Azelaic Acid and Retinol: Can They be Used Together?

Azelaic acid and retinol are both popular skincare ingredients that can reduce acne and rosacea, but can you use them together? This post shows you how you can include both in the same skincare routine.

Azelaic Acid and Retinol

Whilst Azelaic Acid and Retinol can both help the same skin conditions, they are often used for different purposes. Azelaic acid is good for reducing inflammation and redness, unblocking pores and reducing acne and acne scars.

Retinol on the other hand is more popular for ageing skin since it helps to boost collagen production, and make the skin firmer and more elastic. Like Azelaic Acid it also helps to control acne by regulating oil production, but also smooths fine lines and wrinkles, and brightens the skin.

Since both ingredients have different uses, and produce different effects, you may want to incorporate them both into your skincare routine. Fortunately they can both be used together however you should ensure you use them at the right times to minimise the risk of irritation.

This post explores the benefits and uses of both Azelaic Acid and Retinol and helps you to create a skincare routine where both ingredients can be used together.

Azelaic Acid and Retinol

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What Is Azelaic Acid?

Azelaic acid is an acid that is found in different grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Since it has both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, it is often used to help treat acne or rosacea.

Azelaic acid acts as a gentle exfoliant on the skin, helping to remove dead skin cells, unblock pores and improve skin texture. Since it has antioxidant properties is also protects the skin from premature ageing and environmental stressors.

The acid can be good for those with sensitive skin since it’s a very mild exfoliant which soothes inflammation at the same time as exfoliating the skin . It can be safely used on the entire face, and doesn’t just have to be applied to areas of concern.

Benefits of Azelaic Acid for Skin

Azelaic acid is most commonly used as an acne treatment, or to treat rosacea or dark spots. It helps to improve and brighten the texture of the skin, reduce redness and remove dark marks and areas of pigmentation. Azelaic acid works slowly so these effects are usually only seen with continuous, regular use.

Acne treatment

Azelaic acid is popular for the treatment of acne in those who have more sensitive skin. Other acne treatments such as benzoyl peroxide, retinol or salicylic acid are know to cause irritation and dryness in sensitive individuals. Azelaic acid provides a great alternative.

Azelaic acid helps to reduce acne by acting in three ways:

  1. It helps to completely clear the pores
  2. It encourages cell turnover, stops skin becoming congested and reduces scarring
  3. It reduces redness and inflammation making acne less visible

Hyperpigmentation

Acne can leave scars in the form of red marks on the surface of your skin. Azelaic acid can prevent these marks from forming, and help to reduce any dark spots or redness from previous breakouts.

Azelaic acid is also able to lighten areas of the skin that has become blotchy and discoloured from age spots, sun damage or scarring. It helps to smooth out uneven skin tone and make the skin look clearer. Since it has soothing properties it is also effective at treating inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Rosacea treatment

Azelaic acid can reduce the appearance of rosacea and improve redness and swelling on the skin. Its anti-inflammatory properties make it effective at reducing flushing and the appearance of visible blood vessels.

The acid also helps to control skin sensitivity, making it less likely for rosacea to flare up. It is commonly used as a treatment of rosacea since it is able to unblock pores, reduce redness and soothe the skin at the same time.

Side Effects of Azelaic Acid

Although azelaic acid is more gentle than other active ingredients, it still comes with possible side effects. These include:

  • Tingling feeling on the skin
  • Skin peeling
  • Dryness or redness

What is Retinol?

Retinol is derived from Vitamin A. It’s most often used for anti-ageing concerns as well as to treat acne. You can buy retinol over the counter in formulas of up to 2%, but stronger retinoids such as tretinoin are only available on prescription.

Retinol is one of the most widely researched skincare ingredients and the only ingredient that has been proven to reduce wrinkles, fine lines and signs of photoageing. (View: Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety)

Benefits of Retinol for Skin

Retinol helps to address a widely variety of different skin concerns. It helps to improve the skin’s hydration levels, controls oil production, removes dead skin cells, boosts collagen and elastin in the skin, and neutralise free radicals. It is often used to treat melasma, large pores caused by oily skin, fine lines, wrinkles and acne.

