Azelaic Acid vs Salicylic Acid: Which Is The Real Acne Champion

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Facial care acids are miracle products that can combat stubborn acne and promote healthier, smoother skin for those who suffer from pimples and regular breakouts.

While the term acid can sound scary and questionable (we should put acid on our faces?), these ingredients are actually miracle workers when used in the right concentration and in the right products.

a comparison portrait of a young girl illustrating before and after acne break out

Two popular hardworking acids that are used against acne are azelaic acid and salicylic acid.

They sound the same, but there are some important differences between them.

What are these differences? Can azelaic acid be used with salicylic acid?

Choosing which works for you will depend on your skin type, needs, and existing skin issues.

Let’s get to know these two ingredients better to decide which is best for you! 

What Is Azelaic Acid?

Azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye.

Even though it’s naturally occurring, the azelaic acid found in beauty products is usually lab-synthesized to ensure stability.

It is effective against acne and is the gentler acid between the two. This makes it a good choice for those with sensitive skin to prevent dryness or irritated skin.

While it does not exfoliate as deeply as salicylic acid, it still has exfoliating properties and helps remove dead and dry skin cells that may cause dull skin.

It can also be used to treat redness caused by skin conditions like rosacea, melasma, and hyperpigmentation.

It’s a hardworking ingredient with incredible benefits.

How Does Azelaic Acid Work and What Are Its Benefits?

Here are the acid’s benefits, in detail.

Antibacterial

Azelaic acid helps battle acne through its antibacterial properties.

By targeting the bacteria on the face that causes acne, the acid helps kill them off before new acne forms.

It also reduces the body’s production of keratin cells, preventing these cells from clogging pores and oil glands.

Anti-Inflammatory

As an anti-inflammatory, it also works against conditions like rosacea by reducing skin irritation, redness, and swelling.

Smoothen Skin

Azelaic acid can also help to minimize wrinkles and fine lines.

It naturally limits the skin’s excessive melanin production to prevent new hyperpigmentation and to even out the skin tone.

Brightens Skin

Alongside its ability to combat hyperpigmentation, azelaic acid also can lighten and brighten skin, resulting in smoother, more even skin tone and texture.

Natural Exfoliant

It has a gentle exfoliating effect that does not leave skin too dry. 

Safe and Gentle

Because it is more gentle on the skin than other acids, it can be used by everyone and is good for all skin types. 

Who Can Use Azelaic Acid? 

Azelaic acid is a gentle exfoliant, and because it doesn’t penetrate as deep and is not as harsh as some of the other facial care acids, it is suitable for all skin types.

Everyone can use it. It is even safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. However, it’s still important to let your maternity healthcare provider know just to be safe.

A woman in a towel is applying her face cream in front of a mirror.

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is derived from willow bark and sometimes wintergreen leaves.

It’s a beta hydroxy acid that exfoliates, combats acne, and removes dead skin cells.

Since it’s a BHA, it’s oil-soluble, which means it can deeply penetrate oily skin and get down into the pores to clear the congestion.

With built-up oil and dirt gone, you can expect clear, healthy skin to emerge.

Salicylic acid is a popular skincare choice and natural exfoliant to treat breakouts and is found in many facial products like cleansers, toners, and moisturizers.

However, the deeply penetrative action of this acid also means overuse can result in dry and irritated skin for those with more sensitive skin types.

Because of this, it should be used moderately.

How Does Salicylic Acid Work and What Are Its Benefits?

Salicylic acid works by breaking down the bond that binds the skin cells together.

This helps remove dead skin cells so they can be removed from the skin’s surface. 

This acid also combats excessive oil production to promote brighter, healthier skin.

It is especially good against blackheads — a breakout caused by oil and dirt trapped in the pores.

While its primary benefits of salicylic acid are battling oil and acne, that’s not the only use for this powerful facial acid. It offers other benefits as well.

Powerful Exfoliant

Salicylic can deeply penetrate the pores and remove dead skin cells from the skin’s surface. It’s one of the most powerful natural exfoliants.

Fights Acne

Portrait of Asian woman worry about her face when she saw the problem of acne inflammation and scar by the mini mirror.

Because it’s so good at removing dead skin cells and clearing excess oil, salicylic acid helps combat breakouts caused by oily skin and clogged pores.

It also helps prevent dirt and oil from getting trapped again.

Antibacterial

Due to the acidic pH of salicylic acid, it’s good at preventing bacteria and germs from multiplying. This prevents further acne breakouts.

Minimizes inflammation

As a BHA, salicylic acid has the same compound found in aspirin. This makes it an anti-inflammatory that can help calm redness and inflammatory acne.

Fights wrinkles

Salicylic acid promotes collagen production, which can help combat wrinkles and fine lines and keep the skin more youthful.

Minimize Pores

Salicylic acid clears clogged and trapped dirt making the pores cleaner and appear smaller.

Lighten Skin

Salicylic acid is also a known keratolytic. It can help break down the keratin on the skin to lighten uneven and dark spots.

Who Can Use Salicylic Acid? 

As a facial care ingredient, salicylic acid benefits almost all skin types.

