With a gazillion acid exfoliants in the beauty industry, it might be hard to decide which one suits you best. For instance, you can choose between salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, azelaic acid…. and many more!
Don’t worry if you’re a newbie with zero experience with exfoliants.
In this article I’m going to focus on azelaic acid and how to use it in a safe way.
Azelaic acid products are loved and endorsed by beauty enthusiasts all around the world, and once you learn all about them, you’ll surely know why.
This little guy reduces hyperpigmentation and removes dead skin cells, without irritating sensitive skin. This makes it a good alternative to other acids.
Also, its acne-busting and anti-inflammatory properties are a major win for people with oily and acne-prone skin types.
If you’re trying to figure out if azelaic acid is an AHA or BHA, read on to learn all about this secret skincare ingredient.
What Is Azelaic Acid?
A gift from nature, azelaic acid is commonly found in wheat, barley, and other grains. Azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid, with widespread use in various skincare products ranging from toners, moisturizers, and serums.
Known for its anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and antioxidant properties, azelaic acid products significantly decrease acne breakouts1.
Due to its keratolytic nature, it can remove dead skin cells, unclog pores, and improve uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation.
The mild exfoliating properties of azelaic acid make it a great choice for people with sensitive skin. Other than that, it is effective for people with certain skin conditions such as rosacea, as it significantly reduces inflammation, redness, and swelling2.
Available in different concentrations, azelaic acid is found in both over-the-counter products (<10% concentration) and prescription-only products (>10% concentration)3.
Is Azelaic Acid An Exfoliant?
So here’s the main question: Is azelaic acid a chemical exfoliant?
The answer is yes.
Its ability to gently exfoliate dead skin cells improves the rough texture, leaving you with smooth skin. It also works on clogged pores and removes debris, bidding adieu to dull skin tone, dark spots, and even hyperpigmentation4.
Adding azelaic acid to your skincare routine will give you healthier-looking skin with improved skin texture and reduced acne scars, alongside fighting acne.
How Long Does It Take For Azelaic Acid To Work?
Though there is a marked reduction in skin sensitivity soon after use, you need to wait for 6-12 weeks to see results, as a usual norm with any new skincare product5.
It’s advisable to do a patch test first and expect slight tingling initially. Some individuals experience purging that resolves around 4-8 weeks.
Is Azelaic Acid An AHA?
Since azelaic acid and AHAs are both great chemical exfoliators, it might have you wondering: Is azelaic acid an AHA?
No, azelaic acid is not an AHA. What’s more, azelaic acid is not a BHA either!
Azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid, whereas AHA or alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, etc. are entirely different from azelaic acid in terms of chemical structure.
Apart from their molecular difference, azelaic acid offers gentle exfoliation and soothes the skin, as compared to the potency of AHAs and their ability to irritate sensitive skin.
Is AHA The Same As Azelaic Acid?
No, AHA is not the same as azelaic acid.
AHA or alpha hydroxy acid belongs to a bigger group called the hydroxy acids, just like BHA or beta hydroxy acid (salicylic acid).
Meanwhile azelaic acid belongs to a separate group known as the dicarboxylic acids6.
Differences Between Azelaic Acid Vs. AHA Vs. BHA
Though they are all excellent chemical exfoliants, here are the basic differences7 between azelaic acid vs. AHA vs. BHA:
- Azelaic acid: It is a dicarboxylic acid, poorly soluble in water but better in alcohol.
- AHA: Alpha hydroxy acids belong to Hydroxy acids and are water-soluble.
- BHA: Similar to AHA, beta hydroxy acids belong to the group of Hydroxy acids, but they are oil-soluble.
- Azelaic acid: Azelaic acid fights acne, fades scars and dark spots, removes gunk from clogged pores, and improves skin texture and uneven tone while treating skin concerns such as rosacea, eczema, etc, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. It is safe to be used by pregnant or breastfeeding ladies as well.
- AHA: Alpha hydroxy acid group is effective for thorough superficial exfoliation, increased skin cell turnover, and improving fine lines and wrinkles with enhanced collagen production and water retention.
- BHA: BHAs are great for superficial and deep exfoliation, alongside treating acne and unclogging pores.
- Azelaic acid: This being the main difference, azelaic acid is great for everyone, including individuals with reactive or sensitive skin types or certain skin conditions, due to its gentleness.
- AHA: AHA is great for normal skin, dry skin, and combination skin. Not recommended for sensitive skin.
- BHA: Salicylic acid is most effective for combination, acne-prone, and oily skin types.
- Azelaic acid: Azelaic acid is found in wheat, rye, barley, and other grains, and even on your skin (produced by yeast).
- AHA: Glycolic acid (sugarcane), Lactic acid (milk), Malic acid (apples), Tartaric acid (grapes), Mandelic acid (almonds)
- BHA: Salicylic acid is found naturally in Willow Bark.
- Azelaic acid: It can be used up to twice daily if your skin tolerates it well.
- AHA: It is best to use it once or twice a week to avoid over-exfoliation.
- BHA: You can use BHA every alternate day to avoid redness, drying, or any form of irritation.
Morning Or Evening Routine
- Azelaic acid: It can be used in both morning and nighttime routines.
- AHA: Since it is photosensitive, it is best to use it in the nighttime routine.
- BHA: It can be used in both AM and PM routines.
