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Retinol and azelaic acid are popular skincare products that a lot of people use to address issues like acne, dark spots, and other skin conditions. Because they’re such powerhouses on their own, you may be wondering, “Can I use azelaic acid with retinol?” In short, yes, you can. But there are some things you should know before doing so.
Read on to learn more about these skincare ingredients and how to use them together safely.
What is azelaic acid?
Azelaic acid (see Important Safety Information) is an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory skincare ingredient derived from yeast. It comes in many forms, such as foams, gels, and creams (NLM, 2022).
It’s popular for treating various skin conditions, including acne and rosacea, as well as pigmentation issues like dark spots and hyperpigmentation (Searle, 2020).
Azelaic acid works by killing bacteria and helps open up clogged pores. It also has antioxidant properties and helps protect your skin from the formation of free radicals, which can damage your skin and lead to more inflammation (Searle, 2020; Tan, 2017).
Benefits of azelaic acid and side effects
Azelaic acid has a few skin-related perks. People use it for (Tan, 2018):
- Reducing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation
- Treating acne
- Diminishing the appearance of melasma
- Treating rosacea
Azelaic acid is generally well-tolerated, even on sensitive skin. It is an anti-comedogenic ingredient, which means that it doesn’t contribute to acne breakouts; its side effects are generally mild and include minor skin irritation (NLM, 2022).
What is retinol?
Retinol is a type of retinoid (a group of compounds derived from vitamin A). It helps boost your skin’s production of collagen and elastin—proteins in your skin that help it maintain its shape and texture— so it can improve your skin’s texture and ease the appearance of wrinkles and large pores. In other words, it’s an anti-aging powerhouse in the skincare world (Zasada, 2019).
Retinol: what is it, uses, benefits, results
Topical retinol products come in gels, creams, and liquids, and many are available over the counter.
It’s important to note that retinol is not the same as retinoic acid (tretinoin; see Important Safety Information), which is a different type of retinoid. Retinoic acid is much stronger than retinol, more likely to cause side effects, and is only available through a prescription.
If you’re thinking about using retinol and azelaic acid together, keep this in mind. The stronger the retinoid, the more likely you’ll experience skin irritation, so start at a low dose whether you use it alone or with azelaic acid.
Retinol benefits and side effects
Retinol has a range of benefits. Studies suggest that it (Mukherjee, 2006):
- Reduces spots from sun damage
- Improves fine lines and wrinkles
- Diminishes the appearance of large pores
- Reduces acne
- May ease psoriasis symptoms
Retinol is effective on most skin types, but it may take weeks or months to see results. You also have to be careful that you don’t use a high dose too often. Known side effects are dry skin, redness, itching, and scaling. Other side effects of retinol include photosensitivity (Mukherjee, 2006).
Azelaic acid vs. retinol
Azelaic acid and retinol are two substances that do different things for the skin. Both assist with cellular turnover, but azelaic acid acts as an exfoliant and helps with bacteria and inflammation, while retinol boosts cell renewal.
Both can cause skin irritation, but retinol has additional side effects like dry skin and photosensitivity (Mukherjee, 2006).
Adult acne: symptoms, causes, and treatments
Can you use azelaic acid and retinol together?
Yes, you can use retinol and azelaic acid together. In fact, they may work better when you combine them.
Research suggests that you may see improved azelaic acid efficacy when used with retinoids to treat acne and acne scars. Also, both azelaic acid and retinoids work well together to improve hyperpigmentation (Webster, 2020; Graupe, 1996).
Researchers also found the combination to be safe and beneficial on skin of color (Woolery-Lloyd, 2013).
Potential side effects of mixing azelaic acid and retinol
Most of the reports on the side effects of retinol and azelaic combined are anecdotal. Some people report that mild skin irritation may occur, but there’s not a ton of research exploring their side effects together.
Talk to your dermatologist if you’re concerned about combining the two. They can advise you about proper concentrations in separate products or suggest a combination product that may work well for you.
How to layer azelaic acid with retinol
Some skincare products contain retinol and azelaic acid, so you don’t have to combine them. If the ingredients are in separate products, apply the thinner product first and then use the thicker one. If both are the same consistency—for example, if both products are serums—it doesn’t matter which you apply first. You may, however, want to introduce one product at a time to be sure you tolerate each well.
Typically, you can use azelaic acid twice a day and retinol once a day. Because sunlight can weaken retinol, you may want to use the retinol only at night (Sacchidanand, 2017). Be sure to follow it up with a moisturizer, as retinol can cause skin dryness. And, as always, apply sunscreen as the final step to your skincare routine if you plan on being out in the sun.
Foods that cause acne and what to eat to prevent acne
The bottom line
You can use azelaic acid with retinol. In general, they may be more effective when used together than when used alone. They’ve also been shown to work well on all skin types at treating skin conditions like acne and hyperpigmentation.
So, if you have acne-prone skin or struggle with fine lines or age spots, combining these active ingredients may be worth a try. Of course, it’s always wise to reach out to your dermatologist if you have specific questions about adding a new product to your skincare routine.
- Graupe, K., Verallo-Rowell, V., Verallo, V., et al. (1996) Combined use of 20% azelaic acid cream and 0.05% tretinoin cream in the topical treatment of melasma. Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 7(4), 235-237. doi:10.3109/09546639609089556. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09546639609089556
- Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., et al. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 1(4), 327–348. doi:10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699641/
- National Library of Medicine (NLM). (2022). Azelaic acid. Retrieved May 18, 2022 from https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Azelaic-acid
- Searle, T., Ali, F. R., & Al-Niaimi, F. (2020). The versatility of azelaic acid in dermatology. Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 33(2), 722–732. doi:10.1080/09546634.2020.1800579. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32730109/
- Sacchidanand, S. A., Lahiri, K., Godse, K., et al. (2017). Synchronizing Pharmacotherapy in Acne with Review of Clinical Care. Indian Journal of Dermatology. 62(4), 341–357. doi:10.4103/ijd.IJD_41_17. Retrieved from https://www.e-ijd.org/article.asp?issn=0019-5154;year=2017;volume=62;issue=4;spage=341;epage=357;aulast=Sacchidanand
- Tan, A. U., Schlosser, B. J., & Paller, A. S. (2017). A review of diagnosis and treatment of acne in adult female patients. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, 4(2), 56–71. doi:10.1016/j.ijwd.2017.10.006. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5986265/
- Webster, G. (2020). Combination azelaic acid therapy for acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 43(2) doi:10.1067/mjd.2000.108318. Retrieved from https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(00)37259-0/fulltext#relatedArticles
- Woolery-Lloyd, H., Keri, J., & Doig, S. (2013). Retinoids and Azelaic Acid to Treat Acne and Hyperpigmentation in Skin of Color. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. 12(4). Retrieved from https://jddonline.com/articles/retinoids-and-azelaic-acid-to-treat-acne-and-hyperpigmentation-in-skin-of-color-S1545961613P0434X/
- Zasada, M. & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: Active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology, 36(4), 392–397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6791161/
Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.