It’s a mystery why some great skincare ingredients fly under the radar, despite research proving them more than worthy of your attention. Azelaic acid is one of those ingredients! A great deal of research has shown that azelaic acid can significantly diminish skin blemishes, help fade the appearance of post-acne red marks and other discolorations, refine skin’s surface, and reveal a more even skin tone. It can even reduce skin sensitivity and is compatible with any skin type. In short, azelaic acid is an ingredient you need to know about.

What is Azelaic Acid?

Chemically, azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid (but don’t be afraid: this type of acid is your friend). It works on skin as a gentle leave-on exfoliant which helps unclog pores and refine skin's surface. Azelaic acid also significantly lessens factors in skin that lead to redness and bumps and delivers antioxidant benefits. In a word, WOW!

Azelaic acid can be derived from grains like barley, wheat, and rye, but it’s the lab-engineered form that is typically used in skincare products because of its stability and effectiveness.

Much of the research on this ingredient has looked at prescription-only topical products with concentrations between 15% and 20%. But, there’s also reason to look for azelaic acid OTC (over-the-counter) skincare products, as azelaic acid can be incredibly effective even at lower concentrations.

Benefits of Azelaic Acid in Over-the-Counter Products

Azelaic acid OTC products in concentrations of 10% or less aren’t easy to find, as very few brands have discovered its powerful skincare benefits, perhaps because it’s just such a darn tricky ingredient to formulate properly. If not formulated properly, the texture may be grainy, which could be problematic for skin.

If you’re wondering whether to choose an azelaic acid OTC product or a prescription version, research has shown that a 10% concentration can still improve many of the visible imperfections some of us struggle with, from bumps to dull, uneven skin tone and various concerns related to aging.

But, there are some stubborn or advanced skin concerns where it’s best to consider one of the prescription products with azelaic acid. You and your dermatologist can discuss whether a prescription azelaic acid product is right for you, and how to work it into your skincare routine.

Worth noting: If you struggle with acne, research has shown that azelaic acid for acne works best when used with over-the-counter strengths of benzoyl peroxide and other topical prescription products, which your dermatologist can offer.

How Does Azelaic Acid Compare to Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) or Salicylic Acid (BHA)?

These three ingredients have similarities, but also some interesting differences. Although azelaic acid can exfoliate skin when properly formulated (just like for AHAs and BHA, the product’s pH range matters), it doesn’t exfoliate the same way or with the same level of effectiveness as ingredients like glycolic acid and lactic acid (AHAs) or salicylic acid (BHA).

On the other hand, azelaic acid offers additional benefits that AHA and BHA ingredients don’t provide, especially when it comes to improving a markedly uneven skin tone and certain other skin issues.

What to do? There’s no reason you can’t use an AHA or BHA exfoliant along with an azelaic acid product. In fact, this combination can be ideal for addressing the look of multiple skin concerns, from bumps to redness to uneven skin tone to age-related concerns you may be struggling with.

References for this information:

Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, March 2017, pages 35–42
The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology March 2017, pages 37–40
Advanced Biomedical Research, February 2017, ePublication
Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, October 2016, pages 771–775
Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, September 2016, issue 3, pages 269–282
Skin Therapy Letter, January 2016, issue 1, pages 1–7
Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, volume 27, Supplement 1, 2014, pages 9–17
Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews, issue 11, 2014, pages 1–17
Drug Development and Industrial Pharmacy, August 2012, pages 985–994
Experimental Dermatology, September 2010, pages 813–820