Azelaic acid for acne or scarring: what is it, how does it work and what are the best products?

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Despite not being as common as some ingredients, azelaic acid is definitely worth swotting up on. This is what you need to know. 

The list of skincare ingredients is seemingly never-ending. From salicylic acid to retinol, prickly pear and niacinamide, I know it can be quite overwhelming, but there’s one unsung hero that I promise you need to know about: azelaic acid.

It’s one that’s not used by many brands and instead is more commonly prescribed by dermatologists or at least that’s how I learnt about it, anyway. I actually wrote about the skincare appointment that changed my skin forever, and it was during that half an hour with Dr Justine Kluk that I discovered what a powerhouse ingredient azelaic acid is. 

Now, almost two years on, and with more brands jumping on the bandwagon, azelaic acid is finally getting the attention it deserves, but before I start raving about the best products that contain it, I spoke to some in-the-know experts who explained exactly what azelaic acid is, how it works and how it should be used.

What is azelaic acid?

“This naturally occurring acid is in fact a byproduct of a yeast that lives on all our skin,” explains Dr Sam Bunting, skin expert and founder of Dr Sam’s Skincare. “Specifically, it’s a dicarboxylic acid and it can also be found in grains, like barley.”

What skin types or concerns are best for azelaic acid?

Those who have acne, redness or rosacea will benefit most from incorporating azelaic acid into their routine.

How does azelaic acid work?

“As well as reducing inflammation in the skin, it also acts as an anti-bacterial and reduces the tendency for skin cells to clog up pores,” explains Bunting. “These actions combined make it incredibly helpful both in treating and preventing acne. It also inhibits the action of tyrosinase, which means it reduces the tendency for skin to develop pigmentation which makes it good for reducing post-acne marks or scars and melasma.”

At what point in a skincare routine should azelaic acid be used?

“I tend to start out in the morning, but over time – and if you enjoy the benefits – it can also be used at night time,” says Bunting.

Can azelaic acid be used in combination with other ingredients?

“Yes, it’s a great team player. It can be combined with retinoids, bakuchiol, niacinamide along with other things like BHAs or hyaluronic acid,” she says.

Are there any side effects of using azelaic acid?

“As with any active ingredient, if it’s initially used too enthusiastically it can cause redness and irritation. But given that we use azelaic acid in rosacea with good effect, this happens a lot less often than with many other active ingredients,” says Bunting. 

The best azelaic acid skincare products

  • The best azelaic acid serum


    A powerhouse combination of 10% azelaic acid, bakuchiol (the natural retinol alternative) and soothing niacinamide, this serum is designed to be applied each morning to give skin a serious glow-up.

    Dr Sam’s Flawless Brightly Serum, £44

  • The best azelaic acid booster


    Suitable to use either alone or mixed in with your favourite moisturiser, this booster is a combination of azelaic acid, salicylic acid and plant extracts. It works to help fade brown spots caused by sun damage, as well as reducing breakouts and eliminating acne scars.

    Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster, £37

  • The best azelaic acid toner

    ren ready steady glow tonic

    Gentle but very effective, this liquid exfoliant combines azelaic acid with lactic acid and BHAs. Suitable for use every day, it’s also now packaged in 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottle.

    Ren Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic, £27

  • The best azelaic acid cream


    This lightweight, gel-like cream is formulated with 10% azelaic acid which works to help brighten skin while making a visible difference to its texture and reduces the appearance of blemishes.

    The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%, £5.50 

  • The best prescription-strength azelaic acid

    skinoren azelaic acid cream

    Only available via your doctor, dermatologist or through an online consultation, Skinoren is a 20% azelaic acid cream that can be used to help treat both acne and rosacea.

    Skinoren, £15.99

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Lucy Partington

Lucy Partington is Stylist’s beauty editor. She’s obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she’ll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.