Azelaic acid and retinol are two popular skincare ingredients, particularly when it comes to acne and hyperpigmentation. If you’re wondering which one is right for you or whether you can use them both together, we’ve got you covered!
Here’s everything you need to know about using azelaic acid and retinol together…
Azelaic acid is found in grains like wheat and barley. It’s a dicarboxylic acid that’s suitable for even the most sensitive, rosacea prone skin.
Some of the main benefits that azelaic acid offer your skin are:
- Reduced inflammation
- Improved redness and rosacea
- Removal of dirt, bacteria, and oil from pores
- Antibacterial effects
- Improved appearance of acne and acne marks (post-inflammatory erythema/hyperpigmentation)
- Prevents melanin synthesis to brighten skin and reduce dark marks/hyperpigmentation
- Reduced skin sensitivity
- Improved skin texture
It provides a gentle exfoliating effect that is well tolerated by sensitive skin but may cause an initial worsening of breakouts (purging).
Retinol is a form of vitamin A that converts to retinoic acid (its active form) when it penetrates your skin. It helps treat a wide-range of skin conditions and is one of the only skincare ingredients that’s clinically proven to alter your skin on a cellular level.
It’s an antioxidant that increases the rate that your skin makes new skin cells and moves them to the surface of your skin in order to be shed. It also:
- Boosts collagen production
- Reduces inflammation
- Helps prevent acne scarring
- Helps unclog pores and treat acne
- Reduces pigmentation by preventing melanin production as well as getting rid of existing pigmentation by increasing skin cell turnover
- Improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Unfortunately, retinol is renowned for causing skin irritation – particularly when you first start using it. It can also damage your skin barrier if used improperly which can make a lot of skin conditions worse and take a long time to correct.
However, as it requires a few conversions to reach its active form, it’s less irritating than other retinoids (e.g. tretinoin, retinal, differin).
Azelaic Acid vs Retinol
Both azelaic acid and retinol address similar skin conditions and may enhance each other’s effects. Particularly when it comes to:
- Enlarged Pores
- Skin Texture
- Dull Skin
They both have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant properties but they’re a bit different when it comes to increasing cellular turnover. They both facilitate cellular turnover but azelaic acid can exfoliate pores while retinol increases cell renewal and repair. Azelaic acid is also, usually, less irritating than retinol (although formulation matters).
One clinical study found that azelaic acid was equally as effective at treating non-inflammatory acne (whiteheads and blackheads) as retinoic acid (the active form of retinol) but caused less irritation and was better tolerated.
If you’re trying to improve fine lines and wrinkles at the same time as treating acne and hyperpigmentation, then retinol is probably more suited to your skin. However, if you have sensitive, rosacea-prone skin, then your skin may struggle to tolerate retinol and you may be better suited to azelaic acid.
Can You Use Azelaic Acid and Retinol Together?
If you can’t decide which ingredient you want to use, the good news is you don’t have to choose! You can use azelaic acid and retinol together! In some instances, they may actually work better when combined together!
This is particularly the case when it comes to treating hyperpigmentation like dark marks, age spots, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Azelaic acid is a tyrosinase inhibitor which means that it prevents the activity of the tyrosinase enzyme that is essential for the production of melanin.
No tyrosinase enzyme = no melanin production.
Retinol may prevent melanin production to some extent but it’s main mechanism for treating hyperpigmentation is by increasing skin cell renewal and the rate that any pigment-containing skin cells move to the surface of your skin to be shed.
Combining azelaic acid and retinol together gives a double-dose of brightening – azelaic acid prevents new melanin production while retinol lifts existing hyperpigmentation.
Clinical research found that both azelaic acid and retinol were effective at improving hyperpigmentation but a faster response and better improvement was observed when the two were combined together.
Other research has found that azelaic acid can enhance the effects of retinol when used to treat acne.
Although retinol can be irritating for sensitive rosacea-prone skin, there have been a few case studies where it was used successfully alongside azelaic acid in a skincare regime prescribed for rosacea.
They’re also effective at similar pH levels, with retinol being most effective at a pH of 5.6 and azelaic acid being most effective at a pH of 4.0-5.0.
However, Even if they were ideally used at different pH levels, your skin’s natural surface pH is around 5.0 – 6.0 so they would have to adjust to your skin’s natural pH anyway.
How To Use Azelaic Acid and Retinol Together
Some skincare products already contain this combination of ingredients for you which is the easiest way to use azelaic acid and retinol together. However, you can use them in separate products too.
If using the ingredients in separate products, it’s usually best to apply your products in order of thinnest to thickest, for example, applying a serum before a moisturizer. This is because products with a thinner consistency usually penetrate your skin quicker than those with thicker consistencies.
So if you’re using a moisturizer with retinol and an azelaic acid serum, you would ideally use azelaic acid before retinol. If you were using a toner containing retinol and an azelaic acid serum then you would ideally use retinol before azelaic acid.
If using both azelaic acid and retinol as serums it doesn’t really matter which way round you use them. However, you should only introduce them one at a time. This will help identify if your skin reacts negatively to one of the ingredients as well as help prevent skin barrier damage.
Azelaic acid can be used twice daily but you will still see results using it once a day. It’s also easier to use multiple active ingredients if you’re only using it once a day, for example, azelaic acid in the AM and retinol in the PM. Plus, this is usually how it’s recommended by experts.
Retinol should only be used once a day and, as it is degraded by sunlight, you either need to use sunscreen over the top or only use it at night. It’s probably more beneficial to use retinol in your PM routine as your skin’s cellular turnover and renewal process is higher while you’re sleeping.
However, even if you use retinol in the evening, you still need to wear sunscreen every day.
Summary – Can You Use Azelaic Acid and Retinol Together?
If you have acne-prone skin, enlarged pores, or hyperpigmentation then the combination of azelaic acid and retinol may be a good choice for you as they can enhance each other’s effects. However, if you have very sensitive skin, you may find that azelaic acid is a better option for you as retinol is well known for causing skin irritation.
Laura is a skincare addict and sunscreen enthusiast with more than 10 years of experience working in healthcare and over 5 years of experience working as a nurse. She has experience in plastic and reconstructive surgery, dermatology, and aesthetics and has received training in laser treatments. Laura is currently working in healthcare education and writes for ScienceBecomesHer in her spare time. Read More.