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Azelaic acid: Your 101 on skincare's most versatile ingredient

best azelaic acid products
Azelaic acid: Everything you need to knowGetty Images

There's an overwhelming amount of acids out there, so trying to decipher what your skin needs can be tricky. There are the ones that exfoliate (looking at you, glycolic acid) and acids that hydrate (hello, hyaluronic acid) but one that isn't talked about enough is azelaic acid. It's the unsung hero of the beauty world and can help tackle everything from rosacea to breakouts.

If you're unfamiliar with the underdog ingredient, do not fret. We've got all the deets on what azelaic actually is, how to use it and the many benefits it will deliver to your skin (spoiler: there's a lot).

best azelaic acid products
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What is azelaic acid?

Unlike other acids out there, azelaic acid is produced by and lives on our skin. "It is a naturally occurring acid and is also in grains such as barley, rye and wheat," says aesthetics doctor, Dr Sophie Shotter.

You'll find azelaic acid featured in a lot of anti-redness products or often on its own as a booster-style number, which can feature from 10-20 per cent of the skincare hero.

The multifaceted ingredient is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and for being antimicrobial – more on that later.

How is azelaic acid different to other skincare acids?

Skincare junkie or not, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't turned to a liquid exfoliator. Think of azelaic as the milder, more mindful member of the acid family. It possesses similar resurfacing powers but produces minimal irritation.

"Unlike other acids, it won't make you sun sensitive, but that doesn’t mean you should skip the sunscreen," she stresses. While AHAs and BHAs are best known for their efficacious exfoliation, azelaic acid boasts a tonne of other benefits, too, as Dr Sophie explains. "It is superior to AHAs (like mandelic acid) and BHAs (like salicylic acid) for improving uneven skin tone. Plus, it is also a powerful antioxidant in its own right."

best azelaic acid products
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What are the benefits of azelaic acid?

Avid azelaic acid fans will likely gush about its acne-clearing abilities, after all, it is comedolytic (meaning it won't clog pores) and so actively prevents comedones (the technical term for spots).

"It unclogs pores, refines the skin's surface and has anti-inflammatory properties, which is why it is such a great choice for acne and rosacea," says Dr Sophie.

Ever heard of chicken skin? Those annoying hard bumps on the backs of your arm that persist despite layering body lotion on THICK? Good news! Azelaic acid is a keratolytic (fancy term for a keratin decreaser), so it can help reduce inflammatory skin conditions like keratosis pilaris.

It's also great if you've been overdoing it on the exfoliating acids we've mentioned previously, as azelaic acid helps strengthen the skin's natural barrier.

While the FDA has only approved azelaic acid for the treatment of rosacea and acne, it is incredibly effective at diminishing dark spots and treating pigmentation, hence its inclusion in brightening serums and creams. "The antioxidant properties also help to protect the skin from free radical damage," concludes Dr Sophie.

I mean seriously, is there anything azelaic acid can't do?

Who is azelaic acid best for?

Judging by its extensive benefits and limited side effects it would seem sensible to assume that the ingredient is suitable for everyone. And you'd be right to think so.

"Because it is less of an irritant than some AHAs and BHA formulations it is a good choice for those with sensitive skin and with long-term use can help reduce sensitivity. It is even safe for use during pregnancy and breast-feeding. However, if you have extremely sensitive, hyper-reactive skin, it may be best to avoid acids altogether, as you could experience stinging and discomfort," explains Dr Shotter.

How should you incorporate azelaic acid into your skincare routine?

Like many of the hard-working ingredients out there, this is best kept to nighttime use, so it can work its magic whilst you snooze.

"I would recommend using azelaic acid as part of your nighttime regime," says Dr Sophie. "Use it alongside a gentler cleanser and moisturiser or hyaluronic acid-based product. If you are new to using it, you might want to consider starting by applying it every other night to minimise the risk of irritation."

It's safe to say, azelaic acid is seriously worth the hype.

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