PRO TIP: Before you start exfoliating your face using chemical exfoliants, you should learn more about different types of acids and how they work on the skin. Check out my article with comparison of popular acids: AHA vs. BHA vs. PHA.
Is Azelaic Acid Better Than AHA & BHA?
As azelaic acid provides gentle yet effective exfoliation without drying or irritating the skin, it is a better exfoliant, especially for people with reactive skin or those faced with skin concerns such as rosacea, keratosis pilaris, or even psoriasis.
Other benefits of azelaic acid such as acne treatment, brighter skin, improved skin tone, unclogged pores, as well as reduced pigmentation, dark spots, and blemishes, it is safe to say that azelaic acid is better than AHA and BHA.
Can You Mix Azelaic Acid And AHA?
Yes, you can mix azelaic acid and AHA. Since azelaic acid is a gentle exfoliant, pairing it up with AHA a.k.a potent exfoliator will reveal smoother skin with the combined benefits of the duo, much like the anti-aging tretinoin but without the harsh side effects8.
Remember to follow with a hydrating moisturizer and sunscreen to avoid any sun damage, dryness, or skin irritation.
Also, if you’re new to skincare, it’s better to avoid mixing the two until your skin gets accustomed to both acids.
Benefits Of Azelaic Acid For Skin
Being a versatile skin-friendly ingredient, there are many benefits of this superstar a.k.a. azelaic acid:
- Fights inflammation
Due to its anti-inflammatory characteristics, azelaic acid reduces inflammation, swelling, and redness.
Individuals with sensitive or reactive skin, or those faced with certain skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema, keratosis pilaris, etc should use azelaic acid to soothe and improve their skin.
- Suitable for all
Since azelaic acid offers many benefits without irritating the skin (redness, itching, peeling, etc.), it is suitable for every skin, including sensitive skin type.
- Acne treatment
Owing to its antibacterial properties, azelaic acid is often used as one of the treatment options for moderate acne. Its ability to fight acne-causing bacteria prevents future breakouts and reduces comedonal acne9.
If you suffer from cystic acne, please consult your dermatologist for better treatment options.
- Reduces pigmentation
Since azelaic acid has to ability to inhibit an enzyme called tyrosinase (responsible for melanin synthesis and hyperpigmentation), using azelaic acid regularly visibly reduces blemishes, dark spots, melasma, and acne scarring10.
- Unclogs pores
Due to its antimicrobial properties, azelaic acid fights acne-causing bacteria, while removing sebum, dead skin cells, and debris from clogged pores, owing to its keratolytic nature.
- Improves skin texture
Azelaic acid breaks down dead skin and debris, the main culprits behind rough texture. Regular use results in smoothing the skin with a marked reduction in acne scars.
- Better skin tone
Since azelaic acid has antioxidant characteristics, benefits include improved skin health as it works on uneven tone, and adds a healthy glow.
Does Azelaic Acid Have Side Effects?Though it has none to minimal side effects, this depends on the skin type, sensitivity, and dosage of azelaic acid. The following are the rare side effects of azelaic acid11:
- Slight Tingling
- Scaling or peeling
How To Incorporate Azelaic Acid Into Your Skincare Routine
Since azelaic acid is used in various types of skincare products such as cleansers, toners, serums, and moisturizers or cream forms, it is best to follow the right order and go from thinnest to thickest.
Whenever you introduce a new skincare product to your skin, it is best to build slowly. So use it on alternate days till you’re used to it. Once there, you can use azelaic acid daily, or even twice if your skin loves it12.
Generally speaking, if your azelaic acid product is a moisturizer or serum, it is best to use it once you have cleansed and toned your skin. If you use hyaluronic acid and/or niacinamide, use them now and then use a small amount of azelaic acid.
Remember to use a hydrating moisturizer afterwards and always use sunscreen if you use it in your morning routine.
Tips For Using Azelaic Acid In A Safe Way
If it’s your first time using azelaic acid, you need to follow a few safety rules.
- The right order: Depending on the type of your azelaic acid product, it is best to use it in the right skincare order. For instance, use your azelaic acid cream once you’re done with cleansing and toning your skin.
- How often: Though azelaic acid can be used daily (even twice daily), it is best to use it on alternate days if you have a certain skin condition such as rosacea, etc.
- Concentration: Avoid using a high percentage of azelaic acid (more than 10%) without the recommendation of a dermatologist. If you have any concerns, take it up with your dermatologist or healthcare provider.
- Mixing with other acids: If you use other acids in skincare, it is best to alternate them in different routines, to avoid drying or over-exfoliation.
- Mixing with other ingredients: Azelaic acid mixes well with niacinamide and hyaluronic acid, and even AHAs.
- Avoid: It is best to avoid mixing it with BHA, vitamin C, retinol, benzoyl peroxide, or physical exfoliators.
- Moisturizer and sunscreen: Remember to slather a deeply hydrating lotion or cream after using azelaic acid to keep the skin happy and hydrated. Also, if you’re heading outdoors, use sunblock religiously.
- Test first: Though it is safe to use when pregnant or breastfeeding and has minimal side effects, always remember to do a patch test and discuss with a dermatologist if you have a certain skin condition or concern.
The purpose of this article is informative and entertaining. It’s not a substitute for medical consultation or medical care. The author of this article does not accept any responsibility for any liability, loss or risk, personal or otherwise, incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, from any information or advice contained here. Safety should be your priority.
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