Azelaic Acid Is the Hero Ingredient You Should Be Using for Acne and Dark Spots

Not only does it keep acne at bay, but it also helps fade dark marks and evens out skin tone, including discoloration caused by hyperpigmentation, rosacea, and melasma.

azelaic acid tout
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If you're a skin-care buff, you're probably familiar with glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acids. But there's an unsung hero in the acid world that deserves equal praise, particularly when it comes to combating acne. Meet azelaic acid. Boasting a long list of benefits, it's well worth considering adding this ingredient to your skin-care strategy, especially if you're battling blemishes or dark spots, like hyperpigmentation or melasma. Here, dermatologists weigh in on what it is, how it works, and what skin types benefit most from using it.

What Is Azelaic Acid?

Azelaic acid is a naturally-occurring acid derived from barley, wheat, and rye. Unlike the more commonly known groups of alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids (the very popular glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids), this is a dicarboxylic acid. "It has a different pH than these other acids and doesn't have quite as strong of an exfoliating effect, but it is more effective at helping with discoloration and evening out the skin tone," explains Devika Icecreamwala, M.D., a dermatologist in Berkeley, CA. (

Azelaic Acid Benefits

Fading dark marks—whether caused by leftover acne scars, sun damage, or even melasma—is azelaic acid's main claim to fame. It does this by inhibiting an enzyme known as tyrosinase, which is essential for the production of melanin (or pigment) in the skin. In decreasing the production of melanin, it can help improve discoloration from acne pimples and hyperpigmentation and prevent discolored skin cells from even developing.

While azelaic acid is not as potent of an exfoliator as other acids, it still does have some exfoliating benefits. "Azelaic acid is keratolytic, meaning it can break down keratin, a protein that can build-up and clog pores," says New York City dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali, M.D., of Hudson Dermatology and Laser Surgery. The bottom line: It keeps pores clean and essentially kills bacteria that causes acne, making it a true hero ingredient for those with more problematic skin. (

And the positive attributes don't stop there. This overachiever also boasts antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory, properties, adds Dr. Bhanusali. So, it has a skin brightening effect and helps to minimize the redness and swelling that comes with acne and even rosacea.

Azelaic Acid and Acne

It's the combination of all of these benefits that make azelaic acid an excellent and safe choice for anyone with acne-prone skin. "Azelaic acid tends to be gentler than other acne ingredients, so it works well for those who not only have acne but also sensitive skin and/or rosacea," points out Dr. Icecreamwala. It unclogs pores while combating acne with its antibacterial effects, she adds. Not to mention, you get the added brightening benefits to help fade any marks leftover post-pimple.

While it can be used on its own, azelaic acid also plays nicely with other acne-fighters, like retinoids and salicylic acid. Dr. Bhanusali says he often combines it with the former for a one-two blemish-busting punch.

Azelaic Acid Side Effects

Yes, it's gentler than other acids, but at the end of the day, it's still an acid so there's always the potential for irritation. "It's uncommon but azelaic acid can cause burning, stinging, dryness, redness, and peeling for some," notes Dr. Icecreamwala. The likelihood for this increases the higher the concentration of azelaic acid you use; most over-the-counter products contain 10 percent or less, whereas prescription-only options, such as Finacea and Azelex, come in 15 and 20 percent strengths, respectively.

As with any new skin-care ingredient, easing into things is always a good move if you're concerned about side effects. While azelaic acid can be used twice a day, start with just once, giving your skin some time to acclimate. (

Luckily, it's also generally considered to be safe to use during pregnancy, unlike many other acne ingredients. While you might have to put other skin-care products on pause, consult with your doctor on whether azelaic acid is a good fit for you to keep acne at bay while pregnant.

The Best Products with Azelaic Acid

Ready for a clearer, more even complexion? Give any of these dermatologist-approved, azelaic acid-based products a try.

  • The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% (Buy It, $15, Dr. Bhanusali recommends this (very) affordable option, a cream-gel formula that works effectively on all skin types to improve texture and tone.
  • PCA Skin Acne Gel (Buy It, $50, This azelaic acid gel combines the ingredient with another acne-fighting superstar, salicylic acid. "It both helps prevent breakouts and cleans out pores," says Dr. Icecreamwala. Try it if your skin is oily or acne-prone.
  • Glytone Enhance Brightening Complex (Buy It, $74, A lightweight azelaic acid cream, this hydrates and improves the look of dark spots. Glycolic acid in the formula not only ups the exfoliating power but also improves the penetration and efficacy of the azelaic acid.
  • Paula's Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster (Buy It, $36, Versatility for the win. You can use this lightweight gel-cream on its own, or mix a drop or two in with your moisturizer or serum for a skin-clearing boost.
  • Jan Marini Bioglycolic Bioclear Lotion (Buy It, $75, "This is meant to be a strong, at-home peel, and works well for skin that isn't sensitive and can tolerate heavy exfoliation," says Dr. Icecreamwala of her pick. The lotion targets everything from scarring to discoloration, thanks to a trio of azelaic, glycolic, and salicylic acids.
  • Lancer Clarifying Detox Mask with Green Tea + 3% Sulfur (Buy It, $75, When an urgent pimple SOS situation strikes, reach for this clay mask. Leave it on for 10 to 15 minutes and let the anti-inflammatory sulfur and azelaic go to town, reducing redness and decongesting clogged pores.
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