really can't go wrong with this does-what-it-says-on-the tin formula.

4/ Best azelaic acid serum

This serum has something of a cult following thanks to the impressive before and afters and nearly 2,000 5 star reviews. Check out writer Florie Mwanza's review who says it refined her skin's texture and nixed her blackheads.

5/ Best cream with azelaic acid

This. super strength cream contains 20 percent azeliac acid and really goes to town on fading stubborn dark spots and acne.

6/ Best azelaic acid with CBD

A 'Treat' really does sum up this product brilliantly. It's infused with 10% azelaic acid as well as fermented dragon’s blood, lingonberry, and CBD, known for its highly soothing and anti-inflammatory properties. It's pocket-sized, too, so can easily be thrown in your gym bag or hang luggage when you're on the go.

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