Anti Ageing Treatment

Retinol is well known for being an anti-ageing treatment. As you get older the rate at which your skin cells turnover slows down. This can leave the skin looking dull and wrinkled.

Retinol keeps the skin smooth and bright by encouraging the skin cells to turn over at a healthy rate. It also promotes collagen production which keeps the skin plump, and firm. Check out the following study on using retinol to reduce neck wrinkles.

Reduce Sun Damage

If you have sun damage in the form of brown spots, wrinkles or fine lines on the surface of the skin, retinol is a star ingredient. Since it encourages faster cell turnover, it improves skin tone, and helps to minimise sun spots. It also reduces the appearance of lines and wrinkles by thickening the skin and making it more elastic.

Acne Treatment

Retinol can help to reduce acne breakouts by reducing the build up of dead skin cells, and keeping the skin pores clear. It also helps to reduce redness and inflammation and smooth over any acne marks.

Retinol is often recommended for acne-prone skin since it effectively purges the pores and reduces blackheads and whiteheads. It also helps the skin to repair itself so may help current acne lesions heal faster. Check out the following study on using retinol to treat acne.

Side Effects of Retinol

Retinol is known for causing skin irritation. For this reason, when you first use it, you need to start off slowly and build it up. The stronger the retinoid, the more severe the potential side effects. Some of these side effects include:

  • Dryness
  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Acne initially gets worse

Similarities Between Azelaic Acid and Retinol

Both Treat Hyperpigmentation

Azelaic acid and retinol can both be used to treat hyperpigmentation. This includes dark spots, melasma, sun spots or marks from ageing.

They both, however, work in different ways. Azelaic acid inhibits the enzyme tyrosinase which is needed to produce melanin. Retinol on the other hand increases skin cell turnover which helps to eliminate pigmented skin cells.

Combining both azelaic acid and retinol can treat hyperpigmentation more effectively since the retinol helps to remove existing dark marks whilst the azelaic acid prevents new ones from forming.

Both Work Best at a Similar pH Level

Both Azelaic Acid and retinol work best at similar pH levels. This is important since it means they can be layered together without interfering with the effectiveness of the other. Retinol is most effective at a pH of 5.6 and azaelaic acid works best at a pH of between 4.0-5.0.

Ingredients like Vitamin C however, work best at a pH of 3.5. If Vitamin C is mixed with ingredients of a higher pH level, it will loose its effectiveness. This is not the case with azelaic acid and retinol.

Both are Antibacterial and Anti-Inflammatory

Since both ingredients have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, they are each useful for treating acne vulgaris and rosacea. They both help to reduce the look of blemishes and uneven tone and kill acne causing bacteria.

When used together, azelaic acid and retinol can have a greater effect at reducing skin redness and promoting a clearer complexion. Together they can also be an effective treatment for rashes or bumps on the surface of the skin.

Can You Use Azelaic Acid and Retinol Together?

A combination of azelaic acid and retinol may be a good option for you if you have hyperpigmentation and acne prone skin. Studies have shown that the two ingredients can enhance the effectiveness of each other.

Clinical Studies

There have been a number of clinical studies looking at the effectiveness of combining both azelaic acid and retinol. They all showed that the two ingredients can work well together. Four of these studies are listed below.

  1. A study comparing azelaic acid with tretinoin for treating acne found that both were equally effective but the azelaic acid caused fewer side effects (source).
  2. A study looking at the the effect of combining azelaic acid with tretonin in treating melasma, showed that while both were effective at treating the condition alone, when combined together the improvement was faster and better. (source).
  3. Both azelaic acid and retinol was shown to enhance the effectiveness of each other when used together to treat acne (source).
  4. Retinol has been used successfully alongside azelaic acid in treating rosacea (source)

Azelaic Acid vs Retinol – Do I Need Both?

Although both ingredients do work well together, you don’t necessarily need to use both.