However, it’s very powerful and penetrates the skin deeply to remove oil and prevent excessive oil production. 

While this is good against acne, it can also dry the skin.

Those with skin that is sensitive or dry might want to consider a different acid to prevent excessive dryness, which can also cause breakouts and acne.

Generally, salicylic acid is best for those with normal to oily types of skin to help get oil production under control and keep skin clean and smooth.

A woman is applying a serum to her face.

Salicylic Acid vs Azelaic Acid — Which is Best for Your Skin? 

The age-old question when it comes to skincare products is which is better?

But the truth is usually never black and white but somewhere in between.

You must consider several factors when deciding which one is right for your skin. 

First, you need to know what your immediate need is. 

Are you targeting active acne and breakouts? Are you trying to address hyperpigmentation?

Understanding your skin problems will help you choose the right product.

You must also consider your skin type.

If you want to fight acne, you may lean toward salicylic acid because of its powerful exfoliating properties and its ability to dig deeper into your skin to remove oil and dirt. 

But if your skin is dry or sensitive, salicylic acid may irritate your skin or dry it out even more, which may result in more breakouts. 

Instead, opt for azelaic acid if you have dry and sensitive skin.

On the other hand, salicylic acid is a perfect choice for oily skin because it can combat acne and help regulate oil production. 

Knowing how your skin type reacts to certain products and triggers is also instrumental in choosing the best skincare products.

Once you know your skin type, you can determine the best choice for you based on the skin conditions you want to address.

 Azelaic Acid vs. Salicylic Acid — Best for Rosacea?

Azelaic acid is FDA-approved and is gentler on the skin while having anti-inflammatory properties and the ability to combat redness and irritation.

These benefits make it the best choice for rosacea. It’s also proven effective against the lesions that often form with rosacea.

While salicylic acid can also combat redness and irritation, it can be a bit harsh for those with rosacea because of its deep exfoliation.

It may cause a reaction or even further dryness and irritation. 

Azelaic Acid vs. Salicylic Acid — Best for Hyperpigmentation?

Again, both azelaic acid and salicylic acid can be used against hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone.

However, when it comes to targeting uneven spots, azelaic acid is better for the job.

Azelaic acid inhibits the over-production of melanin. This is the pigment that gives our skin color.

By slowing down and decreasing melanin production, azelaic acid helps lighten the skin and combat dark spots.

Azelaic acid also helps speed up the turnover of skin cells, allowing brighter, smoother, and even skin to emerge faster.

Can I Use Azelaic Acid and Salicylic Acid Together?

Still can’t decide which acid you want to use? 

If so, you can mix azelaic acid and salicylic acid together in your facial care routine!

If you want the total package for fighting breakouts and lightening your skin, a combination of these two might be your best bet.

Azelaic acid will target breakouts and kill bacteria while reducing inflammation and redness, while salicylic acid will penetrate and unclog the pores while preventing excessive sebum production.

A woman is looking at her face in the mirror.

Salicylic Acid and Azelaic Acid — FAQs

Which is better — salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide?

Benzoyl peroxide vs salicylic acid for acne is a common question because both are good against breakouts. 

However, salicylic is usually recommended first because it’s the milder of the two. It’s best to see your dermatologist if you want something stronger.

Which acid can help control oil production?

Studies have shown that salicylic acid is known to help regulate the sebaceous glands and minimize and inhibit oil production.

Which acid is effective at treating inflammatory acne?

Salicylic acid is the acid often associated with acne. And it can be used for inflammatory breakouts and help reduce swelling and redness.

How can you mix azelaic acid and salicylic acid safely?

Some products have them combined already in one formulation. 

If you are using them in separate products, you can use them safely by following the thinnest to thickest rule when applying skincare products. This means that whichever product is thinner in consistency is applied first. The thickest ones come in last.

Do be sure to look at the concentrations of each in your products. It’s best to keep them low so it’s not overpowering.

Additionally, you may want to regulate your use of salicylic acid.

While azelaic acid can be used safely every day, salicylic acid is usually best used every two days to prevent drying out the skin too much.

Salicylic Acid and Azelaic Acid — the Real Winner

At the end of the day, when it comes to determining a winner between azelaic acid and salicylic acid — the real winner is you!

These facial care acids are fantastic ingredients against breakouts and address different skin conditions and facial care problems.

If you want to choose just one, just remember to consider your skin type. For sensitive or dry skin, gentler azelaic acid is the best bet.

If your skin is oily, salicylic acid will work wonders.

And if you have resistant or combination skin and want more benefits, you can use a combination of both.

Do you like mixing facial acids? What’s your go-to? Let us know in the comments.

Want to learn more about acids in facial care? Check out these articles:

Author

  • Michelle Alejandro

    Michelle has had a lifelong love affair with makeup. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and Communications /Journalism, she began an illustrious career as a writer. Michelle penned a beauty and lifestyle national newspaper column for over a decade and became the Beauty Editor for Chalk Magazine and Editor-in-Chief for Metro Weddings for over nine years, working with some of the biggest makeup artists and trusted beauty brands in the business. During this time, she also completed a course in Creative Artistic Makeup Design and worked as a freelance makeup artist, beauty editor, and writer.

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