Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Viddhi Patel (Journalist) on 23rd Jan 2021

Azelaic acid vs. Salicylic acid - What is the difference and how to use them 

Azelaic acid vs. Salicylic acid

Blemishes and acne have been our long-standing enemies, and the industry has many ingredients that come forward to resolve our skin woes. What we are looking for is not just a claim or a boast, but something more authentic and concrete in the field. Salicylic acid and azelaic acid are both such acids that are categorized as skincare powerhouses.

Salicylic acid has gained a lot of fame in the acne arena due to its efficiency in curbing sebum and fighting acne. You may have been introduced to salicylic acid if you have blemish-prone skin since salicylic acid being an exfoliant, is an excellent pore-cleaner.

On the other hand, azelaic acid manages to juggle its efficiencies. It goes beyond fighting acne and treats rosacea and melasma. Not the first to pop in mind, azelaic acid for acne has not yet been fully accepted or recognized. It's high time you start noticing the gentle and versatile acid that does more for you than just treating acne

So how is salicylic different from azelaic acid, and how to use these two?  

Azelaic acid: a versatile ingredient 

While the big leagues like salicylic acid, vitamin C, and retinol enjoy popularity, azelaic acid has gotten lost in the abyss and is promptly overlooked.

We will deep dive into azelaic acid, why you should obsess over it, and why you will wish someone told you sooner.

The popularity game is slowly throwing light on azelaic acid, but is it worth it? A big YES.

The emerging skincare ingredient is derived from wheat, rye, and barley, and apart from acne, it also treats rosacea. The calming property gives it an edge and helps soothe the inflammation associated with rosacea.

Relatively new in the industry, azelaic acid is slowly gaining momentum as dermatologists appreciate it due to its efficacy in treating sunspots and melasma by blocking the formation of abnormally pigmented spots.

While azelaic acid can be quite unstable, the one used in skincare products is largely lab-engineered and hence is comparatively more stable and effective.  

What exactly is azelaic acid? 

Azelaic acid is synthesized by yeast and can also be derived from other sources, like wheat, barley, rye. The acid is a dicarboxylic acid that gently exfoliates, unclogging the pores according to scientific jargon. Azelaic acid is produced by the yeast present on your skin. The acid lessens skin sensitivity and has antioxidant benefits that will leave you in awe of the ingredient. 

Why is azelaic acid referred to as an overachiever? Let's see what makes azelaic acid so special.  

Benefits of azelaic acid in skincare 

The multi-tasker rescues your skin from a multitude of skincare concerns, from irritating breakouts to stubborn spots. The ingredient is comedolytic, keratolytic, exfoliating, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and an antioxidant.  

Now we see how these properties make azelaic acid special:  

  • Comedolytic: This acid's property means that it is a potential blocker of comedones, black and whiteheads.

    Keratolytic means softening the rough outer layers of the skin that usually accompany warts, calluses, and other conditions. It is a mild peeling agent. 
  • Exfoliant: Although not as strong as salicylic acid and other hydroxy acids, this mild exfoliant also dives deep into the pores and rids the skin of dead skin cells and clogged pores.
  • Anti-inflammatory: The soothing properties of azelaic acid help calm the red bumps caused by inflammation and rosacea. 
  • Antibacterial: The bacteria-fighting acid helps kill the P.acne and treat acne.

Other than these properties, azelaic acid is helpful with:  

  • Hyperpigmentation: The tyrosinase inhibitor (the enzyme responsible for pigmentation), azelaic acid, helps in the evening out of the skin tone. Azelaic acid helps fade the acne marks and even possibly melasma.  
  • Rosacea: We saw the properties that make azelaic special, and by combining some of these properties like exfoliation and anti-inflammation, it makes a nice fit for rosacea. The soothing properties help with rosacea as it is a less irritating option.

    Moreover, azelaic acid continues to remain an option for pregnant women and gluten-sensitive people. Azelaic acid doesn't leave your skin sun-sensitive, but it does not mean you can skip sun protection. 

Salicylic acid, the acne-zapping active ingredient  

Acne makes you do crazy things; their mere existence makes us go bonkers. And you aren't alone if you have spent your days planning a terror attack on your nemesis! Your lack of judgment might have deepened your skin issues because, accept it, you weren't entirely patient. Acne requires you to be patient, and you also need the right ingredient, the one that will work as a weapon for your acne.

While your blackheads and zits somehow manage to irritate you to your core, you shouldn't pick on them; what you should do is be smart and learn about the ingredient I am about to dive into… Salicylic acid(SA).

The true to its fame ingredient have oily acne-prone skin types going gaga over it. It single-handedly deals with comedones, overproduction of sebum and prevents future breakouts.

You can win the battle against breakouts by simply using the OTC version of salicylic acid; it will stave off the protruding pimple. The supreme reign of skincare ingredients has salicylic acid as an acne fighter and a revitalizer of a dull complexion. Your struggle ends here. 

What exactly is salicylic acid?

A beta-hydroxy acid, salicylic acid is a carbon-based organic compound. The compound is naturally found in willow bark, fruits, and vegetables, and it is oil soluble. Its oil-solubility penetrates pores easily and deeply, unclogging them and getting rid of blackheads.  