If you are over 35 and are worried about ageing skin, fine lines, wrinkles and treating dark spots and acne, then retinol is best for you. If you have rosacea or have extremely sensitive skin, then using azelaic acid alone will work for you.

Retinol is known to cause skin irritation so if you may want to avoid this ingredient altogether if your skin is prone to dryness or inflammation. As we have seen from clinical studies, azelaic acid can treat acne and rosacea without the need for added retinol.

Some of the differences between each ingredient are shown in the table below.

Azelaic AcidRetinol
Works SlowlyWorks Quickly
Less Likely to Irritate the SkinMore likely to Irritate the Skin
More expensiveLess expensive
Recommended for age 12+Recommended for age 30+

How To Use Azelaic Acid and Retinol Together

If you want to gain the benefits of both ingredients, it is possible to use them both together. There are products available which combine both retinol and azelaic acid together, however you can also use them both separately.

Should you use Azelaic Acid Before or After Retinol?

In general you should apply your skincare products from the thinnest to the thickest. For example, if your toner contains retinol and your azelaic acid is in the form of a serum, then you’d use the retinol first. If however the retinol was in a moisturizer, and azelaic acid was in a serum, then the azelaic acid would be used first.

If both ingredients were in a serum, you could use either one first. Both ingredients should be introduced into your skincare routine slowly however since your skin needs time to get used to them. You should therefore only start with one ingredient, and build up slowly before slowly introducing the other.

When to Use Azelaic Acid and Retinol

You can use azelaic acid both in the morning and evening but if you want to incorporate both retinol and azelaic acid into your routine it may be easier to use one in the morning and one in the evening.

If you decide to do this, I would recommend azelaic acid in the morning and retinol at night. Retinol is degraded by sunlight and may work better at night since your skin’s turnover rate is higher when you,re sleeping.

Other Considerations

Retinol makes the skin more sensitive to the sun, so if you’re using it in your routine you’ll need to use a good sunscreen during the day. It’s also not advisable to use retinol if you know you are going to be spending prolonged periods of time in the sun.

Best Azelaic Acid Skin Care Products

THE ORDINARY – Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%

The Ordinary make a product containing a high concentration of 10% Azelaic Acid. It comes in a lightweight gel cream which helps to reduce the look of blemishes and improve skin texture. It can be used both morning and night in your skin care routine to provide gentle exfoliation and brighten the skin.

Last update on 2021-12-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Cos De BAHA Azelaic Acid

Cos De BAHA is a Korean skincare brand who make a 10% Azelaic Acid serum which is combined with niacinamide. The formula is designed to repair damaged tissue, and reduce hyperpigmentation, acne and rosacea. It helps to kill the bacteria that causes acne and reduce any bumps or spots on the skin.

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Last update on 2021-12-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Best Retinol Skin Care Products

CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

The CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum contains retinol along with hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and ceramides. The formula provides a variety of anti-ageing benefits including reducing fine lines and improving skin texture and radiance.

CeraVe Anti Aging Retinol Serum | Cream Serum for Smoothing Fine Lines and Skin Brightening | With...
  • [ RETINOL SERUM FOR FACE ] Anti-aging facial serum with Retinol to help improve skin’s texture...
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  • [ 3 ESSENTIAL CERAMIDES ] Ceramides make up 50% of the lipids in the skin barrier. As you age,...
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Last update on 2021-12-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and photo damage. The formula contains rosemary leaf extract, jojoba oil and squalene to help reduce the irritation caused by a topical retinoid.

If you have particularly sensitive skin, The Ordinary also make Granactive Retinoid 2% or Granactive Retinoid 5% which mimic the effects of retinol without causing irritation.

Last update on 2021-12-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Best Combined Retinol and Azelaic Acid Skin Care Product

Sheshea Naturals Azefix 5% Azelaic Acid and Retinol Face Serum

The Sheashe Naturals Azefix contains a combination of 5% azelaic acid along with retinol and green tea. This combination works powerfully to kill acne causing bacteria, and reduce dark marks and rosacea. It also helps to unclogs pores, and reduce breakouts and acne scars.

