Acids have been big in skin care for a number of years now — most often acting as chemical exfoliants that help to slough away rough, dull, dead skin without the abrasiveness of manual scrubs. If you follow skin care trends at all — you've likely heard a lot about alpha hydroxy acids (like glycolic acid) and beta hydroxy acids (like salicylic acid). The acid set to make a big splash in 2021 is neither of the above, however. Azelaic acid products are everywhere. The buzzy ingredient, according to Dr. Robyn Gmyrek of Park View Laser Dermatology, "is in a class of medications called dicarboxylic acids."
Azelaic acid naturally occurs in grains like wheat, barley, and rye, but "it's also created on our skin naturally by a yeast, malassezia furfur, which is part of our normal skin flora," Gymrek explains to TZR, noting that due to its many benefits for the skin, "it is reproduced in the lab for use as a skin care ingredient."
Speaking of benefits, it's a true multitasker. "Everyone wants a multifunctional, powerhouse ingredient in their routine and that’s azelaic acid," says Susan Yara, beauty influencer and founder of Naturium, a skin care brand planning to launch more products featuring the ingredient this year. "It gently exfoliates, clears congested pores, lightens hyperpigmentation, and it’s anti-inflammatory, so it calms redness," Yara explains. "Not to mention that it works well with other active ingredients like AHAs, BHAs, retinoids, and niacinamide. And—it’s great for all skin types, even those with sensitive skin and pregnant or breastfeeding women."
Azelaic Acid Benefits For The Skin
To further break it down, here are more of the many benefits azelaic acid has for the skin:
- It's an antioxidant, which Gymrek notes helps "reduce the production of free radicals, which are formed when we are exposed to ultraviolet light and pollutants." Free radicals are enemies of the skin — they destroy collagen and elastic tissue, which, in turn, leads to premature aging of skin.
- It's also anti-inflammatory, so it can help decrease redness and inflammation.
- Azelaic acid also acts as a keratolytic (meaning it helps break down the glue that holds dead skin cells together), and as a result, it "loosens and removes dead skin cells from the surface helping to exfoliate the skin and reduce comedones (aka blackheads and whiteheads)," Gymrek says.
- It can also help even skin tone and decrease excess pigmentation. Gymrek explains: "It has been shown to reduce melanocytes or pigment cells and inhibit an enzyme important in pigment production called tyrosinase."
- Finally, it's also antibacterial and "can kill the prominent bacteria in acne, Propionibacterium acnes," Gymrek says.
Azelaic Acid: What To Look Out For
On the one hand, "Azelaic acid is great because you don’t have to stop and think if it might not play well with your other products," Yara says, explaining that it doesn't interfere with other actives. On the other hand, of course, anyone can have a reaction to any ingredient. "Side effects include tingling, irritation, and dryness, so apply azelaic acid with a moisturizer if you have dry or sensitive skin," Chicago-based, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Jessie Cheung advises.
Azelaic Acid: How To Use It
Azelaic acid is a generally well-tolerated ingredient and can be used regularly without concern. "It is often used instead of a retinoid in mature skin or sensitive skin, as most people can tolerate the application of azelaic acid twice a day, under a sunscreen or makeup," Cheung notes.
Azelaic Acid: The Best Products To Try
"The strongest azelaic acid products (15% and 20%) are only available with a prescription," Gymrek notes, adding that these are her preference for patients dealing with acne or rosacea "because they are the best studied and most potent." (These include Azelex and Finacea.)
If you want to benefit from this ingredient's many benefits but don't need prescription strength, there's a variety of great products featuring this buzzy ingredient. Below, some of TZR's favorites.
We only include products that have been independently selected by TZR's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
This mask, peel, and polish triple-threat launched just a few months ago and has already sold out numerous times. It exfoliates and brightens with a blend of acids including, of course, azelaic, as well as citric, malic, and tartaric (to name a few), and manually buffs with bamboo powder and blueberry seeds for a baby-skin complexion in a five minute treatment.
This 10% azelaic acid 'booster' can be used alone, or mixed into a serum or moisturizer that is already a part of your skincare routine. It pairs the ingredient with licorice root and salicylic acid, and together, the trio fades hyperpigmentation, calms redness, brightens, smooths, and unclogs pores.