The benefits of using salicylic acid 

  • Exfoliant: SA breaks down the bonds that hold skin cells together and gently exfoliates your skin. The excellent pore cleaner penetrates the surface layers of the skin and removes excess oil. This action unclogs pores and prevents future clogs. The BHA is also keratolytic. It is perfect for deep exfoliation as it softens and sloughs off the top layer of your skin. 
  • Acne: The exfoliation clears out pores and gets rid of all the dirt and debris that promotes acne in the first place. SA gets deep into the skin and targets acne, especially blackheads and whiteheads.  
  • Acne scars and acne marks: When acne says bye-bye, something else shows up, acne marks and scars. But SA can help with that: it lightens the dark spots by breaking down the old skin cells and encouraging cellular turnover. Furthermore, the anti-inflammatory properties of SA can be taken advantage of by preventing dark spots altogether.  
  • Anti-inflammatory: Popular for exfoliation and bacteria-fighting, salicylic acid is also anti-inflammatory. The well-known acne cleanser calms the redness and inflammation that unusually follows tender pimples. 
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Moreover, the pore cleanser is used as a peeling agent in higher concentrations, and it helps with acne scars, melasma, sun damage, warts and corns removals, and age spots. 

Azelaic acid Vs. Salicylic acid 

While some properties of the profound BHA match with azelaic acid, some characteristics set them apart and make them unique in their way. 

The performance style-  

Topical azelaic acid reduces your body's natural production of keratin cells; this prevents blockage of pores and sebaceous glands. The action of killing the acne-causing bacteria helps ward off acne.

Salicylic acid works by deeply cleansing the pores and clearing out the debris that causes breakouts and blemishes. The spot zapper is renowned for its exfoliating properties that prevent and dissolve blackheads.  

Exfoliation degree-  

Although an exfoliant, the exfoliation of azelaic acid cannot be compared to salicylic acid's supreme exfoliation.

Benefits from both-

Azelaic acid is known for its prowess to fight rosacea, hyperpigmentation, acne, whiteheads, blackheads, redness, congestion, and oily skin.

The antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of azelaic acid allow it to treat cystic acne and blackheads. The same reasons make azelaic acid an obvious choice to reduce the redness and swelling that accompany rosacea. Azelaic acid can also reduce flushing, and the versatility of the acid helps it become an excellent ingredient that lightens and brightens your skin.

On the other hand, salicylic acid benefits aren't many, but it is a leading ingredient for fighting acne. Similar to azelaic acid, salicylic acid also possesses anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and exfoliating properties. And if you have particularly oily skin, salicylic acid can curb the oil secretion and reduce inflammation if you have irritated skin.  

What can you do?

There are no strict constraints that limit your use to any one of them. If your spots, blemishes, or acne give you a hard time, you can add both these acids to your skincare regimen to readily fight the concern. The combination is generally safe if you want to address skin concerns like bumps, uneven skin tone, dull skin, etc.

Azelaic acid goes well with almost all potent ingredients. However, the combination may dry your skin out and irritate you. You can use it on alternate days or use an OTC product with both the ingredients in lower concentrations. 

How to use azelaic acid and salicylic acid? 

Azelaic acid 

  • Azelaic acid can be used twice every day. For those with sensitive skin, you can use it on alternate days.  
  • Go for products that offer 10% concentration or more for visible results.  
  •  You can use it with AHAs, BHAs, and even retinol.  
  • Pair hyaluronic acid with azelaic acid to hydrate. 
  • You can make use of it as a spot treatment for dark or inflamed areas.  
  • Apply a thin layer of the product on clean, dry skin twice a day. 
  • Apply your AHA, BHA, or retinol first so that your skin opens up and lets the azelaic in. follow it up with a moisturizer.  
  • Always end your routine with an SPF in the morning.  
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Azelaic acid is best for: 

Oily skin types and for people who are not extremely sensitive. The acid is also suited for pregnant, breastfeeding women who have limited options to treat melasma and acne.  

Side effects:  

Although well-tolerated by all skin types, sensitive skin may suffer through mild irritation and redness. 

Salicylic acid 

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  • The acid is found in 0.5 to 5% concentrations.  
  • Overuse may dry out and irritate your skin, so considering the concentrations and your skin sensitivity, avoid using it every day.  
  • Start slowly to adjust your skin to the acid and minimize irritation. 
  • The BHA is drying and hence amp up on your hydration with hyaluronic acid, ceramides, etc.
  • Do not forget sunscreen when you are using any acid, especially salicylic acid, which makes your skin susceptible to sun damage. 

Salicylic acid is best for: 

Oily, acne-prone skin and treating blackheads and whiteheads. 

Side effects 

If you have dry or sensitive skin, salicylic acid might not be for you as it will dry out and irritate your skin even more, but you can opt for lower concentrations. Do not overuse it.

Dryness, peeling, redness, and irritation are some side effects that are related to the number of applications and the concentrations used.

If you have severely sensitive or dry skin, avoid salicylic acid entirely.
Do not lather yourself with the acid; it will cause salicylate poisoning.  

Advice by Minimalist 

Although azelaic acid does not promote sun damage in your skin and reduces skin sensitivity, you must apply your SPF (30 or above). Not doing so will undo what you are trying to achieve with azelaic acid.
The acids take time to show results, so be patient, stick to it, and see it through.

Layering the two will cause irritation and dryness, so make sure you keep the other variables like concentrations and hydration in mind.  

Wrapping it up  

Salicylic acid is your best bet for comedonal acne and if you have oily acne-prone skin.

Azelaic acid has many benefits like refining skin's surface and even skin tone that you can reap even if you have sensitive skin.

Both of them are good at what they do. Choose your preferred ingredient after considering your skin requirements.