This is a great option for acne prone skin types. It works well as a spot treatment and won’t cause irritation or dry skin. With regular use you’ll be left with clearer, calmer, and smoother skin.

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Alternative Options

Whilst Azelaic acid acts as an exfoliant, it is not strong enough to be used on its own as a chemical peel. It also needs to be used regularly over time for its effects to be seen.

If you want an exfoliant that will give you faster results, you are better off choosing alpha hydroxy acids, or a beta hydroxy acid like salicylic acid. Be aware however that Azelaic acid is less likely to irritate your skin compared to these alternatives.

Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA)

Alpha hydroxy acids are natural acids that are found in fruits, sugar or milk. Examples include glycolic acid (from sugar), lactic acid (from sour milk and tomato juice), citric acid (from citrus fruits), malic acid (from fruits and wines), mandelic acid (from bitter almonds) and tartaric acid (from grapes).

Alpha hydroxy acids are used in skincare to exfoliate the top layers of dead skin cells. They can also make the skin firmer by increasing the thickness of the skin.

Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)

The most commonly used beta hydroxy acid in skncare is salicylic acid. Some other beta hydroxy acids include tropic acid and trethocanic acid.

Salicylic acid is a skincare ingredient known for being able to reduce acne by keeping the pores clear and exfoliating the skin. If you want to use a chemical exfoliant to help reduce acne, you may find the following post helpful: Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid – Which is Best for Treating Acne?

Alpha Arbutin

If you are using retinol and azelaic acid to reduce dark spots and hyperpigmentation, an alternative is alpha arbutin. Alpha arbutin is derived from berries and can help to lighten the skin and reduce patchiness. Like Azelaic Acid, Alpha Arbutin is a tyrosinase inhibitor so it reduces melanin formation and prevents dark spots from forming.

If you are looking for alternative skin care ingredients to retinol and azelaic acid, to help you reduce hyperpigmentation, check out the following: How to Use Alpha Arbutin for Acne Scars and Hyperpigmentation

FAQS on Azelaic Acid and Retinol

Does Azelaic acid cause purging?

Yes. Since Azelaic acid increases your skin cell turnover rate, this can also cause purging. You may notice you get more blemishes and acne when you first start using it. This is only temporary however, and your skin will start to become clearer with continued use.

What should you not mix with azelaic acid?

Azelaic acid can be mixed with most other skincare ingredients. You should be aware, however, that mixing it with alpha or beta hydroxy acids may cause dryness and irritation.

What acids should you not mix with retinol?

You should not mix retinol with alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHA/BHA), vitamin C or benzoyl peroxide. Combining retinol with AHAs and BHAs can dry the skin out and cause irritation.

Can you apply moisturiser after azelaic acid?

Yes. If you are using an azelaic acid serum, wait for the serum to dry before applying a moisturizer over the top.

When should azelaic acid be used in routine?

Azelaic acid can be used both morning and night. If you are using an azelaic acid serum, apply it after cleansing and toning the skin, and before your moisturizer or night cream.

This post was all about how to use Azelaic Acid and Retinol together

Thank you for reading my post about how to use azelaic acid and retinol together in the same skincare routine. If you have had experience with using these ingredients, please leave a comment below and let me know how you got on.

For the best results it’s worth experimenting to see what works best on your own skin. Some people respond better to higher concentrations of retinol, whereas others are unable to tolerate the use of retinoids at all.

If you have sensitive skin and are using a product for the first time, do a patch test first to check for adverse reactions. And…. always remember, while using retinol and azelaic acid, you must use sun protection every day!

Olivia Herlihy RN

Olivia is a hair and skincare enthusiast with over 10 years experience working in healthcare and over 5 years as a Registered Nurse. She gained an online following after creating a natural haircare routine which completely transformed her hair. Olivia has since written an eBook on Ayurvedic hair care to help others use the same formula to improve their own hair.

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