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Azelaic acid vs salicylic acid for acne

How these two skincare powerhouses work to blitz blemishes and acne

Here at EV we’re big fans of skin superheroes azelaic acid and salicylic acid, especially when it comes to treating acne. I was first introduced to azelaic acid a decade ago when suffering with random but fairly regular breakouts on my chest.

Having tried benzoyl peroxide with no success, I was then prescribed a tube of 20 per cent strength azelaic acid. It took about a month to kick in (three months for the full effect) but when it did, my skin had never looked clearer or healthier.

I’ve since learnt that azelaic acid is a bit of a multi-tasker, working well on dual concerns such as acne and rosacea, or melasma and rosacea.

Salicylic acid is also a great option for blemish-prone skin—in fact, some of my favourite ever products contain the popular pore-clearing ingredient.

So how do they work, what can they do for your skin and which is better for acne? Let’s take a deep dive into both ingredients:

How does azelaic acid work and what is it used for?

Azelaic acid is a gentle acid naturally derived from wheat, barley and rye. Its benefits are numerous – it is effective at treating acne, whiteheads and blackheads, rosacea and redness, congested and oily skin, and pigmentation.

Topical azelaic acid (which tends to be lab-engineered for stability) works by reducing the body’s natural production and growth of keratin cells, which in turn prevents them from blocking the pores and sebaceous glands (the glands which release sebum).

It can also kill the bacteria associated with acne: this common skin bacteria feeds on sebum, creating waste and fatty acids that can worsen acne and cause inflammation.

How does salicylic acid work and what is it used for?

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) derived from willow tree bark. Renowned for its spot zapping and exfoliating powers, it is used primarily to treat mild acne, blackheads and whiteheads, but also can be used to treat psoriasis and dandruff.

As an oil soluble acid, it has the ability to deep clean the pores by dissolving the dead skin cells and clearing them of any debris or ‘glue’ that can cause spots, breakouts and blemishes.

How will they benefit my skin?

Azelaic acid has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties which is why it is an excellent choice for treating hormonal or cystic acne, blackheads and the redness and swelling of rosacea. Over time, it can reduce flushing and even obvious blood vessels.

Incredibly versatile, it can also help to minimise the appearance of lines and wrinkles, and limit the skin’s production of excess melanin which can lead to hyperpigmentation and melasma.

In addition, azelaic acid offers lightening and brightening benefits thanks to its ability to even out skin texture.  

Also possessing anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and exfoliating properties, salicylic acid penetrates into the pores and gently exfoliates the skin’s surface to leave it looking clearer with fewer spots, blackheads and whiteheads.

Oily or irritated skin? Salicylic acid can help decrease oil secretion and reduce inflammation.

Can you use them together?

Absolutely! If you’re serious about getting rid of your spots, blemishes or acne, these are the two key acids to add to your armoury.

However, we recommend that you alternate their use or opt for an over-the-counter product that combines the two at lower percentages.

Can they be used daily?

Azelaic acid is a gentle acid and can be used on a daily basis—it can also be safely used during pregnancy.

Opt for products containing 10 per cent plus for noticeable results. Product percentage not clear on the packaging? If azelaic acid is in the top three ingredients it should have significant levels.

Salicylic acid can be found in concentrations usually between 0.5-5 per cent. Overuse can cause dryness and potentially irritate the skin, depending on the concentration of the formula, therefore it is not recommended for daily use. Start slowly to minimise irritation.

Certain medications do not interact well with salicylic acid, so talk to your GP or clinician beforehand if you have any concerns. While it is considered safe to use during pregnancy, it’s best to consult your GP first.

Always apply a good, broad spectrum sunscreen when incorporating any acid into your skincare regime.

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