Beauty

Meet The Underrated Ingredient That Targets Rosacea, Acne And Hyperpigmentation

Azelaic acid really does it all.

A model with glowing skin to illustrate an article on azelaic acid.

(Photo: iStock)

When you think of skincare acids, exfoliating staples like glycolic and salicylic acids probaby come to mind. While AHAs and BHAs are beloved (for good reason!), azelaic acid is an underrated ingredient that’s finally starting to get some love. The multi-tasking acid is used to treat a wide array of skin conditions—from acne and hyperpigmentation to soothing redness and some types of rosacea—and it’s quickly gaining traction in the skincare world, with a slew of new products hitting the shelves and more and more people touting its efficacy on social media. Curious about the ingredient that’s currently everywhere? We tapped two dermatologists to get the lowdown on what it is and how to incorporate it into your skincare routine.

What is azelaic acid?

According to Dr. Danny Guo, medical director and dermatologist at Rejuvenation Dermatology Clinic in Calgary, azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid (a class of skincare acids that are often used to treat redness and rosacea) that is “an organic acid found in plants like wheat and barley.” It’s a by-product of the metabolism of the yeast Malassezia furfur, which naturally exists on the skin.

If the name Malassezia furfur rings a bell, it’s because you may have heard it before in reference to some common skin conditions, which can be triggered by a yeast overgrowth. “This is the yeast that lives on our skin and causes seborrheic dermatitis (a skin condition of the scalp), tinea versicolour (a fungal infection) and dandruff,” says Dr. Renita Ahluwalia, co-founder and lead dermatologist of the Canadian Dermatology Centre and lecturer at the University of Toronto.

While azelaic is an acid, like glycolic and salicylic, it’s made of a completely different type of molecule. AHAs and BHAs primarily exfoliate the skin, which make them excellent ingredients for treating acne. Azelaic acid is also used for treating acne, but unlike most acids, it doesn’t do so via exfoliation so it’s a lot gentler on the skin. “It has some mild exfoliating properties but that’s not its primary [use],” says Ahluwalia.

Related: The Buzzy Skincare Ingredient That’s Being Compared To Retinol

What are the skincare benefits of azelaic acid?

Azelaic acid helps calm down inflammation and boasts antibacterial and antioxidant properties, which helps reduce acne and redness, while also combatting dark spots by targeting an enzyme responsible for pigment production. One of azelaic acid’s claims to fame is how gentle it is, meaning it can be used on all skin tones and skin types—including sensitive—with little irritation. “It tends to be milder so patients with sensitive skin do well, however it may not be as effective as some stronger ingredients [like retinol or glycolic acid],” says Ahluwalia.

Can azelaic acid treat rosacea?

Ahluwalia says that there have been significant studies to show that prescription-grade azelaic acid can be effective in treating some types of rosacea. Azelaic acid’s anti-inflammatory properties can help treat inflamed papules and pustules commonly seen in patients with rosacea, adds Guo.

The caveat is that there are four different types of rosacea: erythematotelangiectatic rosacea (ETR), papulopustular rosacea (PPR), phymatous rosacea, and ocular rosacea. Guo notes that the only type of rosacea that azelaic acid has clear evidence for as a treatment is PPR, which typically presents as red papules and pustules, not unlike inflammatory acne. “In short, azelaic acid can effectively treat [certain types of] rosacea,” says Guo.

What should you look for when buying azelaic acid skincare?

As is the case with most active skincare ingredients, percentage is key. There are serums, moisturizers, masks and more available on the market with percentages ranging from 3% to 10%, and the best one for you depends on what you want to target.

According to Ahluwalia, prescription acne creams typically contain around 15% azelaic acid, while rosacea treatments might have a lower percentage. For general skin brightening, she recommends using an even lower concentration of around 3%.

How do you incorporate azelaic acid into a skincare routine?

Regardless of percentage, Guo recommends slowly introducing azelaic acid into your routine. Though it’s generally well-tolerated, he recommends using azelaic acid two to three times per week to minimize the risk of irritation and to build up your skin’s tolerance. If your skin responds well after a few weeks of use, you can work your way up to daily application.

Guo also says that because azelaic acid can reduce pigmentation, applying it in the morning, along with sunscreen, might be preferred to counteract sun exposure throughout the day, but it’s still perfectly safe to use at night.

Related: Everything You Need To Know About Sunscreen

Can you use azelaic acid with other actives, like retinol and vitamin C?

With so many ingredients packed into formulas, knowing what to use together is essential to minimize irritation and make the most out of every active—and that goes for azelaic acid, too. Both Guo and Ahluwalia share that because azelaic acid is so gentle, it’s often safe to combine with other skincare ingredients. Here’s how to pair it with a few other popular actives.

Retinol

“Because retinol can cause redness and irritation, it’s better to add in azelaic acid only after your skin has had time to build tolerance to retinol, or vice versa,” says Guo. Together, both ingredients can work together to reduce hyperpigmentation and reduce breakouts.

Vitamin C

Like retinol, vitamin C can cause irritation. When pairing with azelaic acid, ensure your skin has had time to adjust to both ingredients before pairing together, says Guo.

Niacimamide

Azelaic acid is especially great for treating hyperpigmentation, and it layers well with other dark spot-reducing go-tos. “I frequently combine azelaic acid with kojic acid, tranexamic acid and niacinamide,” says Guo.

From masks to cleansers and treatments, here are some of our favourite azealic acid products

The Inkey List Super Solutions Redness Relief Solution

You can’t beat this wallet-friendly treatment’s short-but-effective ingredient list that contains 10% azelaic acid and 0.3% allantoin to soothe skin.

$23, theinkeylist.com

Drunk Elephant Bouncy Brightfacial Brightening Mask

This overnight mask contains 10% azelaic acid and 1% salicylic acid to exfoliate and tackle visible pores.

$89, sephora.com

Dermalogica Clear Start Liquid Peel

A cocktail of azealic acid, 10% alpha-hydroxy acids and 2% beta-hydroxy acids make this serum an exfoliator extraordinaire for acne-prone and oily skin.

$41, dermalogica.ca

Skinfix Azelaic Acid BHA/AHA Cleanser

Formulated for oily skin, this gentle cleanser resurfaces skin to minimize the appearance of pores.

$45, sephora.com

SkinCeuticals Phyto A+ Brightening Treatment

A daily brightening moisturizer, this lightweight lotion blends azelaic acid with alpha arbutin for a winning combo that promotes a more even skin tone.

$136, etiket.ca

Hero Cosmetics Pimple Correct

Packaged in a handy pen applicator, this gel spot treatment makes quick work of blemishes thanks to tea tree oil, lactic and azelaic acids.

$27, herocosmetics.us

Filorga Sleep & Peel

Inspired by in-office peels, this cream works while you sleep to exfoliate away dead skin cells and refine uneven texture, so you wake up with a glowing complexion.

$79, shoppersdrugmart.ca

Trinny London Overnight Clarity

Retinol, niacinamide and azelaic acid are the power trio in this nighttime treatment that was created to fight hormonal breakouts, fine lines and wrinkles.

$112, trinnylondon.com

While the products in this piece have been independently chosen by our editors, this article contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.

Get Chatelaine in your inbox!

Our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers. Delivered a couple of times a week.